Authors: David Blum
The Long Life and Turbulent Times of
For Sam and Annie
On the Tuesday afternoon before his final
broadcast on May 30, 2004, Don Hewitt's belongings are being removed, against his will, from his corner office. All of his possessions have been packed away: his Emmy statuettes, his framed, autographed photographs with presidents from Truman to Bush, his Thomas Kent wall clock, even his huge, glass-topped office deskâthe one at which he'd lately been telling everyone he wanted to die. After returning from lunch, the
-year-old Hewitt had been summoned to Screening Room
for what he thinks will be his last look at a
segment. Instead, the correspondents and a few dozen staffers greet him for a champagne toast out of plastic glasses. It is a sad, surreal surprise party hastily arranged to commemorate his final day of work at the show he created in
that has earned $
billion in profits for CBS, the network that has now removed his personal effects to make room for a new generation. The end of his
-year reign as executive producer has finally come.
This was Hewitt's screening room; these were his hallways, his offices, his editing rooms and telephones. These were the men and women who worked tirelessly, day and night, to execute his vision. Here on the ninth floor of a nondescript office building on New York's West
th Street near the Hudson River, above a BMW dealership, he ruled over a show that shook up televisionâa show that took viewers into the private worlds of Katharine Hepburn and Lena Horne, that opened a window into the minds of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, that got Lenell Geter out of jail in
and put dozens of others behind bars. For just another few hours, this remains the kingdom of Don Hewitt's creation; he is the ruler of all that he surveys.
When Hewitt enters the screening room, his eyes mist up as he recognizes the reporters he has alternately loved and loathedâa Mount Rushmoreâlike gathering of the
correspondents, lined up against the wall to say good-bye. There stands
-year-old Mike Wallace, looking dapper in a gray business suit, flanked by Lesley Stahl in a pink leather jacket and Steve Kroft in an open-collar shirt. At the other side of the room stands Ed Bradley in his usual dark T-shirt. Morley Safer is away on vacation in Spain.
“I'm not going anywhere,” Hewitt says, after a brief round of applause dies down. “I'm going downstairs.” He is referring to the spacious office directly below his current one that will be his new home as an executive producer of CBS News, the consulting gig the network gave him in return for letting go, at last, of his estimated $
-million-a-year full-time job.
“You gonna put a spiral staircase in?” asks Bradley.
“I'm never coming up here again,” Hewitt says.
“You've had it with us,” says Stahl.
“I've seen the last of this floor,” Hewitt agrees, and looks around the room, tears glistening in his eyes. “Gee whiz. I don't know what to say.”
“Ordinarily, Don, in the screening room,” Wallace quickly rebuts, “you know what to say.”
Wallace is referring to the countless tempestuous, screaming battles between Hewitt and his correspondents that have defined life at
and, in particular, the dysfunctional, passion-filled
-year marriage between Hewitt and Wallace. The two men have been yelling at each other since they first began working together in
, the improbable pairing of a rough-edged whiz kid from New Rochelle and an elegant, well-spoken former Broadway actor from a leafy Boston suburb who together produced some of the most memorable journalism of the twentieth centuryâand some of the most legendary fights in this room.
“I don't know about you,” Stahl interjects with sarcasm. “He's wonderful to the rest of us.”
It has been over a year since Hewitt reluctantly signed the contract that forced him to at last cede control of his show to Jeffrey Fager, a comparatively mild-mannered,
producer. The agreement followed months of battling between Hewitt and CBS executives, with the correspondentsâfrustrated by Hewitt's weakened physical condition and his continued tantrumsâstruggling between their loyalty to their boss and their desire to protect the show's future. Privately, several of the correspondents expressed a desire to see Hewitt move on; they knew it made no sense to have a tired old man, now only working three days a week, as executive producer. But now that the day has finally come, their conflicted emotions surface as they see Hewitt still stewing over CBS's decision to remove him.
“Without you, none of us would be here,” says Josh Howard, Hewitt's genial
-year-old second-in-command, sensing the need for someone to express some actual gratitude to Hewitt. “And there are a lot of cars and houses and college educations that we have you to thank for.”
The moment of sincerity is short-lived. “Psychotherapists as well,” comes the crack from an unidentifiable voice behind the correspondents.
“Do you want to tell that to Andrew and Betsy?” Hewitt says, referring to CBS News president Andrew Heyward and his deputy, senior vice president Betsy West, the architects of the succession plan. “They have a different idea about this whole thing.”
Stahl steps forward and faces Hewitt. “There's just sort of this unreality about all this,” she says, standing on the spot where she and Hewitt have shouted at each other so many times over the last
“But it is,” Hewitt says. “That's the way they wanted it.”
“You're dead, sonâget yourself buried,” the journalist J. J. Hunsecker counsels Sidney Falco in
Sweet Smell of Success.
Only a few yards away from the screening room, workmen are applying Hunsecker's advice to Hewitt; cartons of papers sit outside his office waiting to be moved downstairs, where CBS News has stashed him in digs befitting an exiled king. Hewitt knows he is being cast off but desperately wants to keep anyone from thinking of his career as finished. That, perhaps, is why he has chosen this moment to announce to his
family his latest idea for a TV showânews he has shared with no one else until now.
