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Bob Schieffer tribute: The life of kings

Bob Schieffer -- seen here at the White

Bob Schieffer -- seen here at the White House Correspondents' Association Dinner -- retired from CBS News on May 31, after a 46-year run. Credit: (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)

Bob Schieffer ended a 46-year career at CBS News on Sunday, and -- characteristically -- handled this landmark with no discernible emotional flourish, no signalling fireworks. He took just about a minute to wrap up.

There was wisdom in this last moment worth repeating:  "I tried to remember the news is not about the newscaster but about those who make it."

Then, this thank you, as casual as if he had been the last to leave a long dinner party given by an unusually tolerant host: "How nice you were to have me as a guest in your home over so many years. That meant the world to me and it always will."

Just like that. Over.

How does someone, anyone, last 46 years in a job, much less this job? Much has been made the last two weeks of David Letterman's 33-year tenure. Schieffer's career actually began 52 years ago, when as a reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, he gave a ride to the widow of Lee Harvey Oswald.

What was the secret of Bob Schieffer's success? Consider just a few incontrovertible observations about his career. Schieffer anchored "Face the Nation" longer than anyone, far and away longer (24 years) -- and leaves this program as Sunday morning's most-attended watering hole for news commentary and interviews.

He worked as an anchor for "Evening News" on the weekends and weekdays, notably as placeholder -- bad word but accurate word -- between Dan Rather's forced exit in 2004 and Katie Couric's hyper-promoted arrival in 2006. In a year and a half, Schieffer added viewers and even threatened to take the broadcast to first place. The threat evaporated the minute he left.

Some possibly controvertible observations now: Schieffer was the second most gifted anchorman in CBS News history, although Ed Bradley could have challenged him for that lofty position. What does "gifted" mean in this context? An ability to look into a camera and convey information in the most forthright and unvarnished manner possible, while consecrating that which is said with a sense that it also has the added benefit of being TRUE.

This wasn't as easy as Schieffer made it look. A few things had to happen all at once. First, unwavering eye-to-camera contact.

Not always easy when seven million pairs of eyes are looking back.

Second, clarity. A newspaper reporter at the outset of his career, Schieffer learned that the noun always came first. Sentences should be short. They should be declarative -- and never contain the word "declarative."

Third is where the magic comes in. Something in the anchorperson manner -- posture, eyes, voice, presentation -- needs to seal the deal. Viewers not only must understand what they have heard, but must nod internally when they hear it.

CBS News' greatest anchor was Walter Cronkite, who not only had these gifts but invented them.

Gary Paul Gates, a Shelter Island-based author ('"The Palace Guard"), CBS News historian ("Air Time"), and longtime Schieffer colleague, says, "what made Bob so special is a large and fascinating question. But he had an awfully good start, as a reporter for the Fort Worth Star Telegram. You know the story, right? Marina Oswald [on Nov. 22, 1963] called the newspaper and needed a ride. Bob picks her up and they had just this incredible drive where she babbles away non-stop and then, when they get to the police station together, they walk in and while the cops are interrogating her, Bob sits through that as well. When the FBI arrives, they took one look at Bob and said, 'who are you? You're a reporter - get out of here.."

"The paper later sent him to Vietnam, where he did a hell of a job, and then joined CBS as Pentagon correspondent replacing a guy who got fired because the high brass at the Pentagon didn't like the job he was doing --thought he was too critical of war, so they set [this reporter] up with a misinformation story, assuming he wouldn't check it, and he didn't.

"Bob came in at a time when they didn't look too kindly on CBS News correspondents but he did a hell of a job there too."

Here are some other secrets of Schieffer's longevity. He stayed out of the New York swirl of who was up, who was down, who was out...

CBS News in the 80s was the Kremlin, and to be part of this Kremlin was to be marked, as either someone within a favored circle, or someone to be excluded from the circle. Cronkite loyalists as a matter of course were among the latter during the '80s..

CBS' Washington bureau had a different orientation, or as Schieffer once told me, "I've never worked in the office, so I never got involved in office politics. Washington [TV journalism] is so different than New York. Everyone up [there] tends to talk about television, and in Washington the government is such an overwhelming presence that you tend to talk about the government. Also, the [CBS] bosses are some place else, and that's always good."

Schieffer had once wanted to become Cronkite's replacement, but later witnessed a spurned heir apparent stumble out of a bar, while drunkenly denouncing the fates and the fools who passed him over. In that moment (as Schieffer has written) he quickly moved past this ambition.

Having established that Schieffer is a good anchor, resourceful reporter and stayed away from the bosses still can't explain what else he brought to this operation. In style, Schieffer on the air was and is much like Schieffer off the air: There's a certain balm he brought to broadcasts but also to the newsroom

His role at "Evening News" after Dan Rather's ouster in the wake of the so-called "Memogate" was an obvious example of that: "I saw my first job, No. 1, to just get everyone back into a good humor, if that's possible, and to believing in ourselves again," Schieffer said after taking over. "This [Memogate] was just one story that went wrong, and not every story went wrong, and most of the people here had absolutely nothing to do with it."

Byron Pitts, who has reported from Baghdad, said at the time: "Everyone was heartbroken by the scandal, [and] for many of us, Bob has been a breath of fresh air because he is someone with impeccable credentials. You didn't feel that the institution was turning its back on journalism by putting someone like Bob in place [and] that's comforting for people like myself."

From a political standpoint, it helped that Texas native Schieffer was a friend of President George W. Bush (Schieffer's brother was president of the Texas Rangers). But I would submit: No one ever knew this, and based on Schieffer's reporting and on-air demeanor, no one ever could. He treated this president as he would and did any other: As an interview subject.

Ten years later, hindsight and foresight match up pretty well on one matter: Many thought then that Schieffer should have remained anchor of "Evening News." Many with long memories still do. 

Katie Couric's appointment was engineered by CBS chief Leslie Moonves who believed "star power" would elevate the program. But Moonves' instinct -- usually sound -- foundered this time. Viewers weren't looking for "stars."

They were looking for Bob.

Would Schieffer have wanted to stay? Probably not. He had a serious health scare (cancer) while age (he was 68 at the time) meant that his tenure would have ended sooner than later, leaving the broadcast with no obvious successor and in a tenuous position. Characteristically, Schieffer could see this better than anyone, and removed himself from any further consideration and back to Washington, where he instead took "Face the Nation" from a half hour to an hour, and then to a ratings leadership position.

In summation,  the secrets to Bob's success: Be a reporter first, an anchor second.

Ask questions, listen to the answers (you just may learn something, and even better, have a follow-up question).

Never mistake the newscaster for the news, or assume the newscaster is above the news..

Never venture into the weeds of corporate intrigue, where the only escape route is past the gaping jaws of crocodiles.

As moderator, be fair. Have opinions -- certainly -- but label them as opinions.

 Don't imagine the grass is necessarily a deeper and richer shade of green elsewhere. Green is green.

Having done all this -- and all THAT -- over 46 years, Bob Schieffer leaves as the last of a group of CBS reporters and anchors who once made CBS the world's most important TV news organization.  

This also remains: A reputation for unimpeachable fairness and professionalism, proving -- as Mencken once so memorably said -- that journalism really is the life of kings.

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