Veteran CBS reporter Lesley Stahl, 74, was born in Lynn and raised in Swampscott. An honors graduate of Wheaton College, she began her career at WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) before joining CBS News in 1972. She covered Watergate and served as the White House correspondent during three administrations. She was the moderator of Face the Nation from 1983 to 1991, and she has been a correspondent for 60 Minutes for 25 years. She has written two books, Reporting Live and her latest, Becoming Grandma: The Joys and Science of the New Grandparenting, out this year. She has won numerous Emmys, the Edward R. Murrow award and countless other accolades. She lives with her husband, author Aaron Latham, in New York and has two grandchildren.
Jonathan Soroff: What are your top three tips for new grandparents?
Lesley Stahl: Number one: I don’t give tips. I’m the last person on the planet to give advice. The book was an attempt to understand the unbelievably deep and unexpected emotions that I had when my grandchildren were born. I wanted to be a grandmother from the time I was 40, but the depth of what happened to me was unexpected.
What do your grandkids call you? Lolly. I tried to involve myself in naming my grandkids, and every name I proposed was shot down before the last syllable was out of my mouth. Then I said to my daughter, “They can call me Granny,” but my daughter said, “Absolutely not.” So my mother’s name was Dolly, and Lolly’s pretty close. Plus, it’s easy for the kids to say. And my husband Aaron said, “Well, if you’re going to be Lolly, then I’m going to be Pop.” So there you have it.
Is it OK for grandparents to spoil their grandkids? Whether or not it’s OK doesn’t factor, because we are compelled. Grandparents are hard-wired to be indulgent. We can’t help ourselves. I think there’s a grandparenting gene that disables the word “no.” We are constitutionally incapable of denying them anything they want, unless it’s actually harmful to them.
Are your grandkids exhausting? Sometimes, yes. I’m an older grandmother. There’s kind of a demarcation. If you have grandkids in your 50s, your whole attitude is very different. You think you’re too young and that grandparent means you’re old. There’s a whole lot that comes into play that tempers the excitement. But if, like my daughter, your children make you wait, you’re incredibly grateful, and your emotions are free to burst forth like fireworks. The corresponding problem is that you’re older and running after them is very hard. They want to go to the park or the beach. I’ve found ways around it, though. I choose activities that aren’t that exhausting. I’m the reading lady.
Current state of journalism in this country? I think we’re in bad shape for a number of reasons. The main one is that the public doesn’t seem to trust us or hold us in any state of esteem. I came into the business under Walter Cronkite, who was known as the most trusted man in America. There’s a depressing reason for the change. The mainstream media has tried to be balanced, but the public feel we have an agenda. And obviously, another reason we’ve lost some of our shine is technology. First, there was cable. Then the internet. Social media. And each new technology chipped away at our armor.
As White House correspondent, which president did you have the best relationship with? Well, I covered three: Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. I think Bush was the one I had the best personal relationship with. That wasn’t true of the staff. I had the best staff relationship with Reagan’s people.
President you wish you had met? I guess anybody would say Lincoln, but that’s the obvious choice. I think maybe Teddy Roosevelt. That energy, the spark in him, his personal tragedies. Henry Kissinger once told me that no one should be president unless they’ve had a tragedy in their life that they overcame. And Teddy Roosevelt’s wife and mother died at basically the same time. He kind of fell apart and put himself back together, and I think that’s a key ingredient to leadership.
Figure from history you’d like to interview? I’ll stick to my lifetime. One I actually did get to do, but it was a terrible interview, was Nancy Reagan. I would have liked an opportunity to see if all her armor would melt away. I always believed that she became a very powerful force in her husband’s second term. I do think he began to fail, and she was protecting him from having anyone discover it. That’s just my belief, and I’d love to have interviewed her about that.
Most memorable interview? I guess Margaret Thatcher. She was so excitingly intelligent. She was a brilliant tactician, even in an interview. Maybe British prime ministers are adept at the game of answering questions, because of Question Time. But she really raked me over the coals. She kinda slapped me around a bit. I was asking questions she didn’t want to answer, and she just kinda came down on top of my head. And yet it’s one of my favorite interviews because even though I lost the duel, I was so challenged. Maybe I’m just a glutton for punishment, but it was a pleasure to interview her.
Worst interview you ever did? With then Attorney General Edwin Meese. I’d discovered a document done by the administration, contradicting something Meese had been saying about a sector of the economy that was hurting. The study I found said that it wasn’t. And he just kept repeating that it was incorrect, despite the fact that it was his own study. And I got very frustrated and didn’t handle it very well. I was flummoxed. It was like the sun coming out and it’s daytime, and someone says, “No it’s not. It’s dark out.” Where do you go? It was live television, on Face the Nation.
Most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you on TV? That Ed Meese thing was pretty tough. I was angry, and it showed. But at 60 Minutes, virtually every piece is taped and edited. So I’ve had plenty of times when, for instance, I’ve broken down and cried at some horrendous story, but I just cut that out. You have to be on live television to get serious egg on your face.
And that never happened to you? I do remember one Democratic National Convention in 1980. I was a floor correspondent, and I was sent to interview Amy Carter. She was up in a box, and I climbed up to see her, and she either didn’t answer me, said yes or no, or grunted. It was almost funny it was so bad. Interestingly, just a couple of years ago, I did a story on Jimmy Carter, and I interviewed Amy Carter again. I had always assumed that she despised living in the White House, that she was miserable the whole time. Well, first of all, she’s just completely lovely, intelligent, attractive. And she told me she looked back and that she really loved growing up in the White House.
The first time you won an Emmy, did you sleep with it? [Laughs.] Well, you know, they’re kind of pointy and hard. It’s an interesting thing about awards. I like to have them. They’re lovely. But I’ve never been too into it.
Most physical danger you’ve been in for a story? Let me preface this by saying I didn’t know I was in physical danger at the time. I kind of blithely agreed to travel with [Iraqi National Congress founder] Ahmed Chalabi to Tikrit when the war was still going on. This was insanity. I look back and say, “What were you thinking?” We debated whether or not to go and decided to do it, and I didn’t feel any sense of danger until we got back and I saw all the reports of cars that had been on the same roads and been blown up. I’ve never been shot at. I’ve never deliberately gone into a war zone. But that one was sort of scary in retrospect.
Greatest lengths you’ve ever gone to for a story? Way back, in my first or second year at CBS, when I was assigned Watergate, I was sent to the home of Jeb Magruder, who was a White House official who was accused of dirty tricks. We didn’t have any pictures of him, and CBS sent me to catch him leaving his house and getting into his car, and shout a couple of questions at him. He knew I was waiting for him, and he didn’t come out, but his two little kids came out and started walking to school. I asked them something like “Is Daddy still at home?” And Mrs. Magruder came tearing out of the house, yelling at me, calling me a monster. How dare I involve her children? What kind of human being was I? That was one of my worst moments ever. I learned a big lesson. I was so wrong to involve her children. It was just awful.
What are your news sources? I read three newspapers every day: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. They are delivered to my house. If I’m somewhere else, I read them on my Kindle. I read Time magazine every week, although it seems to be biweekly now. I read The Atlantic, and I read The New Yorker. I read Politico online, and that’s it for the regulars. I hook into CNN on my iPhone, and now CBS has something called CBSN that’s a streaming site for CBS News. It’s very new and it’s fantastic.
So what are you going to do when you baby-sit your grandchildren today? Well, we were going to the movies, but it’s too late. So—don’t tell their mother—but I’m going to take them for ice cream, and I’m reading Alice Through the Looking Glass, so we’ll try to get through that.