John Dickerson, “CBS This Morning” co-anchor, is unique in the history of morning television. He's a presidential scholar, and as proof has a deeply thought, richly reported story on the “broken” job of the presidency in the current Atlantic. His mother, Nancy Dickerson, was the first female correspondent at CBS News, hired in 1960. He's written a book on her as well.
Thinker, scholar, writer, historian — also veteran journalist who crafts questions so intricately that they're known as “Dickersonian” . . .
What's a guy like him doing in a place like this?
This father of two and longtime correspondent with Time magazine and Slate was the highly regarded host of “Face the Nation” when he was called up from Washington in January to replace Charlie Rose, who had been fired after allegations of sexual harassment. Dickerson, as CBS political director, was a familiar presence on the show, but that didn't mean he was familiar with this sort of challenge. Few ever have been.
I recently spoke with Dickerson — who turns 50 in July — about his new role and other matters. An edited version of our chat follows.
Is the presidency — or at least the subject — your passion?
I've been on a multiyear grand study of the presidency while I've been doing my other jobs and they all sort of mix together. When you look at any president, you're always measuring them against predecessors and the norms of the office are transferred from administration to administration. So to cover the president, you have to know, in my view, the past.
Your Donald Trump interview last year certainly made news. (Trump walked out after pressed on his claim that President Obama had tapped his Trump Tower offices.) What was the real story behind that?
We had that moment in the Oval Office and I later traveled with him to Harrisburg and interviewed him subsequent to that and was invited to one of his White House lunches. [But] he was not happy with the question, for sure.
You have a reputation of keeping your personal opinions out of your reporting and it's hard for me to say what your opinions might be. By design?
That's what I grew up with, and I've tried desperately to keep it that way. Our craft as journalists is to be fair to everyone. Get yourself out of the way as much as you humanly possibly can and call it like you see it. That's what I've always tried to do.
You're also known for having that Dickersonian style of questioning — asking something so intricate that it throws the recipient off his or her prepared sound bite. How did you come up with that skill?
It is like writing with a fountain pen. It's my habit . . . [but] one can get overly ponderous in this obsession with questions and a lot of times when I'm interviewing someone at length over a period of time . . . [I'll ask myself] what's the basic thing I'm missing? You can get over-fancy and sometimes the best question is just "Why?"
You arrived at “CBSTM” Jan. 10, or barely two months after Charlie Rose was fired for [alleged] sexual misconduct. I imagine it was devastating for the program. What did you find when you arrived?
The essential parts of the show were all there — the people who are on it overnight, and are there every day at 4 a.m., who are chasing down confirmation of facts, and Gayle [King] and Norah [O'Donnell] who I've worked with for six years were there too. All of that was intact. The show has gone through this emotional event, but in terms of the way I was seeing it, I had already been on the show as political director, and other than this moment, it still had all these wonderful qualities and was still humming.
Were you happy to do this or was it a shotgun marriage?
I loved "Face the Nation" and the people I worked with there, but I was excited with this move. I wake up early and this is now what I do. And it's a lot of fun being with Gayle and Norah — three people chewing over what's happened or happening with three different perspectives. [Plus] it's really closer to the job I had at Time when I did stories on the baseball strike or conjoined twins.
You may be the most cerebral morning host since Dave Garroway — who I don't believe did a 13,000-word piece on the broken job of presidency. Is "cerebral" helpful in a job like this?
I hope it's good. I hope people haven't responded negatively to the extent that I think of myself as constantly curious, and curiosity is somewhat infectious. Someone looks at one thing, then asks another question which tends to create more questions. And for someone who likes questions and for us to break them down, then it is good.
The Atlantic piece steers away from any direct criticism of the current officeholder. Any reason for that?
There are presidents and there's the presidency. We need to think about them differently. One of the problems is that we only think about it in terms of individual presidents. Because this president is so polarizing, if you start talking too much about his presidency you'll lose everyone for the rest of your argument.
But you still got flak?
Well, yeah. Partisans will judge without actually reading.