The Forecast Interview: Bob Schieffer
February 25, 1937,
Face the Nation (CBS)
Bob Schieffer's America
with two daughters
Just across town from Washington, D.C.'s Newseum—a sprawling museum dedicated to the history of journalism—is a much more personal collection of objects from the industry's last half century. It's Bob Schieffer's office in CBS News' Washington bureau. On one wall is a framed Fort Worth Star-Telegram article from the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated, when Lee Harvey Oswald's mother called the newspaper and asked for a lift to Dallas. Then a cub reporter, Schieffer happened to pick up the phone—and wrote up the story of his unusual ride.
Nearby hangs a photo of a rattled Schieffer on the front lines of the Vietnam War, in which an American MP is refusing him access to a Buddhist shrine. Eddie Adams, whose picture of South Vietnam's police chief executing a Viet Cong soldier at gunpoint would soon win him a Pulitzer, took the shot. "Eddie said to the guy, 'OK—you pulled your pistol, now use it,'" Schieffer recalls. "Well, the guy was pointing it at me, not Eddie!"
Then there's the Doonesbury comic strip memorializing CBS newsman Dan Rather's reassignment from the White House beat for his controversial coverage of Richard Nixon. Rather's replacement: Bob Schieffer.
Thirty years later, it was Rather's firing from CBS over his controversial coverage of another president—George W. Bush, and his Vietnam-era National Guard record— that landed Schieffer in the anchor's chair of the CBS Evening News, where he wound up improving ratings before Katie Couric's arrival a year and a half later. Now 71, Schieffer was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes seven years ago. Next month will see publication of Bob Schieffer's America, an anthology of his end-of-show essays for Face the Nation, the Sunday newsmaker program he has anchored since 1991. Schieffer's spending more and more time promoting Texas Christian University's journalism school, which has been renamed the Schieffer School. And though he announced earlier this year that he'd retire from Face the Nation with the swearing in of the next president, Schieffer tells Diabetes Forecast that he's had a change of heart.
You haven't really talked publicly about your diabetes before.
It's not by design. I'm also a cancer survivor. I had bladder cancer, and it just seemed like I talked about that more. After I was diagnosed [with cancer], Hamilton Jordan, who was Jimmy Carter's chief of staff, called me. He's a five-time cancer survivor [who died shortly after this interview]. And he said, "You really ought to talk about this." I said, "I'm really private about medical things." And he said, "I guarantee you that if you talk about it, it will really help you." So I did, I was on Don Imus's radio show and on Wolf Blitzer's broadcast on CNN. It was amazing—I got 300 e-mails in one day. People said, "It's so nice to know somebody has gone through what I'm going through." People said they actually went and got check-ups. I felt like I had done a pretty good day's work. So I'm happy to talk about diabetes in the same way.
How did you discover you had it?
I have ulcerative colitis, which I contracted in 1974. And because of that I always get an annual physical and colonoscopy. And I just showed up and the blood sugar was going up and the doctor said, "You're tending to be diabetic." And the next year the doctor said, "You're now diabetic."
You weren't experiencing any symptoms?
No, none at all. I've had it seven years. [At first I was] able to control it through diet and exercise. I took off about 20 pounds. I basically weigh what I weighed in high school. But just last week, my doctor decided that it's time to go to insulin. So I'm doing that, and it's working.
Is it easier or more difficult than you anticipated?
Easier. This whole idea of going to insulin terrifies people, and it frightened me. My doctor and I had been talking for a time about whether to up the drug dosage or to go to the insulin and he asked me, "What bothers you the most about it?" And I said just the idea of the needle and thinking about the glycemic reaction if you don't get it just right. We had a long talk, and I decided to do it. And it's really working well. I do it once a day. I'm doing one of these [insulin] pens. And if it continues to work the way it has so far, I'll begin to dial back on some of the drugs I'm taking. But I have to say for people who are worried about whether to switch, it's been so much easier than I thought it would be. These needles now are so small that you don't even feel it.
Does diabetes run in your family? Did you watch anyone struggle with it growing up?
Not that I know of. … My father died when he was 50. I assume it was a heart attack, but we don't really know. My mother lived to be 78, and she finally died of breast cancer, which she never told anybody she had. She was afraid to go to the doctor, afraid of the treatment. Some of her friends had had very painful experiences with radiation and chemotherapy and then died. And when she contracted it she just decided she didn't want to go through with it. She collapsed one day and they took her to the doctor. By that time, it was spread throughout her body.
