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National Book Festival: Author and TV Newsman Bob Schieffer

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Bob Schieffer
Author and Host of 'Face The Nation'
Monday, September 15, 2008; 2:00 PM

Nearly 70 authors will be on the National Mall Saturday, September 27 for the 2008 Library of Congress National Book Festival.

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Among them will be Bob Schieffer, CBS News Chief Washington Correspondent, anchor of Face The Nation and author of the new book Bob Schieffer's America. He was online Monday, September 15 at 2 p.m. ET to talk about his books, the latest political news and his preparations for moderating one of this fall's presidential debates. And if you ask nicely, he'll probably tell you about his second career as a country music artist.

The transcript follows.

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Bob Schieffer: Hi everyone, thanks for joining us. I'm here because I've got a new book out, "Bob Schieffer's America." It is a collection of the commentaries I've done since 1994 at the end of each "Face the Nation" broadcast. But I'm happy to talk to you about that or anything else you may have on your minds, so fire away.

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Seattle: Bob, thanks for taking our questions. As moderator, how do you plan to hold both candidates accountable for answers that include exaggerations, misstatements or half-truths (or maybe just non-truths)? It can't be easy, because then you run the risk of looking like you're being too hard on one candidate. Your thoughts?

Bob Schieffer: Let me start with that question because I think it gets to the heart of what we do. I don't believe anyone is totally objective, including me, but I think it is much easier to be fair than it is to be objective, and that's what I strive for. Fairness generally comes down to making sure that both sides in any issue get a chance to express their point of view. It's the job of the reporter to give both sides their chance but we also have to make sure to get as close to the truth as we possibly can. When either side says something that we know is not correct, it's our job to correct it. There are a lot of different points of view amongst reporters. I think the free press is a lot like a draft army -- it reflects the society from which it's drawn -- so journalism is filled with people who have different points of view. But I sincerely believe what drives most reporters is not ideology, but the desire to get the story, to get it right and to get it before their competitors. I know this can be argued, but that is what I sincerely believe.

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Valdosta, Ga.: Bob Schieffer's Sunday program is one of the best Sunday morning nonpartisan programs, and many viewers' favorite on CBS. However, half an hour is too short for such an excellent program. Why can't CBS afford to pay for a full hour of this exceptional Sunday program? They surely can make more than their cost from the advertising during that extra half-hour.

Bob Schieffer: I'm with you. We would love to have an hour, but here's the problem: "Sunday Morning," the venerable broadcast that precedes us, is an hour and a half. Add on our half hour and that's 2 hours of network programming. Because our local affiliates have other obligations that the FCC requires them to fulfill, such as a certain amount of children's programming, they just don't have room for more network programming. I wish it were otherwise, but that's the situation.

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Richmond, Va.: It seems that interviewers seem to focus more on "gotcha" questions than in questions that might help the candidate elucidate their positions on items of real importance. I hope that when you moderate the debate you are able to avoid this pitfall. Thank you.

Bob Schieffer: You have my promise. I don't like gotcha questions either. I want the candidates to tell me exactly what they mean, not what they didn't mean to say. I want to hear what they believe and then I'll ask them questions about that and see if it stands up to scrutiny. That sort of has been my style all along. And I've never liked interview programs where the star was the interviewer. What I try to do is put the spotlight on the people being questioned.

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Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas: Hi Mr. Schieffer. Why do you think this election has been so close, even before Palin was factored in? Wouldn't it make sense that with the economic instability and Iraq war debacle that a Democratic presidential candidate would win by a landslide? I just don't understand how -- if you are paying $4 a gallon for gas, more on groceries, more on college tuition, if you are losing equity on your home, and if the country is spending billions on a neverending war --anyone would vote for the same party that put them in this mess. Is it out of loyalty?

Bob Schieffer: Well, that's why we have elections. I can't really answer that question. But it suggests that John McCain may be more popular than the Republican Party. We had a very divisive Democratic primary, and I think that as much as anything had an impact on where this race is today. I agree with you on one thing -- this is going to be very close. I think the debates this year are going to be more important than ever, and the election may well turn on them. I think the race is neck-and-neck right now. I wouldn't even venture a guess as to who the winner is going to be.

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Cornelius, N.C.: Who's your favorite, David Allen Coe or Waylon Jennings?

Bob Schieffer: Waylon. But I like David Allen Coe. And I have to tell you my favorite country singer is actually Delbert McClinton. But I have fairly eclectic musical taste -- I also love Cole Porter.

