Among the printable descriptions of CBS anchor John Dickerson that have appeared on Twitter since he moderated a Republican presidential debate last month are “leftist hack,” “sneering little nobody” and “wimp interviewer.” Many journalists can empathize.
In large part because of this, Dickerson doesn’t buy the popular argument that reporters underestimated Donald Trump because they failed to recognize the anger coursing through the veins of the electorate.
“You could argue that anybody who’s on social media and watches Twitter would have an overly strong sense of the anger out there,” he told me recently, when I visited his M Street office in downtown Washington. “I think people knew about the anger.”
As a fellow recipient of 140-character nastygrams, I have to agree. I didn’t foresee Trump’s rise, either, but that’s not because I imagined voters casting ballots with Pharell Williams’s “Happy” on loop in their heads.
Dickerson has an alternative theory about why the press got it wrong — one that makes a lot more sense.
“Misunderstanding the country wasn’t what we missed,” he said. “We missed that [Trump] would be the place where all those votes went and that he would basically pay no price for his evolving views over time.
“The same people who have been the angry voters at the heart of the Republican Party — who fueled the tea party and gave so much support to Ted Cruz — their principal argument is that the leaders in Washington have not stayed constant -- that they’ve shifted and changed once they got to Washington. So if constancy is the crucial quality, Donald Trump is not your candidate.”
In other words, journalists were aware of the anger and resentment felt by many Trump voters, but they didn’t realize choleric emotions would supersede conservative principles. We didn’t have the priorities in the right order.
This kind of thorough breakdown of an important question is typical of Dickerson’s analytical style. A D.C. native born into the news business — mother Nancy (Hanschman) Dickerson became CBS’s first female correspondent in 1960 — John Dickerson, 47, relishes probing, detailed examinations of political issues.
His former editor at Time magazine, Walter Isaacson, recently recalled in a New York Times interview that Dickerson rebuffed CBS’s initial overtures eight years ago because “he was a little scared that television was not a sincere or deep medium. He was worried about television being trivializing.”
Yet as host of the Sunday-morning political talk show “Face the Nation,” which he took over last year for the retiring Bob Schieffer, and as a two-time debate moderator in this election, Dickerson has managed to maintain the depth he feared losing. He’s done it by being willing, at times, to drill down on a seemingly minor point whose significance becomes clear only later.
During a Republican debate on Feb. 13, the same day Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died, Dickerson began with a series of very narrow questions about who has the power to appoint justices — and when. I remember watching it and thinking the inquiries were awfully basic; where were the big-picture questions about the qualities and social stances the candidates would require of prospective nominees? You know, the stuff I had predicted he’d ask?
Then came Dickerson’s memorable exchange with Ted Cruz.
CRUZ: We have 80 years of precedent of not confirming Supreme Court justices in an election year. And let me say, Justice Scalia …
DICKERSON: Just can I — I'm sorry to interrupt. Were any appointed in an election year or is that just there were 80 years …
CRUZ: Eighty years of not confirming. For example, LBJ nominated Abe Fortas. Fortas did not get confirmed. He was defeated.
DICKERSON: But Kennedy was confirmed in '88.
CRUZ: No, Kennedy was confirmed in '87 …
DICKERSON: He was appointed in '87, confirmed in '88. That's the question, is it appointing or confirming? What's the difference?
Dickerson got booed by Cruz backers. But the difference is pretty important, it turns out. By engaging Cruz in what looked like a wonky fight over semantics, Dickerson actually hit on what would become a central topic of discussion in the coming weeks: the precedent for nominating or confirming — not the same thing! — Supreme Court justices in election years.
Before Kennedy’s confirmation during the 1988 campaign, Congress approved two Richard Nixon nominees, William Rehnquist and Lewis Powell, in the election year of 1972. But like Kennedy, Rehnquist and Powell had been nominated during the previous calendar year. What Cruz did, perhaps inadvertently, was take an “80 years” statistic that referred to justices whose entire appointment processes — from start to finish — occurred in campaign years, and he improperly applied it to those who were merely confirmed during elections.
When I visited with Dickerson, he revealed that he and his CBS team had foreseen this kind of conflation — despite news of Scalia's death having broken only hours earlier — and prepared to set the record straight.
“All of our questions at the beginning were, ‘What are the precedents? And what are the distinctions in the precedents?’” he said. “Backstage, we’re sitting there, thinking, ‘Is this an 80-year precedent because it just hasn’t come up? Or over 80 years have presidents always pulled back in election years?’ So, when he started talking, it was just like we were backstage.”
Watching his successor in that debate, Schieffer swelled with pride. He told me he was particularly impressed by the way Dickerson — after the early back-and-forth with Cruz — exercised restraint and allowed the candidates to battle.
“I thought he was masterful,” said Schieffer, who has kept his old office at CBS and contributes occasional campaign commentary. “That last debate, I have to tell you — I don’t think I could have done that. He didn’t cut ’em off; he let ’em go. You just got a real sense for who these people are.”
Dickerson was Schieffer’s pick to take over “Face the Nation” — not that the decision was his to make. CBS News president David Rhodes does the hiring, “but I certainly told him John was the person I thought ought to have the job,” Schieffer said.
Why? Because Dickerson’s deep thinking is a natural fit for Sunday morning, the “smartest time on television,” as Schieffer called it. “Viewers are more reflective,” he added.
Reflective seems like a good word to describe Dickerson, too. As we sat down to chat, he hurriedly cleared a box of jumbled memorabilia off a coffee table. Inside were old credentials from White House press pools and, visible on top, a media tag from the Democratic National Convention in 1992 -- his first year covering a presidential election.
He’s been trying to figure out some way to use or display these items but hasn’t settled on the right idea yet.
I suggested turning them into coasters.
“That would be a good idea, actually,” Dickerson said. He paused, thinking, then repeated himself: “Yeah, actually, that would be a good idea.”