Daniel Schorr, Remembering

Just a few weeks before his death on Friday, I interviewed the 93-year-old journalist about his career, which spanned 60 years as a correspondent for CBS, CNN and NPR.
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Just a few weeks before his death on Friday, I interviewed the 93-year-old journalist about his career, which spanned 60 years as a correspondent for CBS, CNN and NPR.

On Discovering Journalism

"I was 12 years old. My family was living in a downstairs apartment in the Bronx. It was a hot day in July -- we had no air conditioning in those days. I was lying there reading when I heard a big thump outside the window. I put my head out the window, looked down, and there was the body of a man who had jumped or been pushed. What was remarkable to me as I thought about it later was that my first instinct was not what do I do seeing a dead body for the first time in my life. I waited until the police were there trying to get ID on the guy, found out all I could about it and then called all the local newspapers. And the Bronx Home News was offering $5 for original tips on news stories. My mother was widowed. My brother had polio. We were having a rough time. If I could, in the midst of all of this, think in terms of hey this is a $5 story, there was another side to me that I was discovering. And it remained true through my whole life. I was willing to work hard, try very hard to get stories. I was competitive. I was competitive within my organizations. That was my life."

On Getting Hired by Edward R. Murrow

"In 1953 I was a stringer for the New York Times living in Holland. There was a big flood that washed over most of Holland. We had to helicopter everywhere to see what was happening. I saw people living in trees, and so on. I described these things in broadcasts for CBS. It was very dramatic. I didn't have to make it dramatic. It caught the attention of Murrow because after about 10 days of these floods I got a cable from Murrow, which read, 'Would you at all consider joining staff of CBS News with initial assignment in Washington?' Up until that time I was a newspaper reporter, and did radio on the side. But now Murrow was asking me to join electronic journalism. I didn't know a lot about it, and knew very little about television, which was of course in its youth in those days. But I said yes, I would go to Washington for CBS, and he replied, 'Go there and make history.' Murrow was quite wonderful, extremely collegial. He treated his reporters like they were the most important people in the world, and that he wasn't so important. But of course he was very important. Whenever I came back from abroad, he would interview me. He would stomp into my office and say, 'Brother Schorr, I think it is time for several drinks.'"

On Getting to Know Nikita Khrushchev

"I had kind of a bantering relationship with him. He sort of enjoyed making fun of me. And I let him make fun of me, hoping, of course, that he would tell me something that I needed to know. In October 1956. Khrushchev came back from an unusually long vacation. I talked to him at a diplomatic reception and asked him 'How long have you been away?' He said, 'Well, long time.' I asked 'What did you do on your vacation?' 'Well, I went hunting in the Crimea,' he said. So I asked if I could go hunting down there on vacation. He said, 'Yes, of course you can.'"

"But CBS had told me I could not go on vacation because of rumors that the Central Party Committee was going to have an emergency session because of a crisis in and around the Suez Canal. And Hungary was going up in flames, they were sending in tanks to suppress an anti-communist rebellion. So, I told Khrushchev, 'I have a problem, maybe you can help me with my problem.' 'Tell me, what is your problem,' he said. 'Well, I wanted to go on vacation, and my bosses, the capitalists back in New York, are telling me I can't go on vacation unless I assure them there is not going to be this big meeting of the central committee that is being rumored about. But nobody will tell me if there is a meeting or not.' Khrushchev bends over to me in an exaggerated way, lowers his voice, and says, 'Tell me and I can help you, when did you want to go on your vacation?' I said, 'Uh, tomorrow.' 'And you can't go on vacation because you might miss a meeting of our central committee?' 'Exactly, are you going to have this meeting?' I said. 'Let me tell you, Mr. Schorr, only if absolutely necessary will we have a meeting without you.' They ended up having the meeting another time."

On Nixon's Enemies List

"He was terribly ill at ease with the press. He felt the press was his enemy and out to get him. With all the talents he had, he had this paranoid streak in him. Had it not been for that side of him, he would be most remembered for some of the remarkable things he did, such as opening the door to communist China. But in the end he ruined it all for himself."

"To be perfectly frank with you, getting on Richard Nixon's enemies list was probably worth about half a million dollars to me in lecture fees. It all came about after Nixon gave a speech one night to the Knights of Columbus in New York. In that speech he talked about a Supreme Court case that struck public funding of parochial schools. 'Don't you worry about that,' he told the audience. 'I will nevertheless get help to parochial schools.'"

"So the next day Walter Cronkite asked me to do a piece for CBS Evening News on the administration's plan to help parochial schools. I interviewed many people in the administration, the lobbyist for parochial schools and others. It turned out there were no plans by the government to do this, and there couldn't be any because of the court ruling. In fact, a priest told me, 'If it were not for my turned collar, I would tell you the president's speech was simply bullshit.' So I reported that what the president had said was just a political gimmick."

"The White House didn't like that, of course. So Nixon called in Bob Haldeman, his chief of staff -- we later learned, when the tapes were released -- and said, 'Why is this son of a bitch allowed to make so much trouble for us? Tell J. Edgar Hoover to look into this guy and get something on him.' Haldeman called the FBI and said, 'The boss wants you to look into the background of a correspondent named Daniel Schorr.' He made a mistake there because the word 'background' has a special meaning at the FBI. To them it means a check on somebody who is about to receive a presidential appointment. And the FBI misunderstood, sending people all over the country asking for reactions about Dan Schorr."

"One of my bosses called me and said, 'What the hell is this? Are you going to work for Nixon? You're out of your mind!' But I had no idea why they were investigating me. So, the Washington Post runs this story that FBI is investigating Daniel Schorr, and refuses to say why. Whereupon, the White House staff gets together with Chuck Colson, and says we've got to have a story we can put out on this. They played around with various ideas until Colson decides there is only one way to handle this: We'll have to say that we are actually considering him for a White House appointment, that the background check had started before we could get to him, and the President is very sorry about that. Of course in testimony to the impeachment committee they admitted it was all a lie, and there never was any job for Schorr."

"Twenty years later I go to dinner where Nixon was speaking. At the end of his speech -- which was pretty good, he had just come back from the Soviet Union, and gave a good rundown on what was happening there -- I walked over to him, couldn't resist. 'Mr. Nixon, I'm not sure you'll remember me. My name is Daniel Schorr.' He put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'Sure, Dan Schorr, damn near hired you once.'"

-- Daniel Schorr interview (May 24, 2010)

Craig blogs daily for CQ-Roll Call

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