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Buckeroo Bob!: What is your favorite song to sing? Where can I find a schedule of where and when your band will be playing?

Bob Schieffer: Well I'm glad you asked that question. The name of my band is Honky Tonk Confidential. You can buy our CD on Amazon. And we'll be playing next on Sunday, Oct. 5, at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn. -- part of a special show that the Opry is putting on the weekend before the second presidential debate to be moderated by Tom Brokaw.

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U.S. Heartland: When is Sarah Palin going to "Face the Nation," or is she hiding out on the Fox "News" Channel doing informercials with Sean Hannity and the like?

Bob Schieffer: I hope to see Gov. Palin soon on "Face the Nation." Sen. McCain was on "Face the Nation" week before last and told me he has recommended that she come on "Face the Nation" soon. We'll see how much stroke he has. I do expect to see her sometime during the coming weeks. I think she has an obligation to talk to as many people as she possibly can, because if Sen. McCain is elected she'll be a heartbeat from the most important and powerful office in the world. I think voters deserve to know as much as possible about her. And I hope that we'll see her soon.

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Dutch Country, Pa.: In general do you think CBS has allowed other networks (and their cable outlets) to dominate news coverage of the election? Surely CBS has an agenda like their counterparts, and I'm curious why they don't push it more aggressively.

Bob Schieffer: There's no question that cable news and the Internet are playing an important party in coverage of the elections. The truth is we are probably devoting more time to campaign news than the other two networks, and frankly I've been very proud of our coverage.

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Scranton, Pa.: Mr. Schieffer, even if Obama were likely to win handily -- based on the issues, such as the economy, national security, health care, etc. -- doesn't the media have a vested interest in saying things are "neck and neck" to keep up viewer interest?

Bob Schieffer: That's not how we do business. Our job is to get to the truth and report it. If we made up things or reported things in a way to get more viewers, we'd be found out in a minute. And we'd wind up with no viewers.

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Baltimore: You have one question to ask Gov. Palin. What would it be and why?

Bob Schieffer: Actually I have a series of questions. I'd like to know what she would do to fix our health care system, our entitlement programs, our economy, and where do we go from here in Iraq, Iran and North Korea? I'd just like to get a sense of her priorities. What are the things that worry her? And where would she take this country if at some point she found herself in the Oval Office?

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Tech Valley: Bob, how do you feel about mashups and widgets, and has the Internet made privacy a thing of the past?

Bob Schieffer: I guess I'm showing my age, but I don't know what a mashup or a widget is. But I think the Internet has redefined privacy. For example, I think most young people would be against being spied on by the government, and yet it's not hard to find places on the Internet where those same people have put small cameras in their dorm rooms or apartments and allowed people to see them at their most intimate. I think the Internet has changed everything. Suddenly nothing seems to be off the record. I'm not sure if that's a good thing, but it's something that all of us -- the media, politicians, just the average citizen -- are having to deal with.

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Reading, Pa.: Howdy, Mr. Schieffer. Is it more difficult to interview someone like John McCain? How do you answer your critics who say you went a bit easy on Sen. McCain this last go-round by letting him filibuster, and by not challenging him with tougher follow-up questions?

Bob Schieffer: Well, I answer them by saying I don't agree. I pressed him pretty hard about how he could accuse Barack Obama of being a person of no experience when he picked Sarah Palin as his running mate. I also understand that no matter how I do an interview, there will be some who don't agree with the way I conducted it. That's their right. And the truth is I learn from criticism. But I felt pretty good about that interview.

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Pittsburgh: If a political candidate keeps repeating the same provably false claim, it seems to me that reporters are entitled to ask "gotcha" questions. But how does a reporter ask that question so as not to make the liar appear sympathetic to viewers? Murrow seemed to have had the knack.

Bob Schieffer: A good question. If I ask people a question and they appear to be avoiding it, I always try to ask it in a different way and sometimes I'll ask it a third time. After that I think viewers are smart enough to know that the person is just avoiding the question and of itself becomes an answer. If the person says something that I know to be incorrect, I believe it is absolutely fair to point out the right answer.

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Palin: "We'll see how much stroke he has." That was a joke, right? I would think that the presidential candidate has some say on whether the vice presidential candidate gives real interviews or not. Or is the Cheney/Bush model the new one for the GOP?

