By Leigh Rich
JANUARY 11, 1999: HAIR'S LOOKING AT YOU, KID: Veteran TV journalist Lesley Stahl is one tough cookie.
She's had to be. Joining the CBS News team as a Washington-based reporter in 1972, Stahl has covered every presidential administration from Nixon to Bush. She was hired on the cusp of the Equal Opportunity Act and the FCC's affirmative action mandate. While it may have been her gender that shoved her foot in the proverbial door, it is no doubt Stahl's talent and ceaseless energy which have catapulted her to success.
But at the genesis of her career, no one (including the general public, White House administrators or her very own CBS colleagues) was prepared to accept an attractive young woman as a hard-hitting correspondent. "I wanted to be a journalist," Stahl writes, "which would mean, in the environment of the early 1970s, surmounting my femaleness and my blondness."
But word soon got out: This blonde was not easily intimidated. Unfortunately, the hard-edged stereotype she's endured as a public figure (primarily for the presumed privilege of invading what had been an all-male niche in the profession) has eclipsed the real Stahl: a multi-faceted female capable of chasing all her ambitions with intelligence, sensitivity and integrity. This Stahl shines through triumphantly in her recently published autobiography, Reporting Live (Simon & Schuster, $25).
The book is definitely entertaining. Stahl is convivial, humorous and self-aware in revisiting her 20-year career as a CBS correspondent and Face the Nation host. She gracefully intertwines her personal and public life with the political ins-and-outs of four presidential regimes (Nixon, Carter, Reagan and Bush). From page one, she exposes the person beneath the pancake make-up and securely moored head of hair. (The hairdo eventually came under scrutiny. In 1991, when she landed her dream job with 60 Minutes, executive producer Don Hewitt had only one provision: "I hate your hair. You have to change it. It's too stiff. Too Nancy Reagan.")
While each chapter is intriguing, informative and revealing of the political and social mores of the day, "Nixon and Watergate" and "Ronnie and Nancy" prove the most memorable.
As a rookie reporter, Stahl unwittingly began her career with a bang covering what her bosses deemed "a third-rate burglary": "Most of the reporters in our bureau were on the road, covering the presidential campaign. Thus, I was sent out to cover the arrest of some people who had broken into one of the buildings in the Watergate complex. That CBS let me, the newest hire, hold on to Watergate as an assignment was a measure of how unimportant the story seemed."
Teamed both personally and professionally with another "little known rookie," Bob Woodward, Stahl's initiation into prime-time news placed her at the center of Nixon's notorious scandal. By the time the President resigned, Stahl had proven herself a proficient political reporter. That much closer to her goals, she "went back to Washington to be a general-assignment correspondent. Gerald Ford was president. It was a boring time. We all missed the Trick."
Throughout the Carter years, Stahl honed her reputation for no-nonsense reporting. Her superiors rejoiced whenever the White House complained of her critical assessments. This, however, changed with the Reagan administration. Stahl's copy was often edited and "softened." And thus began the transformation of the "Walter Cronkite" Washington-based television news to a nationally-oriented television media.
In Reporting Live, Stahl equitably analyzes each president and his presidency--notably Reagan. While troubled by his mismanaged economy, attempts to reverse affirmative action, and dismissal of unemployment highs (especially among African Americans), Stahl admits her admiration for Reagan's ability to "have it both ways." Whether increasing taxes, furthering anti-Communist sentiment, or taking political asylum in his Santa Barbara ranch, Reagan remained popular with the American public.
Anecdotally, Stahl recounts in her book one of Reagan's first days as president: "Reagan was visiting Tip O'Neill's office, where the Speaker showed him the desk that had been used by Grover Cleveland. The new president noted that he had portrayed him in a movie. O'Neill reminded him that he'd played Grover Cleveland Alexander, the baseball player, not Grover Cleveland the president."
Though focused on two decades of Washington hi-jinx, Reporting Live also delves into the changing roles of television news, working women, and presidents. During her years on the White House beat, Stahl experienced the advent of tabloid-stylized broadcast journalism, the changing (and increasingly proactive) interest of first ladies in their husband's political affairs, and the ever-present struggle of being both professionally ambitious and female.
She also talks about the instances in which gender inadvertently came in handy: "On August 5, I was sent on an early stakeout to the home of John Rhodes, the House minority leader. When I rang the bell, his wife thought I was the Avon lady and invited me in."
From adapting to "whatever the men who hired me wanted me to be" to fashioning her own style as a seasoned journalist, wife and mother, Stahl's life story is simultaneously down-to-earth and inspiring. - Leigh Rich
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