CBS' 'Face the Nation' celebrates 60 straight years on the air

The Sunday-morning public affairs show "Face the Nation" celebrates 60 years of broadcasts this week, making it the second longest-running television program on the air.

The reason this doesn't attract a lot of notice outside of CBS offices is because "Face the Nation" was created to compete with the longest-running show, NBC's "Meet the Press," which marks 67 years on the air this week. But host Bob Schieffer and his colleagues have special reason to enjoy this milestone now, since "Face" is hot and "Meet" is not.

Friday is the exact anniversary, 60 years to the day after the anti-communist crusading Sen. Joseph McCarthy came on to talk about Senate efforts to censure him.

"We still do exactly what we did on the first broadcast — find the key newsmaker and the biggest news story of the week, sit them down at the table and ask them questions," Schieffer said. "I'm very proud of that."

This Sunday, Schieffer will have separate interviews with President Barack Obama and predecessor George W. Bush.

Eight different people have moderated "Face the Nation," but only three since 1969: George Herman, Lesley Stahl and, since 1991, Schieffer. The courtly Texan, who's 77, has blown past a couple of planned retirement dates and now doesn't bother setting any expiration date on his tenure.

He's proudly old school about the show and its mission.

"Down through the years various people have tried to reinvent the wheel in dealing with these programs," he said. "We haven't. We think our mission is the same as it always was, which was to move the story forward. We're at our best when we do that."

In his first decade as host, Schieffer was overshadowed by David Brinkley on ABC and then Tim Russert on NBC. Both rivals are gone now. CBS benefits from the continuity, helped also by the strength of the "CBS Sunday Morning" show that precedes it in most markets.

So far this season, "Face the Nation" has averaged 3.2 million viewers, compared with nearly 2.8 million for "This Week" on ABC. "Meet the Press," which is trying to rebuild following the replacement of David Gregory as moderator with Chuck Todd, has tumbled into third.

One of his frequent foils, Arizona Sen. John McCain, said he knows Schieffer will challenge him but also give him the chance to get his point across.

"It's always tough but it's always fair," McCain said. "There's never a 'gotcha' question. At the same time, he gets to the heart of the issue that we're discussing at the time. I don't mean to compare the show to any other, but I don't think it's an accident that he continues to dominate the ratings."

McCain recently passed former Sen. Robert Dole to claim a milestone: with 101 appearances, he's been on "Face the Nation" more than any other guest.

"He's always a good interview," Schieffer said. "He's not afraid to give you a good quote. We kind of like that."

Schieffer is sensitive to any intimation of playing favorites, knowing that interest groups closely track the race, gender and party affiliation of Sunday show guests. McCain, as a former presidential candidate and Armed Services Committee member, has long been at the center of Washington debates.

McCain may have the most appearances, but former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (57 times) may have an unbeatable record. His first appearance was in November 1957 and his most recent one was this September, 57 years later.

Like many journalists, Schieffer got into the business because he's nosy and likes to talk to people at the center of major events.

"To me, 'Face the Nation' is the best job you can have," he said. "I don't even have to go to them. They come to me, half the time. It's a great privilege and also a lot of fun to be able to talk to these people, many of whom I like, some of them I don't like and some of them I can't stand."


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