Seth Mnookin's review of Bob Schieffer's memoir, 'This Just In' (Book World, Feb. 9), mistakenly listed George H.W. Bush among the presidents whom Schieffer has interviewed. The reference should have been to the elder Bush's son, sitting President George W. Bush. (Published 2/23/03)
THIS JUST IN
What I Couldn't Tell You On TV
By Bob Schieffer
Putnam. 432 pp. $26.95
"Most of these stories had just been sitting there," Bob Schieffer writes in the introduction to This Just In, "waiting until I had a place to put them down on paper." Schieffer, a longtime CBS correspondent and the host, for the last decade, of "Face the Nation," is the latest television star to throw his snap-brimmed fedora into the political history-cum-memoir ring. That garbled, hazy sentiment -- you either put stories down on paper or you look for a place to tell them, but you don't need a place to put them down on paper -- sets the tone for this book, an unfocused tome that meanders through the author's long career in broadcast journalism.
Which is too bad. Schieffer is one of the sharper TV reporters working today. For much of his career, he's played second fiddle -- first to Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather at CBS, and now to Tim Russert on the Sunday-morning circuit. Unlike many other TV personalities' literary projects (paging Chris Matthews), This Just In isn't simply a quickie effort designed to cash in on a well-known face. Schieffer interviewed dozens of sources for his book, including presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush. But though he writes in an engaging, conversational tone, he never goes much beyond surface gloss. Had he organized his book around any number of interesting themes -- the impact of television on the political process, or the role of the networks in today's cable-news world -- he might have made a mark as the rare TV personality who produces a valuable addition to our written knowledge.
Instead, This Just In is a pastiche of warmed-over anecdotes and unexciting travelogues. Writing about the riots at the 1968 Democratic convention, Schieffer says, "What happened in Chicago has been well documented and requires little additional description." The same could be said for many of the other events he covers in the book. If a reader wanted to learn about anything touched on here, from Nixon's resignation to Clinton's impeachment, there are many other, better books to turn to.
The one area that hasn't been covered before is Schieffer's personal life. By his own account, he was no great shakes as a husband or father. For 23 years, he hosted CBS's Saturday "Evening News" broadcast out of New York; for all but a year or two of that time, he was living and working out of D.C., which meant he was constantly shuttling back and forth between the two cities and never had more than one day off a week. In the 1980s, when he was offered a job hosting CBS's "Morning Show," which was shot in New York, he accepted before checking with his wife and kids. And during his "Morning Show" run, Schieffer hints that he became a problem drinker, downing booze to help him get to sleep at night.
But like almost everything in This Just In, Schieffer's family life is dealt with perfunctorily. Writing about his family's anger at his decision to move them to New York (he shipped them all back to D.C. less than two years later), he admits, "I had been too wrapped up in myself to understand or even notice. My career was taking off, but my family was drifting away from me, and I hadn't even noticed." Besides being repetitious, passages like that are not very insightful. But that's all we're going to get. (In a parenthetical aside a hundred pages later, he tells us that he quit drinking in 1988.)
Of course, Schieffer is under no obligation to talk more openly about his family life or his decision to swear off booze. But if he's not going to open up, why write a book? Even This Just In's slightly snarky subtitle turns out to be more smoke than fire. What, exactly, is it that he can't tell us on TV? That Barbara Walters is a fierce competitor? That Walter Cronkite is insatiably curious? That he and his wife conceived their first child in Chicago? (Okay, so maybe he can't tell us that on TV. Just as well, too.) Even the scooplets Schieffer turned up during the book's original reporting seem to be false alarms. In one of the most interesting passages, he recalls John Tower's acrimonious confirmation hearings for secretary of defense. Georgia senator Sam Nunn, who led the charge against Tower, was long rumored to have wanted the job himself. Now Nunn tells Schieffer that the first President Bush offered him the job, and he turned it down.
Or not. "Obviously, the president doesn't offer a cabinet post to anyone until we know if that person is interested in serving," Bush's chief of staff James Baker told Schieffer. "We wanted to know if Sam was interested before we got too far along in the search." As Schieffer surely knows from the time when the CBS brass asked him whether he'd want to replace Cronkite as anchor, "Will you be considered?" is a lot different from "It's yours if you want it."
Bob Schieffer's had a long, successful career. If he didn't get the CBS anchor chair, he did get a great seat at the table of American political history, and (as he reminds us more than once) was well-paid to boot. He's smart and appealing, and he's a clear writer. With a little focused direction, or a narrower scope, he could undoubtedly produce a strong book. This isn't it. *
Seth Mnookin is a senior writer at Newsweek, covering media and national affairs.