Fifteen Minutes with Bob Schieffer

You’ve likely seen Bob Schieffer on CBS News, where he held various positions—as an anchor, a Washington correspondent, and a moderator on “Face the Nation”—for 46 years. Fifteen Minutes recently sat down with Schieffer to discuss the 2016 election, the future of journalism, and more.
By Luca F. Schroeder

By Annie E. Schugart

You’ve likely seen Bob Schieffer on CBS News, where he held various positions—as an anchor, a Washington correspondent, and a moderator on “Face the Nation”—for 46 years. Fifteen Minutes recently sat down with Schieffer to discuss the 2016 election, the future of journalism, and more.

Fifteen Minutes: Last time we spoke—back in June—you said this election was going to be “very, very different.” What has struck you about it thus far?

Bob Schieffer: Well, I think I was right [laughs]. I’ve always said every one of them is different, but who would’ve thought that at this point—we’re still a long way from the election— that you would have Donald Trump and Ben Carson as the two leading candidates on the Republican side, and that Hillary Clinton’s campaign would be in [as] much trouble as it is, where they’re already talking about a total overhaul, where she keeps on going down in the polls. We have Bernie Sanders—who isn’t even a Democrat—who keeps going up in the polls. I mean, I don’t think anyone would have envisioned that.

FM: Should we take Donald Trump seriously?

BS: I take him seriously, I really do—I mean, he’s the frontrunner. The numbers are the numbers. And whether he can sustain—I mean, we’re going to find out in the coming days, but I think it is conceivable that Donald Trump could get the Republican nomination.

FM: Trump seems to be able to get away with offenses that would crush an ordinary candidate’s chances for the nomination—every controversy just shoots up his numbers at the polls.

BS: This is the part that I’m truly amazed by—I’ve never seen a candidate who could literally get away with the kinds of things that he’s saying. I mean, I thought he’d done himself in when he said John McCain was a loser, or whatever he said—

FM: —“not a war hero,” I think—

BS: —John McCain is a true American hero, and Donald Trump got a medical deferment, I think he had a bone spur in his heel or something, but says he learned as much in military school, in high school as John McCain said he knows as much about the military as anybody else. When he said that I thought, “Well, this is a campaign that’s been kind of humorous and kind of funny, but that’s the end of that.” Well, shows what I know.

FM: Is there a line that even Trump cannot cross?

BS: There must be. But so far he doesn’t seem to have crossed it. There must be, but so far people seem to be so frustrated and so mad and so upset and so disgusted with the government and politics in general. He talks in plain language that people understand and they seem to forgive him of this. I still don’t know how long this goes on. Here’s the thing—here’s why Trump has been successful—he’s made a very accurate list, or catalogue, of the things that people are upset about about. And I’ll tell you, most of the things he puts on that list, I’m upset about them too. I agree with him, and I think a lot of people do. He has yet to propose any kind of realistic solution to anything—now, somewhere before we get to him getting the nomination in these primaries, he’s going to have to give us some details on how he plans to do that, but so far he hasn’t had to.

FM: With Sanders now leading Clinton in New Hampshire and Iowa, there’s a chance we might have a presidential election in which the candidates from both major parties— Trump and Sanders—are both considered unelectable, are far from centrist, and both aren’t traditional Republicans or Democrats in any sense. What might that look like and what does it say about our nation?

BS: It again is the sign of this frustration that has got the country in its grips right now. I mean, Bernie Sanders is the democratic, left-wing version of Donald Trump. There was all this talk about Trump running as a third-party candidate if he doesn’t get the nomination—he says he won’t do that. I think if he decides to do it he would do it. He would find a way around that and say they weren’t respectful or something.

But here’s what I think: It is entirely possible—I don’t know if it’s probable—but it is possible you could have four candidates. You could have Bernie Sanders running as a socialist—that’d be easy for him to do. He’s not a Democrat anyway, and he’s gotten all this good reaction. So what if you had Bernie Sanders running, what if you had Donald Trump running, and then you had a Democrat and a Republican running? What if you had four people in this thing? Then you’re talking about a situation where the winner might be someone who got only 35, 36 percent. What do you do then?

FM: Last November, in response to comments made by MIT economist Jonathan Gruber regarding Obamacare, you said we’re in a “sorry state of American politics where people take money for things in which they don’t believe and whether it’s good for the American people is not even in the question.” How did we get here, and what needs to happen for us to get out?

BS: Well, this is what’s happened to our political system. I mean, the fact that you have the field of candidates that you have, that our campaign is in this stage, I think it’s just the chickens coming home to roost. The whole system has been so overwhelmed by money that the Congress can’t get anything done. I think that’s a symptom of the problem—the problem is this breakdown in the system of how we elect people. I mean, it’s not about going out and trying to get people’s support anymore, it’s about having a billionaire on your side. Fifty-three people have given more than 1 million dollars to candidates this cycle—53 people. Eight people have given Hillary Clinton more than a million dollars, one person has given Ted Cruz 11 million dollars, I think another one has given 6 million dollars, if I’m right. And it raises an interesting question: Let’s suppose you wanted to help somebody and you decided to give them 100,000 dollars. Give it to Ted Cruz, where does that put you in line to get in to see him? You know, there’s somebody up the front of the line gave 11 million dollars. You gave a hundred thousand dollars, you might get a ticket to go down to the Washington Monument, but I don’t think you’re going to get much else as a result of that.

