This Sunday marks the 60th anniversary of CBS’s prestigious public-affairs show Face the Nation. Since its launch in 1954, more than 7,000 newsmakers—including every US President since Dwight D. Eisenhower—have appeared on the show. While other news programs have struggled in recent years, Face the Nation has seen its audience increase even as it maintained its no-frills, question-and-answer format. “We’re not dealing with rocket science,” says Bob Schieffer, who took over hosting duties in 1991. “This is about trying to get the key players every week in whatever the top story of the week is and sitting them down and asking them questions.” In an interview shortly before the anniversary, Schieffer, 77, discussed his entry into journalism, his all-time favorite guests, and his recipe for success at Face the Nation.
How did you get into journalism?
When I was in the eighth grade, I wrote a story for my junior high school newspaper. I had never seen my name printed in bold type, and it looked so fine sitting on top of that story on the front page. I thought, “This is really neat, I want to do this again!” I probably decided then and there that I wanted to be a reporter, because ever since, that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.
I once heard you say that the reason to go into journalism is because it’s fun. Do you still believe that?
Yeah. I think that’s why you should do anything. When I talk to kids these days I tell them to pick out something—whether it’s journalism or not—that you like to do. And if you get good at it, the success part will take care of itself. Journalism is not for everybody; you have to work on Christmas a lot. But I can’t think of anything I could have done where I could have had a better life than I’ve had. And it is important. You can’t have a democracy without independently gathered information, and that’s what we do.
Who are your all-time favorite guests on Face the Nation?
I’m always asked that question, and my answer always is: whoever happens to be President. But I’ll tell you that just from the standpoint of personal enjoyment and fun, Maya Angelou was one of my all-time favorite guests. I just loved having her on the show. Henry Kissinger is another of my favorite guests. We had him on the week before last. His first appearance was 57 years ago, and of course he’d been on many, many times down through the years. Bob Gates, the former secretary of defense—I’ve had some fine interviews with him. I really like to interview people who’ve been out of office a year or so. Those are always fun because they’re a little bit off the news, and they help to put the news in context. I did that with Leon Panetta over the summer.
What were some of your toughest interviews?
I had some pretty contentious interviews with Bill Clinton when he was president. I like Bill Clinton, I get along with him just fine. But there were some points in there where things got a little sticky. Also, Ollie North. When he tried to run for the Senate, you’ll remember, he just really got mad at me during the interview. I pressed him pretty hard. He wouldn’t even shake hands with me; he just got up and walked off.
What’s been the show’s strategy for growing its audience in a difficult media environment?
With these Sunday shows, people keep talking about reinventing the wheel. That’s all well and good, and perhaps someone will, but I think these shows have changed less than any other program on television. When you look back 60 years ago when we had the first Face the Nation broadcast, Joe McCarthy, of all people, was the first guest. But basically we haven’t changed it very much since then. The technology is much better. We can now talk in real time to people on the other side of the world. You can have panel discussions where one person is in London and another one is here and so on. But basically it’s the same: Get the newsmaker and ask them questions for an extended period of time. That is exactly what they did on the very first Face the Nation 60 years ago. We’re not trying to fix something we don’t think is broken.
Find Luke Mullins on Twitter at @lmullinsdc.