The federal government is near gridlock because it’s led by a White House whose inexperienced staff can’t stop fighting with one another and by a Congress whose members have to spend three hours a day raising funds to stay in office, veteran CBS newsman Bob Schieffer said in Raleigh on Tuesday night.
“We have never seen anything this,” said Schieffer, who has worked in the news business for 58 years, including more than 40 at CBS. During his tenure with the network, Schieffer has covered all four major Washington beats: the Pentagon, the White House, Congress and the State Department. He began hosting Sunday morning’s “Face the Nation” in 1991 and served as interim host of the “CBS Evening News” for a year after Dan Rather left the network.
Schieffer retired in 2015 but continues to go to work most weekdays, serving as a national political commentator for CBS.
On Tuesday, with his wife, Pat, in the audience, he was in a sold-out Fletcher Opera Theater as the last speaker in the N.C. Museum of History Foundation’s 2018 Distinguished Lecture Series. He gave a prepared speech and then took questions from John Drescher, the opinions/solutions editor of the News & Observer. Schieffer sprinkled his comments with brief but credible and crowd-pleasing mimicry of Walter Cronkite, Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon.
Schieffer gave his ideas on a wide range of issues, including:
▪ The Trump White House, which he said is unlike any administration he has covered dating back to Nixon's.
President Trump complains about fake news, “But it’s not coming from us,” Schieffer said. “It’s coming from inside his White House.”
Until this administration, Schieffer said, covering Capitol Hill was his favorite beat because all the people who work there are “independent agents” looking out for different constituencies. That puts them in competition with each another, he said, and makes it easy to get them to talk about one another, creating a constant stream of news.
Until now, he said, people in the White House would put on a more or less united front because, “They’re all working for one guy,” making it difficult to get information aside from what the president wanted released.
But under Trump, Schieffer said, staffers jockeying for position are willing to talk about what’s not working. But because most of them are inexperienced and don’t know how politics and Washington function, much of what they say is contradictory.
For the first time in his reporting career, Schieffer said, “The White House is no longer a reliable source.”
▪ The constant pursuit of political funding, which cripples elected officials because it takes so much of their time, and is so distasteful that it discourages good people from running for office, Schieffer said.
Raising enough money to run for office is onerous enough, he said, but once they get to Washington, members of Congress find they have to spend at least three hours a day making cold calls to potential donors, like telemarketers.
“They’re like crack addicts,” he said, but chasing money instead of drugs.
▪ National security. Two of the biggest national security concerns Schieffer sees for this and future administrations are the U.S. relationship with China, and Russia’s use of the internet to foment unrest between groups of American citizens.
A student of history, Schieffer noted that when a rising power — China, he said — challenges a super power — the U.S. — the result is often war, and the U.S. will have to be diligent in coming years to avoid that outcome.
Schieffer also cited Russia’s proven use of websites for fictitious groups advocating race wars and said that the Russian government will use those tactics to destabilize a country, saving it the trouble and expense of sending in tanks.
▪ The demise of local newspapers. Schieffer noted that 126 local newspapers have folded in the past 12 years and that now, one out of three reporters lives in one of three metro areas: New York, Washington or Los Angeles. In some places, that leaves no one to provide credible information at the local level, he said, and across the nation, people are getting their information from social media, where much of it is unvetted.
Without a strong and independent press to check the validity of information coming from the government and politicians, Schieffer said, “We will have corruption in this country at a level we have never experienced.”
▪ The November midterm elections. Schieffer said he now believes it’s possible for Democrats to take over the U.S. House of Representatives, which he did not think could happen just six months ago.
Two forceful movements that have gained momentum and could tip the power balance from Republicans to Democrats in the House, Schieffer said, are #MeToo and the youth who have pushed for gun control since the shootings at Parkland High School in Florida. Through #MeToo, women have shown the prevalence of sexual assault, abuse and harassment and brought damning allegations against scores of men, including some of Schieffer’s news industry colleagues.
Schieffer said he is encouraged by the work of youth on gun control.
“Those kids are the Freedom Riders of 2018,” he said.