I mean, with these enormous sums of money now, what is it getting us? It’s not getting us much of anything, and what it’s gotten us is that Congress is completely gridlocked and it remains so. And the reason for that is because in this quest for money, everybody’s main objective once they get to Washington is to keep from having a primary opponent the next time around. And because they’re trying to raise all this money. So, it’s been a long time coming, but we’re finally there: I think the whole system is just totally breaking down, and the result is what you’re seeing, both what’s happening in Washington now and what’s happening in this campaign.

FM: Journalism is all about asking the right questions. You’ve been asking them for more than 50 years—so what’s the secret behind a good one?

BS: You know, I’ve always asked the obvious questions, and my advice to young journalists is to never be afraid to ask a question because too many times, young reporters feel, “Well, I don’t want to ask that question because he’ll feel I’m dumb—besides, I know what he would say anyway.” Well, the biggest mistake you can make is assuming you know what somebody’s answer is going to be. Most of the time you probably do know, but every time I have assumed I knew what the answer was and somebody else came along after me, they asked the question, and I got scooped, basically. So I try to keep it very simple: I try to ask the obvious questions, and then try to listen to the answer and ask follow-ups.

FM: Arthur Miller once said that “a good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself.” What’s the best example you’ve seen of that in your career?

BS: What’s different now in our world is the impact of social media. You know, if you read something in The New York Times, let’s say, you may not agree with their editorial policy, but you generally accept as fact what they put on the news pages and you assume that they’ve gone to some trouble to check it out and make sure it’s true, and they or any other worthwhile newspaper wouldn’t print it if it wasn’t true.

Well, some guy just sitting at his computer, he doesn’t necessarily abide by those same standards. And sometimes you find stuff on the web that’s just entirely—and sometimes wrong on purpose. So you have to be very, very careful, and it’s changed American politics, it’s changed our work—we have to figure out some way to get through this mall of information that’s either wrong or insignificant, and drive home what we think people need to know about it. And that’s what’s different about journalism right now. And we haven’t really solved that yet—we’re still grappling with that aspect.

FM: Let’s talk about that a little more. Traditional forms of news media—newspapers, radio, cable TV—are of course now in decline. That’s no secret.

BS: Yeah.

FM: The head of the UN IP agency estimated in 2011 that printed newspapers would be gone 25 years from now; last year, Dish Network dropped CNN right before election night; newspaper layoffs, shrinking ad revenues and audiences are the rule. And this is all happening while people get more and more access to free information through social media or blogs—

BS: But the question is, is this content true? And that’s what’s really disturbing about this. I mean, I’m old-fashioned, and I think the crisis in journalism is not so much with the national news—somehow, I have a feeling the national news will always take care of itself. But it’s at the local level, where every town used to have a newspaper, and it followed the standards and so forth of mainstream journalism. And if some entity doesn’t come along to do what the local newspapers used to do, it will have for example corruption on scales we’ve never in this country before. And I don’t know if local television is going to be able to do that, if local websites will be able to do that, but some entity is going to have to do that, or we’re in trouble.

FM: What do you think is the biggest misconception the American public has about the Presidency?

BS: Well, that’s a very hard question. I think we sometimes think that things are sometimes easier than they really are. The Presidency is the hardest job that there is–there’s no real training for that. I think one of the problems President Obama has had, for example —I don’t think he had been in the Senate long enough to really understand the Senate.

The Presidency is not like a business. No business has 535 members of the board telling the CEO what to do. The Presidency is not the military, where you can order people to do certain thing. The Presidency is about persuasion, and convincing people you’ve got the right idea, and convincing them that it’s in their interest to do what you’re asking them to do. That’s very difficult.

And in this communications revolution we’re in right now, how do you reach people? how do you get the message to them? That’s the really hard problem.

FM: You’ve interviewed every president since Richard Nixon—which one do think is the most under-appreciated?

I think President Ford was a good president, and I was very much against pardoning Nixon when he did it, but I’ve come to believe that that was probably the right thing to do, and if he didn’t do it it would have probably shut down Washington for two years. I think it would’ve hurt the country badly, and I think he was smart to do that.

In retrospect, I think Reagan turned out to be a better president than I thought he was while he was there, because you couldn’t know the impact of the policies he had on the Soviet Union. He didn’t bring down the Soviet Union by a long shot by himself, but some of his policies–forcing them to spend themselves into bankruptcy—certainly contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union.

My role is, you probably can’t really judge a presidency until five to ten years after they’ve left office. Because one of the most important parts of any president’s legacy is who they put on the Supreme Court. And you may not know what the results of that are going to be. I mean, you look at what’s happened around politics now, the final straw was when the Court ruled on Citizens United, which basically just did away with the campaign laws. We don’t have campaign laws anymore, anything’s possible. All the things that the Nixon people went to jail for, they’re now legal.

And so I think it takes a while to make a really good judgment on any president.

I mean, Nixon is in a class by himself, but the fact is he also did some good things. The opening to China, he was very ahead of his party, very ahead of American public opinion, the arms control stuff with the Soviets—very significant things. Jimmy Carter passed the Camp David Accords—otherwise, he didn’t do much of anything. But that’s probably the most significant thing that’s happened in the Middle East in 25, 50 years.

So they all have some good and bad, but I really think President Ford was the most under-appreciated.

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