Bob Schieffer: Of course I was joking. But yes, I believe the presidential candidate, the person at the top of the ticket, does have considerable influence on his campaign. If he didn't, he wouldn't be much of a candidate, it seems to me.

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New York: You look fantastic for a man of 50; does your music keep you young and help you deal with the stress of Washington?

Bob Schieffer: This is my favorite question of the afternoon! I know you're teasing because you know that I'm 71, not 50. But I love the question. And yes, it's not just the music, but it's my work that keeps me going. I just love politics. I always have. And frankly, I don't know what I'd do if I didn't have this great opportunity to be a reporter. Truth is I'm a really lucky guy -- and I know it.

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Scotia, N.Y.: A poll over the weekend showed that a majority of the electorate now believes that presidential power is too great, and should be scaled back. Any chance you'll ask either candidate about this, given that we've been holding innocent people and torturing them, and wiretapping domestically without warrant or judicial or other safeguards, for several years now?

Bob Schieffer: I haven't seen that poll, but I think the problem now is not whether one branch of government has more power than the other but that the government just isn't working very well. That's why I'm not going to be cynical about either John McCain's or Barack Obama's promises to change the way Washington works. I believe there has to be changes. The government just stays mired in gridlock too much of the time.

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Columbia, Md.: A few months ago, you seemed to have been taken aback by Gen. Clark's assertion that Sen. McCain's POW status did not qualify him to be president. To paraphrase, I think your response was "are you questioning his patriotism?" I thought that was an odd rejoinder, as Clark never had mentioned it. Do you believe Sen. McCain's POW status uniquely qualifies him to be president? Do you believe that Sen. McCain is in charge of his campaign, or do you think he is in the thrall of less-than-scrupulous handlers?

Bob Schieffer: I do believe that Sen. McCain's conduct as a prisoner of war is something to be admired and told us a lot about his character. Gen. Clark seemed to suggest that Sen. McCain never had held a position of high command, which would've been more valuable experience as president. I simply did not agree and pointed out during the interview that Sen. Obama had not held any such command post either and I added nor had he gotten in a fighter plane and gotten himself shot down over Hanoi. Gen. Clark said getting shot down over Hanoi did not qualify Sen. McCain to be president. My response to that was "really?" Again, I believe courage and character are two qualities we always look for in leaders.

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Richland, Wash.: For your role as a journalist or debate anchorman, I am wondering about your impartiality with political figures. I read somewhere that your brother was a partner of George W. Bush in the Texas Rangers venture, and that you often were invited to participate in Gov. Bush's hunting parties.

Bob Schieffer: The fact that my brother as a young man was a business partner of George Bush is no secret -- I wrote about it in my book "This Just In" and I talked about it on television when I interviewed George Bush during the 2000 campaign. My brother, by the way, is a Democrat and remains so. I knew George Bush in those days, but I've never gone hunting with him. I did play golf with him a couple of times. But when he was sworn in as president I expected no favors and in truth got none. I have a cordial relationship with him, but it is a relationship that does not go beyond that. And obviously I've had very little contact with him as president and have interviewed him in a formal sit-down only once.

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Detroit: You brought up Gov. Palin's so called inexperience. It's true that she would be a heartbeat away from the presidency, but the vice presidency really is a ceremonial position. And how many times has a president actually died in office? Furthermore, governors are more likely to be elected than senators because they actually have managed a state.

Bob Schieffer: Good question. The vice president has only one Constitutional duty: to become president at a moment's notice in the event that the president dies or leaves office. We have had 43 presidents through American history. Nine of them have come to office as accidental presidents: Four replaced presidents who died in office, four replaced presidents who were assassinated, and Gerald Ford replaced Richard Nixon who resigned. Nine out of 23 is more than 20 percent, which is why I believe the American people need to know as much as we can possibly find out about anyone who is chosen to be on the ticket and might become president.

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Bronx, N.Y.: How would you compare this presidential campaign so far to others you have covered?

Bob Schieffer: I often say that every campaign is different, but this one may win first prize for being different. It has become a cliche to say this one is "historic," but it is -- and every day it takes a new turn. The race between Barack Obama, an African American, and Hillary Clinton, a woman, was exciting and historic. The way John McCain won the Republican nomination after literally coming back from being written off as finished, and the fact that he is a prisoner of war, makes that part of it historic. And now with his choosing of Sarah Palin, the first woman to be placed on the Republican ticket, is another historical first. For a political reporter it just doesn't get any better than this. And for voters I think this is one of the best choices that we've ever had. I have no idea how it's going to come out.

