Bob Schieffer has been everywhere and done everything in the news business. The Texas native has worked as a reporter for 52 years, the last 40 of which made his face familiar to CBS fans, including his job as host of “Face the Nation.”
He was never more scared in that half-century than the night in 1962 at Oxford, Miss., when “Ol’ Miss” was forcibly integrated by armed federal troops, he told a fundraising event last week at the Strand Theatre in Rockland.
People have forgotten, but 140 people were shot that night and two reporters were killed. “It was worse than Viet Nam,” he told the packed theater.
That historic event made the presidential debate with an African-American candidate at the same campus last year even more impressive for Schieffer. “It was a remarkable moment and demonstrated that we have come a long way,” he said.
“We were lucky to get such great candidates in that campaign. We had a true American hero and a young African-American,” he said.
The Rockland event raised money to maintain Montpelier, the Thomaston mansion that is a replica of the home of Gen. Henry Knox, who served as George Washington’s secretary of war.
“General Knox was a member of that remarkable generation. The [American] Revolution seems inevitable now in retrospect. But we should remember that ours was the first colony to successfully break away from the mother country. They didn’t think it was inevitable, but their courage, boldness and vision made it happen,” he said.
Schieffer has covered every party convention and political campaign since 1972. “But the most exciting one was the last one. I had planned to retire. Now, looking back, I would have not missed it for the world.”
After previous campaigns had relied more and more on advertising and television, Barack Obama gained early success and attention by drawing huge crowds in Iowa, then New Hampshire. The Obama crowds began to come out across the country and the other candidates were forced to organize public appearances with large crowds. “Crowds began to matter a great deal,” Schieffer said.
He has seen the changes in campaign activity with FDR mastering the new ways of the radio, and Jack Kennedy understanding television and deciding to broadcast press conferences live for the first time. Then, Newt Gingrich discovered the power of C-SPAN to develop his core of support. Obama was first to harness the Internet, both to get the message out and raise funds.
Obama’s “Yes, we can” motto captured the yearning frustration of the time, Schieffer said, without ever answering exactly what it is that we can do.
Like the American Revolution, no one can say where the Obama administration is going and how much success it will have in establishing a national health care plan, Schieffer said. President Obama has yet to spell out exactly what he wants from Congress in the plan, according to the veteran newsman.
There is as much uncertainty in Iraq as ever and the next big fight will be in Afghanistan, with generals already asking for more troops. With fingers crossed, Schieffer said, it appears that the economic decline might have reached bottom.
“We are standing at the edge of the jungle and we simply don’t know how a lot of things are going to turn out,” he said.
But the conclusion he has reached in his 52 years in the news business is that democracy is best that comes from within, not one imposed by others. And America works best when it works with others, not going it alone, he said. “One size does not fit all when it comes to democracy,” he said.
Hubert Humphrey said the 1964 Voting Rights Act not only was a huge domestic victory but also “the singular most effective foreign policy development of the second half of that century,” Schieffer said. It demonstrated real American values to the rest of the world, he said.
When the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, the people with the sledgehammers sang “We Shall Overcome,” the theme song of an American human rights movement.
“In order to be successful, we have to practice what we preach and avoid torture and secret prisons,” Schieffer said. “The future of democracy is no more certain than the American Revolution of General Henry Knox. It will take blood, sweat and tears for us to succeed.”
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