“I'm going to be doing something right now that the network has bought lock, stock, and barrel,” Hewitt says. “We're going to start nineteen shows on the nineteen owned and operated affiliatesâcalled
30 Boston Minutes,
30 New York Minutes,
30 San Francisco Minutes,
30 Dallas Minutes,
30 Miami Minutes.
Instead of saying
And I'm going to do the pilot in San Francisco, probably in about two weeks.” (As usual, Hewitt has exaggerated; in fact, CBS has authorized the making of the pilot but will not approve the launch until it sees the results.)
There's a moment of stunned silence in the room as everyone collectively considers the latest improbable notion of a man who has had several million of them in his careerâmost notably, of course, the idea for
Stahl finally breaks the silence. “That's fabulous,” she says. “Who's going to be on camera?” The laughter that follows has something to do with Stahl's well-known desire for face time on television, and with the fact that only days earlier she'd reportedly lost a part-time job as host of
48 Hours Investigates
that had been supplementing her
exposure and salary. Hewitt explains that local correspondents will be filling the on-air jobs.
His decision to spill the news of his future plans has created some discomfort in a roomful of people gathered to pay tribute, not to wish Hewitt well on his next cockeyed crusade. There's a noticeable silence in response to his announcement. His longtime assistant, Beverly Morganâsensitive as always to Hewitt's mercurial moodsâurges everyone to begin the toasts and turns to a Safer assistant to read that
-year-old correspondent's faxed tribute to his fallen boss.
“Don, I do not expect much to change except for an address,” Safer has written. “We will now have to go to the eighth floor to bitch and moan. You are and always will be the DNA of this broadcast. I will always expect those calls at
and for sure at
on Sunday. I still expect those harebrained ideas and those flashes of brilliance. Will I miss the screening room mutual-torture sessions? No. Will I miss the kiss-and-make-up ten minutes later? Yes. Do I expect a weekly critique? Of course. Is this the end of the Hewitt era? Never. Yours with the usual mix of anxiety and frustration and, despite all, deep and abiding respect and affection. Morley.”
Had Safer been able to predict the awkwardness of this event, he might not have bothered. Ed Bradley follows with a toast not to Hewitt at all, but to Morgan, Hewitt's assistant, who will also be leaving. After that, Kroft offers a lukewarm tribute. “No matter what happens in anybody else's career,” Kroft predicts confidently, “I think at the end of it we'll all remember when we worked with Don Hewitt.”
“Cheers!” Stahl says.
“Anybody want to go down and tell that to Heyward?” Hewitt says, almost as though he hasn't heard what anyone has been saying. “Frazier Moore of the AP asked me the other day, Why are they doing this? I said, nobody ever explained it to me. I have never had an explanation. Never. But it happened.”
Hewitt's evident bitternessârunning on a seemingly endless loop in his brainâcauses an anguished moment, until Stahl breaks the silence.
gotten over it,” Stahl deadpanned.
As the laughter dies down, the unmistakable voice of Mike Wallace returns the party to rapt attention.
“Thirty-six years ago,” Wallace says, casting his eyes over the crowd of young assistants and producers, many of them barely born when
began. “Out of a job. In a room about a quarter the size of this room. With a good-looking assistantâwhat was her name?”
“Suzanne Davis,” Hewitt says.
“That's right. Suzanne Davis. He effectively had been fired. Told, âHey, come up with an idea.' They'd already gotten rid of him because of some of his ideas. And on a Sunday he said, âCan I come over?' And he came over to
th Street. And we went upstairs. . . . He said, âListen. I've got an idea. I've got an idea for a show.'
“I wanted to go to the White House,” Wallace goes on. “I hadn't the slightest desire . . . but I figured, what the hell. I felt sorry for him.”
“Who was president then?” Stahl interjects. “Coolidge?”
Wallace continues, unamused. “Nixon,” he says. “Nixon. In any case, this man . . . somebody said it before. He put our kids through school. He made some of us much richer than we should be. But mainly, we had such a ball. For the first ten or fifteen years. We worked seven days a week, twelve hours a day. Everybody saw everybody else's piece in the screening room. It was . . . Jesus, it was . . .”
Wallace stops, his reverie finished in midthought. He has remembered enough. Hewitt doesn't mind; he's dying to repeat for the millionth time his own memory of the early days, when the two men who still call each other “kid” really were just kids, playing with the power of television.
“One day, Mike calls me and he says, âKid, guess what? Leonard Garment just called me, they're offering me the job of Nixon's press secretary.' I said, âAre you out of your mind? You don't take a job like that after you've been Mike Wallace. You take a job like that so after it's over you can get to be Mike Wallace.'”
The two titans stare at each other from across the room, their eyes as cloudy as their memories. Their final moment together at
has come, and with it the uncertainty of a future without each other to yell at, laugh with, or love. Wallace clears his throat; he has one final question to ask his boss.
“What's going to happen to this broadcast?” he asks.
“I don't know,” Hewitt says. “I don't know. I don't know.”
At last the champagne begins to flow; staffers head toward the makeshift bar for a badly needed drink. But Wallace puts down his glass and makes his way quickly through the crowd to the door of the screening room. For him, the party is over.