Bob Schieffer has covered politics for over half a century, from the White House to the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom and Capitol Hill. The host of CBS’s “Face the Nation” for 24 years, he has interviewed every president since Richard Nixon. Despite the thousands of high-level interviews he’s conducted over this career, he enthusiastically set aside an afternoon to speak with an overly caffeinated and highly curious graduate student.
If I took one thing from my conversation with Mr. Schieffer, it was this: there is a place for and a need for young, fresh perspectives in our current political society. There is a place for minds that seek a solution rather than a partisan affirmation, for brains that understand the importance of analytical rigor and compromise, and for hearts that are tuned to public service.
Mr. Schieffer was in Austin to interview Joe Califano, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s chief domestic advisor. The event featured Califano’s new book, Our Damaged Democracy: We the People Must Act. In keeping with the event’s theme, the conversation with Mr. Schieffer focused on the state of our country and the vitality of our democracy.
Baines Report: In his book, Califano asserts that “where you sit determines where you stand.” You have had a front-row seat in D.C. through much of your career. From your perspective, is our democracy damaged?
Schieffer: Every presidential candidate talks about the need for a smaller government, and then every President expands his own power. There really are not three equal branches of our government anymore.
There’s a fundamental issue with the way the Congress is operating. Members are only in D.C. from Tuesday morning through Thursday evening, and then they’re on the road fundraising or campaigning or back in their home districts on the weekends. When they are in D.C., they spend their time making phone calls or running from one meeting to the next. There is no time for consensus or relationship building. There is no time to really discuss these issues. And it has resulted in a total gridlock and ineffective legislative branch.
We aren’t attracting our best and brightest anymore, and no wonder. It all goes back to the idea of “pay-to-play.” To have high-ranking positions on top committees, members have to raise a certain amount of money. If they don’t, they will lose that appointment. This doesn’t work.
It’s impossible to discuss our democracy without talking about the individual who leads it. While covering the 2016 campaign, you coined the notion that candidate Trump was “unlike anything you have ever seen.” A year into his presidency, does this still ring true?
Honestly, when Trump started talking about running for President, I thought it was a joke. I was doing a fellowship at the Kennedy School at Harvard and started really following the campaign. I began to get a bit nervous. Once Trump got the nomination, it seemed as though he had a checklist of everyone he wanted to insult. And that has carried over into his presidency.
The White House right now is a mess. There is no common agenda, everyone is focused primarily on who is leaking what, and we have a President who enjoys publicly humiliating his senior officials. I will say this: President Trump really understands TV and how to play to the public. We really saw this during the campaign. He would make himself available to as many TV shows and media appearances as possible, and usually early in the morning. Then, whatever crazy thing he said that morning created the agenda for the rest of the day for the other candidates and other news shows. He monopolized agenda-setting. And his Twitter makes him relatable and reachable.
This was the opposite of the appearance that Hillary Clinton put forward during the campaign. Do you remember that picture of her walking and her body guards holding a rope around her to keep people away? That just goes to show how different these candidates were, yet how undesirable they were at the same time. Honestly, she had a role in electing him.
Any funny stories from your time covering the campaign?
I have kind of a funny relationship with Trump. Back in 2012, after the White House Correspondents dinner when President Obama had really railed on Trump, I said that the things Trump said were things that a racist would say. Well, I ended up doing an interview with Trump for CBS down in Florida a couple of weeks later. We took the whole crew down to Mar-a-Lago for the interview, and once we are all set up, Trump comes in straight off the golf course and comes up and gives me a huge hug, asked me how I was doing, and told me that I was the best reporter.
My wife had come on this trip with me, and he proceeded to invite the two of us to dinner with him and Melania. He invited us to a big gala that night. We didn’t end up going to the gala, but it was such an odd experience. After I retired and John Dickerson was my replacement on ‘Face the Nation,’ he had the chance to meet Trump, who told the story a bit differently. Trump told Dickerson that he knew that I wasn’t the biggest fan of him, so he had me down to Mar-a-Lago. After about 10 minutes after hanging out, we were best friends! That was news to me.
Your book, Overload, talks about the way that young people get their news. Can you comment on that?
I think we are seeing the need for the redefinition of a media company. The whole issue with Facebook right now is really showing that. They claim that they aren’t a media company and that they’re a technology company. But why on earth should they be exempt from responsibly disseminating truthful information? When it comes down to it, 130 million Americans got Russian propaganda popping up on their Facebook feed. Russians were buying Facebook ads using rubles. This is a big deal!
In his book, Califano identifies “game-changers” throughout history that changed our democracy: the federal income tax, the New Deal, and the Great Society. Are we in a game changer right now?
I think the students in Florida are really being heard. And I think it’s because they’re students. They don’t know much, they just know that they are getting killed. And they are channeling that energy and it is inspiring to see. And I think they’re also highlighting the chance that the Democrats may take the House in 2018. I didn’t think it was possible, but over the last couple of months, it’s beginning to look like they may have a chance. You combine the kids in Florida, the mess in the White House, and the ‘Me Too’ movement, and I really think the Democrats have a chance.
When it comes down to it, I think the biggest threat is that our politics are no longer about the issues. Politics is about attitudes. And we have a lot of people with a really bad attitude who are making bad politics. So here is what I want to really stress: we need young people who believe in democracy to make our democracy work again.
Photo: Schieffer (left) with Califano. Courtesy of LBJ Library.