At first glance, it seems a bit gimmicky that Lesley Stahl divides her book, "Reporting Live," into five parts, with such titles as "Nixon and Watergate," "Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter," "Ronald and Nancy Reagan" and "George and Barbara Bush." But it quickly becomes clear that in Stahl's role as CBS News White House correspondent and moderator of "Face the Nation," our presidents and first ladies were the very definers of her existence.
Not that the rest of her life hasn't been colorful. Her mother, Dolly, is a veritable sitcom character, choosing her adult daughter's clothes and enrolling her in acting lessons at the height of her career so she could emote better on screen. Stahl's love life also reads well -- before meeting her husband, she dated such disparate luminaries as Bob Woodward and Bob Dole.
The book begins in 1972, when CBS had 21 reporters and correspondents (it now has nine) and the year when "affirmative action babies" Stahl, Connie Chung and Bernard Shaw joined the staff. Stahl captures the fear of walking into the inner sanctum that housed the likes of Dan Rather, Roger Mudd, Dan Schorr, Marvin Kalb and, of course, Walter Cronkite.
In June 1972, when most reporters were out on the road covering the presidential campaign, Stahl was assigned to cover the arrest of one of the men who had broken into the Watergate Hotel. "That CBS let me, the newest hire, hold on to Watergate as an assignment was a measure of how unimportant the story seemed," she writes. Of course, it turned out to be the story of the decade; the reporters called it "the unmaking of the president."
Never in all my years in Washington
would the press face as much hostility as we did during Watergate. Nixon whipped up some of the animosity, but there was a natural resentment toward a story the public did not want to hear about a president it had re-elected in a landslide.
Watergate changed journalism forever. It introduced an era of reporting through anonymous sources. It ushered in a swarm-around-'em mentality where reporters and cameramen hounded people; it was undignified, lacked decorum and reduced our standing with the public. From Watergate on, nearly every government utterance would be subject to skeptical scrutiny. The assumption would be: Government officials skirt the truth. Presidents had been protected by newsmen: Franklin D. Roosevelt's wheelchair and John Kennedy's women had gone unreported. Watergate brought an end to the protections: Thereafter, presidents would view the press as a squad in a perpetual adversarial crouch, always ready to pounce.
Stahl's takes on the men she covered so closely are intriguing. Jimmy Carter was "petty," and Bush often treated her like a celebrity. The Reagan chapters are the most intriguing, as are their titles -- "Ronald & Nancy" and "Nancy & Ronnie." Stahl describes Reagan's first term as a scripted Hollywood film; the media were astonished that the country could be so swept up in a stylized "romance with a cowboy."
Stahl offers unique insight into Reagan's second term and his lack of mental focus, or as his aides called it, "selective engagement." Stahl herself encountered it when she and her husband and daughter visited with Reagan on her last day covering the White House. At the onset of their visit, he was withdrawn and silent, not responding to her comments.
"Oh, my God, he's gonzo, I thought. I have to go out on the White House lawn tonight and tell my countrymen that the president of the United States is a doddering space cadet." It wasn't until it was noted that her husband was a screenwriter that Reagan came to life, pulling him aside to describe a screenplay idea.
As for Mrs. Reagan, there's a great, gossipy story about how the first lady forbade Barbara Bush to wear red during the entire term of Bush's vice presidency because it was Nancy's color. But there's also this acknowledgment:
"Nancy Reagan, I suspect, did far more than we will ever know to hold (President Reagan), the White House and by extension the country together. We'll never know exactly what Mrs. Reagan did, because she has chosen, as always, to protect her husband's image, which I think she will to the end. But I am quite certain we owe her considerable thanks."
Stahl is just as candid in assessing her own shortcomings. She admits that reporting doesn't come easy to her. ("There are those like the late Charles Kuralt who wrote so well he could spin a story out of one or two bits of information. And there's the other kind, door kickers like me.") As a wife, she blames herself for failing to recognize her husband's clinical depression until colleague Mike Wallace shook her by the shoulders and told her to get him help immediately. Stahl is also the first to say that the requirements of her career often hurt her family, confessing that over the past 20 years she has spent more time with Sam Donaldson and Judy Woodruff than with her own loved ones.
(By the way, Donaldson comes across so well here that the ABC newsman may want to consider letting Stahl write his memoirs. She refers to his "mock ferocity," explaining that, although he invented the practice of shouting at the president, when she tried it her voice came out shrill and screechy. Donaldson is portrayed as a tireless White House correspondent whose talent kept Stahl on her toes. But he also comes across as charming, sword-fighting a la "Return of the Jedi" with Stahl's then-young daughter Taylor.
And if the great inside-the-Beltway stuff doesn't keep you glued to the pages, there's a little Hollywood thrown in for good measure. In the late '70s, Stahl's husband, Aaron Latham, wrote a story for Esquire magazine about some oil rig workers in his native Texas, and how they unwound at a country music bar with a mechanical bull. He was invited to write a screenplay that became the movie "Urban Cowboy."
The book isn't all press conferences and presidential politics. Stahl describes her day in Rwanda with the "gorillas in the mist," beautifully capturing the pure joy of climbing to the top of a mountain with her husband and daughter to see these animals. "What I discovered that day is that the best day of your life may not have happened yet. No matter what you might think."
"Reporting Live" is chock-full of wonderful anecdotes, personal portraits and telling revelations. (When Stahl was considering applying for a position in NBC News' London bureau early in her career, David Brinkley told her she'd never make it in journalism: "You're a pretty girl, stay in New York and have fun.")
Lesley Stahl is a bright, hard-working, competent and attractive journalist (she laughs that the beauty factor has come full circle and the male anchors are now under pressure to be "gorgeous"). Not surprisingly, "Reporting Live" is a terrific book that has something for everyone -- presidential groupies, political and media junkies, not to mention working mothers. Stahl articulately describes the dilemma that many professional women feel when caught between the demands of -- and love of -- family and career.
Just as Lesley Stahl was beginning to hit the wall professionally, due to continuous news division cutbacks and the competition of tabloid television, Don Hewitt and "60 Minutes" came calling. She had been passed over once before, when Diane Sawyer was selected to be the program's first female correspondent. The incident was one of the factors that contributed to Stahl's admitted "decade of rage" during which she felt the network had taken advantage of her. But this time, she was ready.
So one week I would profile Paul Newman at 70, the next investigate Medicare fraud, the next interview Yasser Arafat. Can you imagine after all those years of being straitjacketed into presidential issues what it was like to go out and cover any story I was interested in? It was a holiday. On my first day at '60 Minutes' someone turned to me in the elevator and said, "Going up to paradise?" . . . Joking aside, there is simply not a better job or a better shop in television news -- possibly in all of journalism.
The anger I had lived with, that I thought was defining me, retired like a burned-out employee the minute I started on '60 Minutes' on April 2, 1991. I smiled all that day -- so much my face hurt -- and I haven't stopped since.
The bad news is that "Reporting Live" ends there. So we'll have to wait for Lesley Stahl's next book to get her take on life at "60 Minutes," the Clinton White House and the state of the media. No doubt it will be worth the wait.
Book Review Reporting Live By Lesley Stahl Simon & Schuster 445 pages, $26 From the Book: "The New York Times and don (Hewitt of '60 minutes) was replacing Meredith (Vieira) with Lesley Stahl, `An Honorary Man'- excuse me? And on March 28, the Washington Times Said, `She won't arrive at the office smelling of sour milk or peanut butter.' They made it sound like I was ashamed of being a mother. This scalded me deeply......I didn't talk about Taylor Because I didn't want to exploit her, use her to enhance my career.