The iconic newsman and author of the new book What Unites Us talks about digging ditches, staying humble, and his infamous Ratherisms.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Professionally, the best advice was from Hugh Cunningham, who was my journal- ism teacher. He said, “Never let them scare you.” If you’re going to be a journalist wor- thy of the name, you can’t back down. You can’t back up. You can’t turn around. You’ve got to pull no punches, play no favorites, and understand that news is what some- body, somewhere—mostly powerful peo- ple—doesn’t want the public to know. But the public should know.
You were sick as a child for a time. Did that give you a sense of ambition?
Looking back on it, the time I spent bed- ridden with rheumatic fever shaped me more than anything in my life. At an ear- lier age than most people get it, I got a very strong dose of how precious life is and how unpredictable it is. So live each day to the hilt. I had a lot of time to think lying in that bed: “If I ever get up from here, you can bet I’m going to go full-throttle forward all the time.”
What drives you now?
I turned 86 in October, and for better or for worse, I want to practice journalism of high quality and integrity. That has always been my navigational star. I love to work. Let’s just put it this way: I hope on my best days that I’m at least half-decent in report- ing about what has happened. But when it comes to predictions, I’ve learned to believe that he who lives by the crystal ball learns to eat a lot of broken glass.
That last line brings up your penchant for Ratherisms. How do you come up with them?
When I started working, I was 14, cutting brush on the Texas coast, but then later digging pipeline ditches, as my father had done. And when you’re in a ditch digging all day, stripped to the waist, and taking in the Texas sun, one way of making the time pass is thinking up new ways to say things. You can say, “It’s hot,” or “It’s hot as hell,” only so many times. So guys would say things like, “It’s hotter than a Laredo parking lot.” For instance, election night 2000 was a lot of air time. And so you can say only so many times, “Governor Bush is leading by a big margin in Georgia.” That can get pretty dull as the hours roll by, so you say, “Well, he’s rolling through Georgia like a big wheeler through a cotton field.”
Was there ever a reporting moment in which you felt a chill and realized this was history? Certainly when I was covering the earliest days of the civil rights movement when I first came to CBS News. It was maybe the first major assignment that I had. I had an awareness that history books will have lines, if not paragraphs or chapters, on this. I have been aware of being very lucky and being on a fair num- ber of big stories, of the historical nature of them.
You’ve been married for 60 years. What’s the secret to a good marriage?
Nobody gets through marriage unscathed. I don’t know the things you’ve heard, but there are no secrets to it. And my method of staying together is a determination to stay together. Otherwise known as commitment. But don’t make me come off as sounding like I have advice for people on how to make their marriage work. I’m still working on my own!
What advice would you give the younger you?
Practice more humility. Looking back on it, I should have lectured myself a little more about my mother’s advice to be humble. When you’re on television every day, par- ticularly in some star position, you’re con- stantly inhaling a kind of NASA-grade fuel for the ego. Look at the ancient Romans: When a conquering general came back home, they had a whisperer at his side say- ing, “Fame is f leeting. Fame is f leeting.”