WASHINGTON — By the standards of Sunday morning news shows, the handoff of the anchor’s position on “Face the Nation” on CBS was really quite peaceful.
A few days after the longtime anchor Bob Schieffer announced his retirement last spring, he was on his show introducing and laughing with his replacement, John Dickerson.
The show’s main competitors haven’t had it that easy. NBC suffered through the drawn-out, somewhat torturous firing of David Gregory, and Christiane Amanpour’s shaky status on ABC’s “This Week” spawned rumors in the media until she was replaced in 2011 after little more than a year in the job.
The CBS succession plan made sense. Like Mr. Schieffer, Mr. Dickerson had spent most of his career as a reporter and was widely respected in the beltway. Though much younger, he shared Mr. Schieffer’s calm and cool demeanor (“There was this quality of . . . call it, avuncular,” said David Rhodes, the president of CBS News).
Still, Mr. Dickerson, with a print journalism career at publications like Time and Slate, had little television experience and a relatively low public profile. It was something of a risk for CBS to hand him the reins of a show that was No. 1 in viewership among the Sunday morning news programs and that was critical to the network’s credibility in Washington.
Eight months later, Mr. Dickerson, 47, has not missed a beat. For the season, “Face the Nation” remains the No. 1 most viewed public affairs show on Sundays, with an average of 3.7 million viewers, besting “Meet the Press,” now hosted by Chuck Todd, and “This Week,” led by George Stephanopoulos and Martha Raddatz.
And on Saturday, Mr. Dickerson will probably be introduced to his biggest audience yet when he serves as the main moderator for the Republican debate in South Carolina. (He moderated a Democratic debate in November that drew 8.5 million viewers; the least-viewed Republican debate had 2.6 million more viewers than that).
What viewers will see, in all likelihood, is a journalist with deep expertise in the history of campaigns, and an enthusiastic but understated way of getting an answer.
“My instincts for asking questions is to press but not to be a jerk about it,” he said in an interview at his office here.
Mr. Dickerson said his approach to interviewing guests — including the candidates on Saturday — could largely be traced to his upbringing.
“It’s because of what CBS is, and it’s because of how I grew up,” Mr. Dickerson said. “Mom would talk about Eric Sevareid and Murrow and Howard K. Smith the way other parents talk about sports figures.”
Those men, all of them CBS News legends from several generations back, underscore his point: A certain type of Tiffany-quality newsman helped shape him. And Mom? His mother was Nancy Dickerson, a network news correspondent of the 1960s and 1970s who was a pioneering woman in a business dominated by men. She also had a celebrity stature that her son could only dream of attaining.
Except he did not dream of that. Despite his famous mother and a gilded upbringing — his birth warranted a story in The Washington Post, and his childhood home, the Merrywood, had 35 rooms and a view of the Potomac, and was the site of many Washington establishment dinner parties — he wanted next to nothing to do with television.
After a somewhat listless childhood, he discovered an interest in politics and journalism when he was working in the administrative ranks at Time magazine. At the 1992 presidential conventions, where he did little more than grunt work, he “was totally hooked,” he said. At home in New York, he spent his leisure time paging through and buying up presidential election books at the Strand bookstore in Union Square (“All the Teddy White books were like $2,” he said, referring to the author of several canonical campaign books). Within a year, he was reporting at Time, and he covered his first presidential campaign in 1996.
That set off what would become a successful reporting career. But when CBS’s Washington bureau chief, Christopher Isham, tried to recruit him to be a part-time analyst about eight years ago, Mr. Dickerson, then working at Slate, flatly told him no.
“He liked new media, but I think he was a little scared that television was not a sincere or deep medium,” said Walter Isaacson, Mr. Dickerson’s former editor at Time. “He was worried about television being trivializing.”
(Mr. Dickerson has taken to new media, particularly podcasts, with gusto: He hosts Slate’s “Whistlestop” podcast about old presidential campaigns, with all those books from the Strand serving as critical source material, and is co-host of the popular “Political Gabfest” podcast).
Mr. Dickerson was eventually persuaded to make the transition to TV, and by 2011 he had become CBS’s political director, serving as a regular on-air contributor. He kept his print gig at Slate.
When Mr. Schieffer decided to retire, Mr. Rhodes, the CBS News president, said he did not know whether Mr. Dickerson would even want the “Face the Nation” job, given his reservations in the past. He took him to dinner to find out.
“John is such a classy guy that he would never want to be seen as campaigning for the job,” Mr. Rhodes said.
This time, Mr. Dickerson wanted in.
He was Mr. Rhodes’s preferred choice because of his reporting background, and a deep grasp of elections and Washington. That, and not a Q score, is also what works on Sunday mornings.
“People have been coming through side doors as long as there’s been this Washington assignment,” Mr. Rhodes said. “By comparison, think about the people who came through front doors. The David Gregory experiment had been singularly unsuccessful. Christiane Amanpour, who’s had a lot of success as a television talent, also had been unsuccessful in this format. This particular format doesn’t necessarily lend itself to somebody who’s had a more conventional television track.”
Though “Face the Nation” is up 6 percent in viewers for the season, its ratings success comes with a few caveats. The show has a muscular lead-in from “CBS Sunday Morning,” which routinely attracts more than six million viewers. “Face the Nation’’ is tied with “Meet the Press’’ and “This Week’’ for the 25-to-54 year-old demographic important to advertisers. And “Face the Nation” leads in viewers for only the first 30 minutes of the show; in the second half-hour, which is broadcast in only 58 percent of the country, viewership falls significantly.
“The key thing is, I’m trying to get them to talk, and interact with one another in a way that informs people, and just get out of the way,” he said. “To be the windowpane — this is basically a bastardization of what Orwell said about good writing — so you can get the conversation going and frame it the right way and make sure people aren’t lost. And then you let the candidates illuminate the issues themselves.”
For Mr. Dickerson, the irony of his success on “Face the Nation” is not lost on him. Despite his childhood aversion to the Washington establishment and the television business — he wrote a biography about his mother, and their once-rocky relationship, “On Her Trail” — he is now part of both.
“We both like to tell stories,” he said, alluding to his mother. “That’s what politics is. It’s the story of what’s happening, what does it mean, what’s the conclusion, who are the interesting characters? She came at it from wanting to be where the action was. She had a more social and ‘be in the middle of the scrum’ view of it. What attracted me to it – and still attracts me now – is just the story of important things happening that affect people’s’ lives.”