Anchor: Congress ‘in total gridlock’

Anchor: Congress 'in total gridlock'
On Sunday mornings, Bob Schieffer anchors CBS News' Face The Nation program where he shares with viewers the unfolding state of the nation.

On Thursday afternoon, Oct. 5, Schieffer told a University of South Dakota press conference that he is disturbed by what he sees unfolding in Washington.

Schieffer met with reporters and USD students prior to his acceptance of the annual Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in The Media. Neuharth, a USD graduate, founded USA TODAY.

"Government is broken now. The recent session (of Congress) shows what I mean," Schieffer said. "Congress has become this self-preservation society. Congress can't seem to solve or even address major problems of our time. They just nibble around the edges."

The result has been total gridlock, Schieffer said.

"Things have ground to a stop," he said. "Government has gotten so large that it can't get out of its own way. It can't get anything done, let alone done right."

"It's a dangerous time for America, and it goes to the whole system," he added.

Schieffer pointed to a number of problems, including the breakdown – or total absence – of personal relationships among members of Congress.

"A major part of the problem is that members of Congress don't know one another anymore," he said. "Before, you had Democrats and Republicans, and they were partisan, but at the end of the day they could get together and have dinner together."

As a result of the lack of camaraderie, Congress has broken down into acrimony, he said. "When you argue with someone you know, it's different than arguing with strangers," he said.

Politicians have also become obsessed with filling campaign coffers, feeling beholden to special-interest groups and other major donors, Schieffer said.

"There is the enormous fund-raising burden. You attract candidates who are like development officers, spending their days raising money," he said. "The dollars have always been a big part of politics. Now, it's the driving and overwhelming force in politics."

The drawing of congressional districts often results in gerrymandering, practically guaranteeing incumbents are unbeatable, Schieffer said.

"When they figure only 40 of the 435 House races will be competitive, something is wrong here," he said. "The incumbents are so entrenched that it is virtually impossible to move them out."

The dissatisfaction with Washington has intensified with recent developments surrounding the revelation of U.S. Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL) sending sexually-explicit messages to former House pages, Schieffer said.

"With Iraq, there is the dissatisfaction, and there is the incompetence after (Hurricane) Katrina," Schieffer said. "The page issue could tip the balance. The odds are moving toward the Republicans losing the majority in the House."

The Democrats need to gain 15 House seats or six Senate seats to win either of those chambers, Schieffer said.

The Foley incident has hit the House Republicans particularly hard, Schieffer said.

"This scandal will make an impact. It hits right at the heart of the group loyal to President Bush: the evangelical Christians," he said. "When the Washington Times, which is about as right (wing) as you can get, asks (House Speaker Dennis) Hastert to resign, the Republicans have real problems. That's why I think the Democrats could win the House."

Turning to the Neuharth Award, Schieffer said he considered the award a great honor and enjoyed returning to South Dakota. He first came to the state in 1972 to cover Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern, an Avon and Mitchell native.

"There is nothing like covering your first presidential campaign. That's how I came to this part of the world," Schieffer said. "I love to come out here (to South Dakota). It's great to be here."

Schieffer said his career moves were a series of assignments, such as moving up to Pentagon coverage when the correspondent was fired. For more than 30 years, he has covered all four major beats in Washington, DC – the White House, the Pentagon, the State Department and Capitol Hill.

In the same way, he stepped in to anchor the CBS Evening News from March 2005 through August 2006, bridging the gap between Dan Rather and Katie Couric.

"It was one of the great adventures of my life," Schieffer said.

At 69, Schieffer said he never envisioned a long-term stay in the anchor's chair. "I was able to step back and be objective. I helped identify young correspondents to put in the game and see if they could play, and they really could play," he said.

Journalism has changed tremendously in recent years, Schieffer said. Today's students are trained in a variety of media so they can adapt to changes in technology, but the heart of reporting will remain the same, he said.

"The role of the journalist will always be the same. Go where the story is, learn the facts and share it," he said. "The politicians deliver messages, but the journalists find out what the truth is."

The expansion of cable television has created "narrow-casting" targeted to a specific audience, Schieffer said. The public should use a variety of sources for its news, he said.

Schieffer has even appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on the Comedy Central cable network.

"Many places, you have a pre-interview to the point where it's scripted. But Jon comes into the green room and introduces himself, then it's off the top of his head," Schieffer said. "He's a really great guy and one of the funniest and smartest men I have met in a long time."

The Internet has allowed news to move much faster, Schieffer said. In turn, it has allowed the public to criticize the media much easier, he said.

"E-mail has created a ruder society," he said. "Before, someone would write (an angry letter), look at it and then throw it in the waste basket. Now, they just push the 'send' button."

Despite such criticism, Schieffer said the American media "are the best in the world." The media need to remain free of government control to make democracy work, he said.

"I don't think there is a nation where the people are more informed and have more access to information than the American people," he said.

Schieffer said he has faith in the American people to use information to make the right choices.

"People will pick the right course. They have always come together when they really needed to," he said, noting the national response to crises ranging from World War II to 9/11.

Schieffer recommended journalism as a career for today's students.

"Journalism is a great way to spend your life," he said. "You make an impact, and it's just so much fun. The news is always new and different. Every day, you start over."

In a separate interview with the Press & Dakotan, Schieffer said he maintains a lifelong friendship with former NBC News anchor and Yankton and Pickstown native Tom Brokaw.

"We knew each other when we covered the White House together. We became friends, and our wives became friends," Schieffer said. "We have been friends all through the years, and I talked to Tom just last week."

As for his CBS Evening News successor, Schieffer praised Couric on her initial two months on the job.

"I think she is putting her own imprint on the broadcast, and she is doing fine. Katie is a talented professional," Schieffer said. "Clearly, the broadcast is in kind of a shakedown. You just have to do these broadcasts and see what works, what you feel comfortable with. That's what I did."

Schieffer said assuming the anchor desk was much different for Couric than for him.

"When I took over, there were no expectations. Nobody thought I would be there but for a couple of weeks. They thought I was just some nice old guy to hold things together until they figured out what to do," he said. "It was just the opposite (for Couric). There was so much attention for Katie. I think she is settling in, and the broadcast gets better every day."

Schieffer said he thinks Couric will make an easy transition into her new role after years with the NBC Today show.

"Women play such a major role in journalism now, that the fact that she is the first woman (solo network evening anchor), that really isn't all that big a deal," he said. "Women have really found their place in journalism. The truth of the matter is, there are so many women in the journalism pipeline now that it's only natural you would have a woman now take that top (CBS) job."

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