A woman asked if anyone at the paper could take her from Fort Worth to Dallas. "Lady," Schieffer told her, "this is not a taxi, and besides, the president has been shot."
Her reply stunned the young reporter. "I know," she said. "They think my son is the one who shot him."
Thus Schieffer scored an exclusive interview with Lee Harvey Oswald's mother, querying her on the hour-long drive to the Dallas police station. Wearing a Dick Tracy-style fedora and keeping a low profile, Schieffer escorted Mrs. Oswald past legions of reporters and nearly wrangled his way into a mother-son meeting at the police station before a savvy FBI agent caught on and threw him out.
The episode -- equal parts luck and pluck -- provides an apt introduction to Schieffer's memoir, This Just In: What I Couldn't Tell You on TV, which was just released in paperback. Throughout his career, Schieffer, now the 67-year-old host of CBS's Face the Nation, has demonstrated an uncanny ability for winding up in the right place at the wrong time.
In other words, he finds news, and he finds a way to get it on the air.
During a recent telephone interview from the CBS bureau in Washington, Schieffer displays a self-deprecating delight over many such adventures. "My brother said to me one time, 'I think you're Zelig, you keep showing up in these photos,'" he says, with a hint of Texas twang. "He may be right. I have been very lucky. Some of these things, I swear, I look back and I think, 'Did this really happen?'"
'Always another campaign'
By the time Schieffer became a chauffeur for Lee Harvey Oswald's mother, he had already been long set on a reporting career. He was hired by a Fort Worth radio station to file news reports during his college days at Texas Christian University.
After a stint in the Air Force, where he edited the base newspaper, Schieffer returned home and got a job at the Star-Telegram. That gig eventually led to local TV work and, finally, in 1969, a job at CBS News. He's been there ever since.
This Just In chronicles the many adventures of a network newsman, as well as brushes with colleagues such as Walter Cronkite, Eric Sevareid, Daniel Schorr, Roger Mudd and Dan Rather. Schieffer, despite the luminaries filling the CBS reporting team, eventually found his footing.
A willingness to do anything helped. During his 35 years at the network, Schieffer has, at various times, covered the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon and Congress. Among numerous big stories, he's covered student protests, Vietnam, Watergate, the Falklands War, Bill Clinton's impeachment, the disputed election of 2000 and the 9/11 attacks. He's anchored the Saturday evening newscast, taken intermittent turns presiding over the CBS morning news show and, of course, hosted Face the Nation on Sundays.
He compares leading a Sunday morning talk show to serving as a museum curator. Face the Nation -- which is surpassed in network longevity only by rival NBC's Meet the Press -- and its competitors represent the last bastion of in-depth political discussion on TV, Schieffer believes.
"And it's the best job in journalism," he says. "If you want to talk to the people who make the news, how can it be better than this? They even come to you; you don't have to go to them. It's the greatest job I could ever imagine."
After 13 years at Face the Nation and more than three decades at CBS, Schieffer's enthusiasm hasn't wavered. The current presidential campaign is as exciting for Schieffer as his first one, the 1972 Nixon-McGovern mismatch.
"That's what keeps me interested," he asks. "There's always another campaign coming up. Look at what's happened in this one already. Howard Dean goes out and raises $50 million and proceeds to blow it. He goes from front-runner to last-runner before a vote is cast. It's fun to watch all this going on."
Trust, but verify
Like many reporters, Schieffer learned the most while working on smaller stages. In 1962, for example, he was working for KXOL radio in Fort Worth when the station managers decided to cover the enrollment of James Meredith at Ole Miss. Schieffer was tapped for the assignment.
Years later, as he began working on This Just In, Schieffer was convinced he had first seen Meredith the day before he registered for classes. Thumbing a copy of Richard Reeves' biography on President Kennedy, Schieffer realized he was mistaken.
