Friday, December 23, 2011

This Just In by Bob Schieffer

The subtitle of this book is "What I Couldn't Tell You on TV", and you'd think there would be some really juicy tidbits in here about public and political figures, but the book is surprisingly tame and tactful, even so. Ah well.

Schieffer fills the book mostly with anecdotes about some of the big stories from his time in print and television journalism. As a Texas reporter, he was on the scene when JFK was shot in Dallas, and also covered the civil rights movement in the deep South, when the federal government forced integration.

He was sent to Vietnam to report on the war there, with the express purpose of finding out how the local Texas military enlistees were doing. The Star-Telegram ran ads saying, "He won't be talking to many generals, He'll be looking for your sons and daughters." Bob took care of his primary assignment, but he also managed to sneak out where the action was whenever possible.

"The best quote I ever got and could not find a place to use resulted from a conversation I had with a black Marine. When I asked if he ever felt discrimination, he replied, 'Nah, the Marines treat ever'body like niggers.'"

"Walter Clerihew, an Air Force pilot from Jacksboro, Texas...flew low over the rice paddies and canals south of Saigon on the lookout for Viet Cong. 'I figured out the best way to find them is just to fly in low and see if anybody shoots.'"

After returning from Vietnam, he returned to the political beat, where he would remain, with one company or another for the rest of his career. There's a great quote from Gene McCarthy about JFK:

"He recalled one day when both had served in the House of Representatives and he came upon Kennedy in a cloakroom, with his feet up. 'You know,' Kennedy told him, 'if you don't want to work, this is as good a place as any to have a job.'"

I'm afraid it's probably still true of our congresspersons today.

While working at the Pentagon, he ran into snags with security classified documents:

"The government ihas legitimate reasons to keep many things secret and the list is obvious: war plans, troop movements, the identities of undercover agents, details on how our sophisticated weapons and our defenses are constructed, and the list goes on and on. But I soon learned there was another reason to put a security classification on information; to cover up mistakes and avoid embarassment."

Really makes you trust our government, doesn't it?

Another good example of government's total irrationality:

"Once the (Supreme) Court ruled that the New York Times and the Washington Post could print the papers, those of us covering the story began hounding the Defense Department to release the entire set. Defense officials refused, saying they were 'classified.' Some days later, I wandered into the Pentagon's undergound shopping mall bookstore and discovered that a commercial publisher had printed the entire four volumes of the Pentagon Papers and had put them on sale. There they were, on sale to the public in the basement of the building where government copies were being kept upstairs in a safe, classified top secret!"

I remember the Watergate scandal, which resulted in President Nixon's resignation, but I never had any inkling that there were some in Washington who thought he'd attempt a military coup. But Schieffer relates that James Schlesinger, Defense Secretary, had "ordered the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff to notify him immediately if Nixon tried to give direct military orders to any of the military's theater commanders around the world."

Something that may be relevant to upcoming elections:

"There was just one problem for (Jimmy) Carter. He was exactly what he had advertised himself to be, an outsider with no Washington experience, and he got off to a rough start. Being president, as every president learns, is a lot harder than it looks. It never ceases to amaze me when I hear people who have made a success in business say a good businessman could straighten out the government in no time, an opinion that is totally wrong. No business executive has to work with a board of directors that has 535 members...There is really no training ground for becoming president, and for all his good ideas, by the time Carter's team figure out how to make the government work, it was too late."

A bit of humor from the Carter era, on a European trip:

"...the new president said he was anxious to get to know the Polish people, only to have his speech mangled by a State Department translator who told the crowd the president wished to know them in the biblical sense."

Carter once mentioned that he'd looked with lust on Playboy photos, but he never mentioned his predilection for Poles.

About what constitutes news, Schieffer relates:

"I believed that you also had to cover the stories that didn't lend themselves to pictures. I didn't believe a story had to be entertaining to earn a place on the Evening News."

Would that more reporters today, and more networks, felt that way.

And a cynical bit about political lobbying:

" reason that Congres continues to debate and vote on so many of the same issues over and over - like gun control and abortion - is that such issues bring in money to both sides. Liberals who favor gun control rail at the antics of the well-financed gun lobby, but in truth they welcome the endless debate over guns because it is a proven way to raise money from their supporters, just as the pro-gun lobby is a ready source of campaign cash for pro-gun forces. The debates over the perennials, as insiders call them, have little impact on the country, since they usually bring little or no change in the laws. But they are not really about the country's business; they are about the business of the members themselves and their own survival."

There's a lot of stuff about the behind the scenes jockeying for position in the newsroom, and the various mergers and acquisitions of the networks, which I found a bit tedious. The really good stuff, for me, was getting a little different view on the news I lived through from the sixties until today. Easy to read, and full of a wry sense of humor, this one was worth perusing.

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