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In anchor chair, a reassuring face

THE BALTIMORE SUN

An oasis of calm. That's what veteran newsman Bob Schieffer swears he'll deliver beginning tonight, when he takes over from Dan Rather as anchorman of the CBS Evening News.

Though the 68-year-old Washington correspondent and longtime host of Face the Nation steps into the post temporarily, virtually everyone in the television industry is hailing his appointment as the smartest move CBS News has made in a long time - and no one at CBS has mentioned an end date.

When Schieffer takes the anchor chair, the Evening News will be transformed overnight from a broadcast dominated by the most polarizing anchorman in network television history to one featuring what may be the medium's most neutral and reassuring announcer.

"What we've got to do is refocus on doing our jobs," Schieffer said recently. "We've gone through a very tough time here at CBS News. And I think if I can just get everybody to sort of take a deep breath, relax and start thinking forward instead of backward about what has happened, I'll feel very good about that. ... Look, we've had to take our lumps, but now it's time to turn the page. "

The lumps, of course, were the result of a flawed 60 Minutes Wednesday report alleging that George W. Bush received preferential treatment while in the Texas Air National Guard. The news segment, which aired Sept. 8, was based on documents CBS could not verify, and the ensuing scandal rocked the network, leading to the firing of four executives and Rather's abrupt announcement in November that he would resign.

Soon after, CBS President Leslie Moonves proclaimed that he was going to "reinvent" the Evening News after Rather stepped down - perhaps using a team of newscasters rather than a solo "voice of God" anchorman.

But reinvention takes time: CBS News seems no closer to fielding a new anchor desk lineup than it did two months ago. Now the list of potential candidates, which includes CBS' John Roberts and CNN's Anderson Cooper, has grown to include Schieffer, according to some industry analysts. (Comedy Central's Jon Stewart is being mentioned as an Andy Rooney-like presence.)

In the meantime, Schieffer presents network executives with a chance to think. "I don't know how long this is going to be, and they [CBS] sort of asked me not to speculate," Schieffer said. "But I would say I'll be doing this for at least three months - and my sense of it is that it could be longer."

Indeed, Schieffer seems to be on a roll. Just five weeks after Rather's now-infamous report aired, Schieffer moderated a debate between President Bush and Sen. John Kerry that even the network's sharpest critics acknowledged was evenhanded.

His Sunday morning show, Face the Nation, meanwhile, recorded its highest ratings in 11 years during the February sweeps. And Texas Christian University, his alma mater, renamed its communications school the Schieffer School of Journalism this week.

"Anybody who saw my grades would know how remarkable that is," Schieffer said.

The correspondent's smiling, avuncular mien is a sharp contrast to the hyper-aggressive, almost bug-eyed look often worn by Rather at the anchor desk. But as a correspondent, Schieffer's track record is just as impressive. Schieffer, who joined CBS News in 1969, has covered all four major Washington beats - the White House, Pentagon, State Department and Capitol Hill. He has won six Emmy Awards and the prestigious Paul White Award, named after the pioneering figure who served as the first news director at CBS.

"He's a terrific choice," said Sandy Socolow, who was Washington bureau chief for CBS News from 1974 to 1978 before becoming executive producer of the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.

"Bob was a great reporter in Vietnam for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He's a very good writer, and he knows more about politics today than any other reporter in Washington. He has this wonderful ability to ingratiate himself with people without compromising the task at hand."

Nonetheless, Schieffer points out that few are universally liked. "I've got my critics on the left, and I've got 'em on the right," he said. "I'm kind of an equal opportunity target. That's just the way it is. ... That said, what I've always tried to do is just play it down the middle."

Schieffer's solid reputation offsets most concerns that his 58-year-old brother, John Thomas Schieffer, a former business partner of President Bush's and a recent nominee to be ambassador to Japan, is a potential conflict of interest.

"There are no questions about Bob Schieffer's integrity," said Terence Smith, media correspondent for PBS' NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. "He's not going to play fast and cute, and I'm sure his brother wouldn't either. They're a classy bunch. ... Bob Schieffer has a solid track record of being fair."

Schieffer is convinced that "playing it down the middle" is the key to earning viewers' trust. "I think the reason Face the Nation is doing so well is that we don't have any surprises; people know what they're going to get when they turn it on. We don't have any bells; we don't have any whistles. We sit people down at the table, and we ask them questions. ... What you have to be very careful of is trying not to surprise your viewers. You have to be careful of delivering what viewers expect, or they won't come back."

That attitude may be why Walter Cronkite, the anchorman known as "the most trusted man in America" during his years at the helm of the CBS Evening News, said this week on CNN that he thinks Schieffer would have been a better choice than Rather to succeed him in 1981. And Cronkite is not alone in his assessment.

"You just watch, people are going to react very positively to Bob Schieffer as anchor," said Smith, an Emmy Award-winning correspondent who spent 13 years at CBS News before joining PBS. "They will have a comfort level and confidence level born of his years of experience and on-screen manner that will be a sharp contrast to Dan for one thing. ... Some people even say if Schieffer is renting in New York, it might be time to buy."

Schieffer said that he doesn't aspire to a permanent job as anchorman of the CBS Evening News.

"This is not something I came looking for or something I need," Schieffer said. "If this had been 10 years ago or 15 years ago or 1981, when Dan Rather got the job, it would have been different. Look, I was a real outside possibility, but I was in the running for the job back then. But I made my peace with it when I didn't get the job, and asked to come back to Washington and basically have lived happily ever after."

Until the call came asking whether he would take over when Rather stepped down.

"Frankly, the call stunned me. But I'm honored and flattered that they asked me," he said. "I want to help calm things down. I love this place and want to get it back on track to where it used to be. And I think I can help do that."

Bob Schieffer

Born: Feb 25, 1937, in Austin, Texas

Education: B.A., Texas Christian University, 1959

Home: Washington, D.C.

Years at CBS: 36

Family: He and wife, Patricia, have two daughters.

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