PASADENA, Calif. — If Walter Cronkite — the most trusted man in America — had anything to say about it, the search for a new "CBS Evening News" anchorman would already be over.
He'd take the "interim" from the title of current anchorman Bob Schieffer.
"I think he's terrific," Cronkite told a room full of TV critics. "I've always had a great appreciation of his ability. And I would rather like to see him stay on the job there.
"I'm not sure that that's in the wind at all. I think, as I gather, that he isn't necessarily crazy about continuing on the 'Evening News' for much much longer."
And that, according to the president of CBS News, is the reason Schieffer isn't in contention for a permanent post helming the network's flagship news broadcast. Sean McManus called Schieffer, who turns 69 on Feb. 25, "the oldest overnight sensation that I know. Bob is having a resurgence, I think, as many of you would agree, both in terms of his numbers and also in terms of his perception in the marketplace.
"Bob is respected. He's trusted, and he's very, very comfortable giving the news. And I think people are starting to appreciate this, and I think that's part of the reason for our improved numbers."
For the week of Feb. 6, Schieffer's "CBS Evening News" gained 460,000 viewers (to 7.98 million) over where the show was with Dan Rather at the helm a year ago. Meanwhile, NBC's "Nightly News" lost 370,000 (to 9.84 million) and ABC's "World New Tonight" has lost 970,000 (to 9.18 million). CBS is still in third place, but this is the best ratings news to come out of there in years.
And surely at least some of that has to be attributed to Schieffer's likable, humble, yet authoritative demeanor.
"Bob talks like you and I do," McManus said. "Bob is there not presenting the news to the American public. Bob is there talking to our viewers. . . . We think at CBS News that the news should be delivered in a respectful and a comfortable way, not as if you were preaching the gospel from Mount Olympus. And I think Bob is a really good example of how we're doing that."
"Having said that, Bob doesn't want to be the anchorman at CBS News for the next five years. . . . But in the interim, Bob has said to me that he will be the anchor of the 'CBS Evening News' for as long as I need him do that job. And I think that's encouraging, and he is anything but a placeholder. He's actually growing our audience."
Cronkite said he understands Schieffer's reluctance.
"The job is quite tedious," he said. "One, your life is bundled entirely into the evening hours and the hours preparing the broadcast. And that's five days a week. He's got a sixth day with ("Face the Nation") on Sunday. So I can see where he might wish to step down."
There is no timetable to find a permanent anchor, McManus said — although there is widespread speculation that Katie Couric has been offered the job and her contract with NBC doesn't end until June.
"The issue is not so much his qualifications or his ratings. The issue is Bob really, at this point in his life, wanted to start to slow down. He wanted to spend more time with his wife," McManus said. "Listen, if Bob wanted to do it, we probably wouldn't be having this discussion right now.
"But Bob has said to me, 'I'll do it as long as you need me to, but I'm anxious to go on with the next phase of my life.' No one is, obviously, rushing him out the door, and he'll be here for as long as it takes."
CRONKITE MADE IT CLEAR that his support for Schieffer did not mean he is against the idea of Couric taking over as anchor of "The CBS Evening News."
"Oh, I think she's a darn good journalist," he said. "I remember her when she was an NBC correspondent in Japan, and I thought she did great work as a correspondent.
"I haven't watched their morning show ('Today') that much in years, but from what I remember then, I can't see how she would lose her ability to be a journalist. And, therefore I would assume that she is a valuable property."