09 July 2007

Eric Sevareid

The Man Who Knew Too Much ... to be on television

Dan Rather is capable of great generosity, and one of the more notable instances of this, in my case, was his inviting me to spend a few minutes with Eric Sevareid. It was my first meeting with the sage of CBS News, and Dan’s last: a short time later, on July 9, 1992, just as the Democratic National Convention began, Sevareid died.

Though CBS showed him the door the minute he turned 65, Sevareid had come out of retirement, briefly, to assist in our coverage of the Democratic Convention four years earlier. I was already in awe of the guy, and I pressed myself against the back wall of the anchor booth, afraid to step forward. I had yet to read any of Sevareid’s books, which sealed my admiration for him, but I knew enough of his broadcast work to be intimidated. I knew, too, that Dan admired Sevareid as I admired Dan, and therefore Sevareid was too high above me to contemplate.

But Sevareid’s era was long past. If he ever had a broadcast sense of time, with its urgent need for concision, he’d lost it now. His observations were fascinating; his ability to relate the present Convention to those from decades before was unmatched. But he was old, slow, rambling. Already when he started in television, the hotheads behind the cameras complained that he was dull. In 1988, they were complaining again — quietly, behind his stooping back. "He's killing us," they whispered. Sevareid would hardly begin speaking, in informal interview segments opposite Dan at the anchor desk, before the whiz kids wanted to cut away to something quicker, brighter, shinier, sexier. But Dan wouldn’t let them. His loyalty was too fierce.

Theirs was a long and sometimes contentious friendship. They had both worked out of the Saigon bureau during the Vietnam War, and from some of Dan’s descriptions, it sounded much as if he’d been sent into a combat zone with his college history professor. Although Sevareid had plenty of experience as a war correspondent, during World War II, he was older by the time he got to Saigon, and his trademark dignity and intellectual seriousness were more deeply entrenched and out of place in that setting. Dan had anecdotes — snapshot images, more precisely — of Sevareid in his dressing gown, Sevareid reading books, Sevareid filing reports and drinking cocktails on the hotel rooftop, always incongruous to his surroundings, sometimes comically so. We never quite figured out a way to apply these images of the old man to any better purpose. When we incorporated one such image — which I found hilarious — in Dan’s funerary tribute, the reaction of the assembled was awkward and uncomprehending. What was Dan trying to do? Well, he was trying to help the rest of us see Sevareid as he did: human and lovable.

I believe that Dan wanted to inherit the mantle of Sevareid as ardently as he yearned for the mantle of Murrow. Dan wanted to bring gravitas, historical perspective and intellectual seriousness, to his broadcasts. That’s why he wanted me around: to help him find these qualities and translate them to the microphone. That’s also why Dan reads so much and so deeply.

He was always eager to improve himself, and when they were in Saigon, he made a point of reading everything Sevareid recommended. But Sevareid was uncomfortable with the role of mentor, and he lashed out at Dan — publicly, no less — when he thought Dan had gone too far in depicting them as pupil and teacher. He denied having recommended books to Dan; he disavowed his influence. I could see that Dan was wounded by this: he’d meant nothing more than a compliment. But many people at CBS had difficulty accepting Dan’s most gracious gestures in the sincere spirit intended. They mocked his courtly manners and questioned the motives behind his flowers and gifts and effusions.

Sevareid must not have understood Dan very well, I think. Perhaps he saw too many differences between Dan and himself to see the similarities — or to see Dan’s desire to become more like him. Perhaps, too, Sevareid was so ill at ease with himself that he couldn’t bear the younger man’s admiration, or anyone else’s. He had an ego, and a pretty big one, from what I can tell, but he was a very shy man, raised in the forbidding Norwegian immigrant communities of the north, and he’d sooner not talk at all than make small talk, sooner listen to silence than listen to praise.

They didn’t have many opportunities to make up, yet Dan invited me to tag along that spring afternoon in Georgetown. I was aware that the invitation was a precious gift to me, not merely because it meant meeting my hero, but because Dan might never have another opportunity to see Sevareid. My presence would prevent them both from speaking freely.

