Don made coming to work fun. He made everything urgent, and loud – with his stamina, zing and passion. His enthusiasm spurted and gurgled out of him, and he infused “60 Minutes” with that staccato personality.
But he also gave us his values and sensibilities, which were, at heart, those of a newsman.
I’m often asked why “60 Minutes” has endured, and remained so popular. I think that’s it: Don Hewitt made sure we remained, at heart, a news broadcast. Much is being said about how he pumped “entertainment” into the show’s bloodstream. Far more important is that he held onto the standards he’d learned at CBS News, starting in the Edward R. Murrow era.
His experience before “60 Minutes” was in hard news, from directing the evening news with Walter Cronkite to producing presidential debates, elections, political conventions and moon shots. When he created “60 Minutes” in 1968, he built the show on the principles he had practiced at CBS for 20 years.
He had special gifts for storytelling and pacing, but also for journalism. If I, for instance, went off to interview a public figure, or do a piece on a timely issue, he wanted me to be fearless, the way a good reporter should be: Ask the toughest questions, probe, hold ‘em accountable.
Don was with me in Moscow for my interview with then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin. When we got to his dacha, Yeltsin was in tennis clothes insisting: “No interview.” No matter how much I protested, the answer was the same. We could, however, watch him play tennis. I wanted to leave. But Don told me I’d get a more insightful story, I’d get a better read of the man if I stayed and caught him in the relaxed setting. And, of course, he was right.
The way Don ran the show was that he’d leave the choices of stories up to us. He’d let the correspondents and producers decide who to interview and where; then he’d leave us alone to write and edit the piece. When we finished, we’d show it to him. That’s when Don put his special instincts to work, moving the beginning to the middle, and tightening up the writing. He almost always made our stories better. And we all say that.
I once did a story on the surviving Mengele twins, the Jewish children the Nazi “doctor” experimented on. My producer Rome Hartman and I were having trouble infusing the piece with emotion. Clearly, that wouldn’t do. So we asked Don for help early in the process. He went off and thought about it. As Rome says, Don came back “full-speed, ranting in sprints down the hallway, bursting into your office shouting, ‘Kiddo! I’ve got it!’” And he did.
He had a newsman’s take on things. And he was meticulous about every aspect of the broadcast. Not just the reporting and the investigating and the writing – about which he cared deeply – but also how the show looked.
I discovered that early on. He had had a difficult relationship with Meredith Vieira, and was determined that he and the new girl (me) would get along. But about two months in, we had a chat. “We’re getting along so well,” he said (and we were), “but I feel I have to say something that I fear is going to ruin everything.”
“What is it?” I asked.
He paused, and squirmed. He said the last thing he wanted was to upset me.
“Well, just go for it,” I said.
So he blurted it out: “I hate your hair …”
I gulped. [But I had heard it before. From my mother.]
“And your clothes.”
I think if I had been younger, I would’ve taken offense. But for some reason, I laughed. He laughed. And then he sent me off for a new hairdo and a new wardrobe. And – he paid!
Don loved the show, loved the work, loved us … and we loved him. I loved him.