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This Just In: What I Couldn’t Tell You on TV by Bob Schieffer

 

Rating: (Recommended)

 

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Conversational

It’s easy to imagine yourself sitting at the dinner table with Bob Schieffer and listening to his stories, as you read the pages of This Just In. After I read the first few chapters, I switched to the audio version, narrated by Schieffer, and found that sensation enhanced. Here’s an excerpt from Chapter 18, Stumbling Along, pp. 233-5:

Here's the difference between covering the White House and the other Washington beats. When you're the Pentagon correspondent, for example, and the secretary of defense takes his vacation, you can take your own vacation. Or just go home.

When you're the White House correspondent and the president goes on vacation, you have to go with him. If that president was Jimmy Carter and he was taking a few days off in Plains, Georgia, and he didn’t want you along anyway, that could be fairly tedious, especially if it was over a holiday. If the president was Jerry Ford, it wasn't a bad deal at all. Ford owned a condo in the resort of Vail, Colorado, and for years, he and his family had been going there over the Christmas holidays to ski. When the White House announced that Ford intended to continue the traditional trip as president, and that the press corps who traveled with him would be allowed to take our families along on the press plane (we had to pay their way, of course), it seemed a great way to celebrate Christmas and ring in the New Year. Pat, and Susan, who had just turned five, and her sister Sharon, who was three, joined me on the press plane, with families of the other reporters. We rented a house on one of the Vail ski slopes from a man who had made his fortune as Vail's first garbage hauler, and invited my mother and brother and sister to come out from Fort Worth and join us. It turned out to be a great vacation for them—and for Ford, who went skiing every day.

But there is a difference between going on vacation and watching someone else take a vacation, and even though Ford was doing little of consequence, the holiday season is always a slow news period and the Evening News broadcasts at all three networks wanted stories from us almost every night, which meant we had to do a certain amount of work.

Gathering the news—and there wasn't much of it—wasn't the problem. Ford's new press secretary, Ron Nessen, a former NBC reporter, would hold a briefing, and then Ford would head to the ski slopes. We would trudge after him and get some pictures as he came skiing by with his family and Secret Service agents.

Everyone who has ever skied knows that even the most adept skier occasionally takes a fall, but when the president of the United States takes a fall, that's news, and in a slow holiday news period, it was big news, and Ford took several tumbles.

The coverage provoked considerable criticism, especially from some of Ford's aides, but as John Chancellor of NBC said, "When the president of the United States takes a header, what are you gonna do? Keep it a secret?" And at first. Ford himself didn't seem to mind.

Putting together a story of the president falling on the ski slopes is not the hardest kind of journalistic task. It boils down to saying "Watch this!" and showing the pictures. The hard part was getting the story on the air. To do that, the three networks chartered a huge Alouette helicopter, which flew out from Denver each day and picked up one correspondent and one producer from each network and then flew us back over the Rocky Mountains to Denver, where we could develop our film at the local affiliate station and transmit our stories over leased telephone lines back to CBS News headquarters in New York. It was not an inexpensive proposition. In those days, it cost about a dollar a mile to lease the line to transmit the story back to New York, and when you added in the cost of the helicopter and other incidentals, such as lodging and transportation costs for correspondents and producers, the reports on Ford's ski accidents probably cost in the neighborhood of $25,000 each.

It took something over an hour to get to Denver from Vail, and on clear days, the helicopter ride was breathtaking. One minute, the ground would be only a hundred feet below the chopper, then it would pass over a mountain peak and the ground would suddenly be thousands of feet below.

It was not the view that took my breath away on the first flight. It was when the pilot told us that the air was so thin at those altitudes that the helicopter did not have enough power to get over the highest peaks.

Not to worry, he told us; the standard procedure was simply to wait until there was an updraft, which would easily lift us as high as we needed to go. It seemed to work. As we headed toward the highest peaks, he would simply fly the helicopter in lazy circles as he waited for a draft to give us the lift we needed and, sure enough, we would then be on our way.

There was one other breathtaker. The weather was not always clear. On one-flight, we got caught in a white-out caused by blinding snow. I had been shot at on the Ole Miss campus and flown dive-bombing missions in Vietnam, but flying around in the mountains in a helicopter when the visibility was zero was not my idea of fun.

"This is great," I remember telling producer Mark Harrington, who was with me that day. "We're going to be killed trying to get a news story on the air about the president falling down on his skis." 

When we landed in Denver that day, I was fairly shaken, and when Harrington and I called the Evening News in New York to tell the executive producer, Paul Greenberg, what we had in mind for a story that night, I was soon babbling about the harrowing flight.

"I understand," he said, "but I've got big problems here. I can't be dealing with all that."

Such is the world of television on deadline.

Filing a story from Vail, in the Rocky Mountain time zone, meant that we were up against an early deadline. The News aired at 6:30 P.M. back on the East Coast, 4:30 in Denver, which meant we had to have the film developed and the story edited and ready for transmission to New York by around 4 P.M. Denver time. That meant that once we flew there from Vail, drove to the local television station and got the film developed, we had about forty-five minutes, never more than an hour, to get our story done.

Since the networks didn't want to pay for another helicopter to take us back to Vail, we rented cars for the return trip, and since the mountain road between Denver and Vail was only two lanes in those days, the trip usually took four hours. That meant we were lucky to get back to Vail by 9 P.M. Except for a couple of exceptions, we repeated the process daily for two weeks.

Even with the daily travel, the Vail encampment was not without its pleasures. Once we got into the routine, we were up early and took ski lessons before we began the day's news-gathering. On Christmas Eve, Ford put on a "news lid" for the evening and the next day, promising no announcements of any kind unless some emergency arose.

My mother had brought out a big batch of tamales from Texas, and Tom Brokaw, then the NBC White House correspondent, and I threw a party one night for the press corps. Ford dropped by and, being the perfect hostess, Morn prepared the president a plate of tamales, carefully removing the tamales' corn-husk wrappings.

It was a move she would always regret. The next year when Ford had begun to campaign for president, he went to Texas and, during a stop at the Alamo in San Antonio, someone gave him a tamale. Ford took a big bite—corn husk and all—and of course had to spit out the husk, to the delight of photographers.

"The poor man didn't know tamales had a husk," Morn lamented. "If I'd just showed him how to unwrap them instead of removing those husks, he would have known."

Schieffer brings similar energy to all his stories, and even his throw away lines are good. Pretend your listening to an engaging conversation as you read (or listen to) Shieffer’s memoir, This Just In.

Steve Hopkins, June 21, 2003

 

ă 2003 Hopkins and Company, LLC

 

The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the July 2003 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/Books/This Just In.htm

 

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