Maybe Dan wanted it that way. Maybe he thought Sevareid would be more comfortable if a stranger attended their conversation. They would both be on their best behavior.

Sevareid had bought a tidy townhouse from its previous owner: Dan Rather. We were greeted at the door by Sevareid’s third wife, a sometime CBS producer named Suzanne St Pierre, younger than her husband and strikingly handsome. While we waited for Eric, Dan pointed out the brick-lined patio behind the house. Jean Rather had done all the landscaping with her fair fine hands, he told me, setting every brick and planting every stem. “The summer she was reading Proust,” he remembered, “she sat out there all day. We weren’t allowed to go near her until she finished.”

At last Eric was ready to see us, and we went into the sunny front room. I was introduced to him as an admirer, and although I’d brought one of his books (In One Ear, a collection of the kind of radio essays I strove to match with my own), I didn’t ask him to sign it. I knew that he didn’t suffer praise lightly, and already I felt too much an intruder in what was supposed to be a reunion of old friends, and not an autograph session. I made the right decision, yet I’ve always regretted it.

The two men talked quietly, and I sat on the sofa opposite them and said not one word. Dan talked of the outside world, of politics and of people they knew, but Eric seemed a bit distant. Maybe he knew already that the outside world was shut off for him forever. Suzanne St Pierre served us iced tea, as I recall, but mostly she stayed discreetly out of sight. Now I wonder if she meant to set an example for me. Should I have excused myself, too? But there was no way to tear myself away from the presence of the master, and besides the conversation passed quickly.

Years later, the head of CBS would declare that the era of “the voice of God” anchor was over, and he meant the paternalistic, authoritative approach of people like Walter Cronkite and Dan Rather. But the nearest “voice of God” the news business ever knew was Eric Sevareid, reading his stern little essays to the camera.

Sevareid wasn’t always right — often enough, he was dead wrong, as he was about Vietnam. But he applied a formidable mind to the pronouncements he made. He eschewed the term “commentary,” because, as he said, “Anybody can comment. I analyze.” When some corporate suit or other, knuckling under to right-wing pressure, insisted that Dan describe his radio program, Dan Rather Reporting, as commentary, Dan remembered what Sevareid had said, and he resisted by elaborating: “News, commentary, and analysis.”

But, although I disdain some of the tactics contemplated (including — perhaps even seriously — nude anchors and an emphasis on “happy” news) by people like Les Moonves, he’s not wrong when he says that electronic journalism has moved on. If you want commentary, and even analysis, you have only to log onto the Internet and find hundreds of would-be Rathers and Sevareids, representing every possible perspective. My brother is one such.

Few of these people, however, will bring the credentials of a Dan Rather to their work: they won’t have rolled up their sleeves and dug deeply into the mess of the world, year after year, for a lifetime. And they won’t think or write as well as Eric Sevareid. Their words may have democratic value, but little else.

Sevareid wrote with precision and balance, clean rhetoric and cool detachment. It was a generation of good writers, weaned both on Hemingway and on Henry James, and Sevareid’s prose stands comfortably beside that of his contemporaries on the staff of The New Yorker, for instance. The difference is that he wasn’t writing for the page.

Writing for the ear is a tricky assignment, and often what reads well sounds terrible. The opposite is also true: Charles Kuralt used to deliver what sounded like poetry on the air, but what looked flat and pedestrian on the page. (This didn’t hurt his book sales in the slightest, but I think by then people were so accustomed to the sound of Kuralt that they filled it in for themselves when they read.) Not least with the use of his somber, quiet voice, Sevareid managed to write for both the ear and the eye, and to pick up one of his books — especially his early memoir, Not So Wild a Dream — is to be caught and held by the English language.

I kept his picture in a silver frame on the wall in my office at CBS, to remind us to write better. Although I’m certain that Sevareid would have approved of the goal, I’m also certain that he’d have squirmed to see that picture there.