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Re: Seattle: I liked your answer about fairness as opposed to objectivity, but how do you plan or expect to handle the issue of "follow-ups," where one candidate responds with a "not-truth"? I think this is where the media and journalists have not performed well.

Bob Schieffer: You may be right. And it's harder than it sounds. The way you do it is to do a little homework before you conduct the interview and try to make sure you know a little something about it, and then you can call their hand.

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Atlanta: Mr. Schieffer, I always look forward to your show. From your long perspective in Washington, do you ever feel glum that our federal government is no longer up to the task of tackling big issues because of partisan hostilities?

Bob Schieffer: I think you've hit on a very serious point here. I think the government more and more finds itself unable to confront the major problems in the country. I talk about this a lot in the essays I have written for my new book.

Basically, here's where I think the heart of the problem lies. It has become so expensive to raise the money the candidates need to get to Washington and they have to sign off with so many special interest groups before they get here, that once they're here their positions are set in stone and they have lost the ability to compromise. When legislative bodies lose the ability to compromise, they become mired in gridlock, and that's what we're experiencing now. Too much of the time the Congress simply does not have the political will to deal with major issues, and spends its time nibbling around the fringes rather than confronting the problems head-on. Until we can find a way to reduce the influence of money on politics, it's going to be difficult for the Congress to move and really get anything done.

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Lyme, Conn.: It seems people have forgotten Spiro Agnew, yet part of Sarah Palin reminds me of him. Agnew was a first-term governor whose role was to energize the conservative base. I note that it worked for Nixon in 1968. What are your recollections of Agnew in the 1968 election?

Bob Schieffer: I think that the reason Nixon put Agnew on the ticket was to energize the more conservative parts of the Republican Party. I believe Sarah Palin has done that. John McCain wanted a game-changer, and she certainly has been that. If the Republican convention is any indication, she has brought social conservatives behind John McCain in a way they never have been before. The question is, will she appeal to the independent voters who probably will decide this election? We won't know that for a while, but I think even Democrats would say that, from a political standpoint, she has made a very good first impression -- at least with the conservatives who never much cared for John McCain.

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Anonymous: There are several challenges ahead for the United States, the least of which is the very bad news on Wall Street. Are you hopeful about America's future?

Bob Schieffer: I'm going to pass on offering advice on what we do about the financial crisis in which we find ourselves. This is something I really don't have the expertise to answer. A friend of mine once said he'd rather plead ignorance than spread it. And that's where I am on this situation. I hesitate to say anything on this for fear that someone might think I know what I'm talking about and buy or sell stock based on something I might have said. I do know this: This is an extremely serious situation that the next president is going to have to deal with and it's going to be one of the things I will certainly ask them about during the coming debates.

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Alexandria, Va.: I have some personnel advice for CBS News: You should consider finding a place for Willie Geist, the son of the guy who does all the goofy spots on "Sunday Morning." As I'm sure you know, he does gossip and entertainment pieces on "Morning Joe" on MSNBC, but he really is much better than that. On the rare chance that he gets a chance to interview a guest, he really shines. Like you, he has the gift of recognizing that the interview is about what the interviewee has to say, not about him. This morning he did a very nice job in an interview with Tom Friedman, far removed from his usual beat.

Bob Schieffer: You're telling me something I didn't know and am glad to know. Bill Geist is an old friend of mine whose work I really admire, and I had no idea Willie was his son. I've had a very good interview with Willie and the other folks on "Morning Joe" just last week when I was on the broadcast to talk about my book "Bob Schieffer's America." I have been watching Willie recently and think he's just terrific. CBS would be lucky to have him.

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Program Idea: I'd like to see a show with principals (not PR people) from both campaigns on the stage at the same time -- e.g. Obama's chief economic advisers vs. Sen. Gramm and McCain's other heavy-hitters. That might make for better TV than the candidates themselves.

Bob Schieffer: Not a bad thought. And we will have their advisors on from time to time, as we have in the past.

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Bob Schieffer: Well thank you very much everyone. It looks like our time is up. I didn't get to all the questions, but I wanted to give each one some thought. If you're in a book store soon, I hope you'll take a glance at the new book. I had a lot of fun writing it and you might find a chuckle or two between its covers. Thanks for being here today, and I hope you'll watch "Face the Nation" this Sunday, as well as the presidential debates.

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