I had long talks with her doctors and they said, "Look, it was her decision, and for her it was the right decision." But that was one of the reasons why I'm happy to talk about diabetes. We have to understand that these are not death penalties anymore. There are many years ahead for people if they will do what their doctors say.
Did you have any fears upon being diagnosed that diabetes would interfere with your life as a newsman?
I already had this ulcerative colitis. Then to find out about this [diabetes], and it was a year or so after that, I developed this bladder cancer—you kind of wonder, What's going on here?
I have just taken the attitude that it's like a car. As a car gets older, you just have to spend more time in the garage. And you have to keep the maintenance up. But … if you do that, you can keep the old car going. I just had my 71st birthday. I actually was planning to retire next year after the inauguration. In fact, I had announced it. But my bosses have asked me to stick around for a while. So I'm going to cut back a little bit. But I think I—I'm not going to retire.
So has the diabetes interfered with your life at all?
No, but I'm always cognizant of it. When I do best is when I'm able to maintain something of a routine: eating at the same time, going to bed at the same time. And sometimes that is just impossible, especially in an election year, when you're coming in early to be on the morning news or something like that. But in dealing with these diseases, you have to go at it and say "This is what I need to do" and do your best to do it. Some days you're going to not be able to take your medicine at the same time, and you can't obsess about it. You have to go on and go to the next day.
It's the same with your blood sugar. Some days it's just going to go up. And you do your damnedest and you didn't get off your diet but something just happened and there's not much you can do about it. Some days it comes out right and some days it doesn't. But I think if you do it right, most of the time it will come out right.
You said you lost 20 pounds since being diagnosed—how'd you do it?
I probably weighed 185, and I weigh 165 now. I had to work at it. I take long walks every morning. I try to do three miles a day. In the summertime, I do it in the neighborhood. In the wintertime, I do it at the gym.
Have you changed your eating habits, too?
I really did. Here are my favorite foods: barbecue, Mexican food, lots of pasta, chicken-fried steak. I eat sparingly of Mexican food now. I try to really go low on the carbs. I'm on the don't-eat-anything-white-anymore diet: white rice, pasta, sugar. It's not that hard when you get into it. In 1988, I gained 20 pounds covering a campaign. You're up all night, eating whenever you can and eating badly, drinking more than you should. So I stopped drinking in 1988 because I wanted to lose this weight, and six months later I realized I hadn't had a drink. And I just never started back. It's probably the single best life decision that I ever made.
It sounds like the diabetes diagnosis actually wound up improving your health.
I think it made me better, because I'm in better shape than I would have been. I've managed to keep my weight down. I feel good. I'm enjoying working every day at a time when a lot of people are retired. My doctor said something to me one day: "For the shape you're in, you're in great shape." I think that's probably right.
As a public person, do you feel obligated to spread a certain message about diabetes?
I kind of do. Look, I try not to take myself too seriously. But I really learned a lesson when Hamilton Jordan asked me [to talk about cancer] and said, "You'll really feel good about it." I don't make a big deal about it. But the more we talk about these diseases, the easier it is to deal with it. My mother was afraid to go to the doctor when she had breast cancer. And had she gone they might have been able to save her life. So I do think we have some obligation to urge people to be aware of these things. Being sick is nothing to be ashamed of. That's my message.
So you're sticking around Face the Nation. Are there things that you still want to accomplish as a newscaster?
I might try to do one more book.
I don't know, quite frankly. I may do something historical, about Lyndon Johnson and John Kennedy. No one's really done a book on their relationship. I might do longer essays on journalism and the media and this communications age we're in right now. Journalists have a whole different set of challenges now. There was no television when I was a boy. They didn't have it in until I was in the eighth grade. Now people are wondering whether television or newspapers will survive.
Do you think they will?
I think they will. But the coming of the Web has changed everything. This place where we find ourselves now, there are no deadlines. We know things the instant they happen. And even if the information is wrong, it goes around the world and back before you have a chance to say, "Wait a minute—that one's not right." And where all this goes and how it's going to sort itself out nobody really knows. Does that affect your vision for the Schieffer School at Texas Christian University? We are going to construct a newsroom where the school newspaper, Web site, radio station, and TV station are all operating out of one common newsroom, because kids don't know where they're going to work. So a newspaper reporter will come back from an interview and appear on the evening news, write for the Web site, and the next day it will appear in print.
It sounds like you're ramping up, as opposed to winding down.
As long as my health stays good, and every sign now is that it is, I'm going to keep working. I love this. It's a great way to spend your life. I could never retire totally, and I never really planned to do that.
Dan Gilgoff is the politics editor of Beliefnet.com.