"As I was reading, I thought, well, there's no way I could've seen him on Sunday because they had brought him in secretly," Schieffer recalls. "Well, the more I checked, the more I realized that when I had seen him was the next morning. Finally, once I realized what had happened, it all came back to me and I remembered exactly when I had seen him. Your memory will play real tricks on you."
Fearing similar tricks of memory, Schieffer decided to do a few interviews with former colleagues and news sources. By the time he was finished, he had interviewed 85 people, including two former presidents (Ford and Carter), as well as the current commander-in-chief, George W. Bush.
Those interviews sharpened numerous episodes and, in many cases, added new perspective. For example, while clarifying details on the riots surrounding Meredith's enrollment, Schieffer found a Washington lawyer, Henry Gallagher, who had been a 23-year-old second lieutenant in the federal military battalion sent to settle the campus.
It was Gallagher who, all those years later, helped Schieffer understand why the troops took so long getting from Memphis, where they had been flown in, to the Ole Miss campus in nearby Oxford. The problem? Gallagher and the rest of the 100-truck convoy had no idea where they were going. As Gallagher told Schieffer, the troops got on the highway, stopped at a Phillips 66 station and grabbed a map, searching for a route to Ole Miss.
"You know, if I hadn't just been checking around, trying to confirm some of the things that I had in my own mind, I never would have run across that story," Schieffer says. "It's the old thing: There's nothing better than reporting. It's the necessary ingredient when you tell a story."
Bigger isn't always better
Many of the tales from This Just In extol the virtues of CBS News. The legacy of Edward R. Murrow, Cronkite and Sevareid made CBS the TV version of The New York Times, a gold standard by which others in the industry were judged.
Executives such as William Paley defended the news division from governmental pressure, from advertiser pressure and, most astonishing in these Wall Street-driven media days, from budget-cutting pressure.
Today, CBS is a dimmer star. It's now part of a corporate behemoth -- Viacom -- that counts the network as another "property," alongside MTV, Nickelodeon and others. As for gold standards, consider what CBS has endured during the past year alone. The network bowed to pressure from conservatives and moved a made-for-TV movie about the Reagans to a sister network, cable's Showtime. It was all but caught glove-handed exchanging a 60 Minutes interview with Michael Jackson in return for airing a celebratory music special about the pop star, who has been accused of child molestation.
The capper came last month, when CBS, in partnership with MTV, aired a racy Super Bowl halftime show that included another Jackson -- Michael's sister, Janet -- baring a breast on national television. The stunt prompted bipartisan outrage, denials all around (MTV, CBS and the NFL) and vows from Federal Communications Commission chief Michael Powell to impose harsh penalties.
"I still think it's a good company, and if I didn't, I wouldn't work here," Schieffer says, choosing his words carefully. "I thought the halftime show was awful, I thought it was embarrassing, and I'm glad our executives have apologized. Maybe I should just let it go at that."
Kids are all right
Beyond those episodes, Schieffer professes concern over the consolidation that has swept the major broadcast networks and other media during the past 15 years. CBS (Viacom), ABC (Disney) and NBC (General Electric) are all small parts of giant corporations.
News divisions, once considered sacred by the networks, are revenue sources -- and exist at the whim of financial performance to a far greater degree than ever before.
Despite such momentous changes, Schieffer remains optimistic. The nature of journalism prevents censorship, he says, since stymied reporters are experts at leaking internal barriers to rival news organizations.
Changes in attitude and ownership, as well as the proliferation of 24-hour cable news and online reporting, have changed journalism for good and ill in recent years, but Schieffer sees one familiar quandary in humorous terms: the lack of young news viewers.
News executives, not to mention the obligatory reports on young adults gleaning most of their political news from Jay Leno and David Letterman, mourn the dearth of younger viewers. Schieffer, though, says the phenomenon is neither new nor solvable.
"It bothers me in the same way that it snows every winter: I don't like it, but there's not much I can do to stop it," he says. "It was like that 35 years ago, when I got to CBS. In the end, I think young people are thinking about getting laid and getting a job. They're not attuned to nuances in foreign policy."