60 Minutes host and Massachusetts native Lesley Stahl first stepped foot on Nantucket back in the seventies and has been quietly vacationing on the island just about every summer since.
Next month, she will join fellow broadcaster and island summer resident David Gregory at the Dreamland Theater’s Page-to-Stage series. In addition to her revealing interviews and hard-hitting investigative stories that have earned her multiple Emmys and other prestigious distinctions, Stahl is also the author of two books, the most recent of which, Becoming Grandma, she will be discussing at the Dreamland. Stahl will also draw upon her recent interviews with President Trump and his cabinet members to give the audience an insight into the political scenes playing out in Washington.
N MAGAZINE: When you started your career, there probably weren’t many high-profile women in front of the camera. Through the #MeToo movement, we’re learning more and more about the challenges many women have faced in the work place. What was it like being a woman coming up in that industry?
STAHL: I’m going to be a little contrary, because when I started my career in Boston with then WHDH, which was the CBS affiliate, there were other women. Boston had a lot of women, compared to the impression that there weren’t. When I got to CBS, however, there were very few. I was hired because of affirmative action. I was the blonde girl, and then there was Connie Chung and Bernie Shaw. We were the three affirmative action hires in the Washington Bureau at CBS News. My boss, Bill Small, the bureau chief, was totally committed to this program. He said, “This is the priority. We are going to help these affirmative action hires, and we are going to bring them along.” He established an apprentice system.
I experienced very, very little difficulties, except from the cameramen—that was brutal. They did not want to take instruction at all from any of the affirmative action hires, partly because we were women—Connie and I—and Bernie was black. We had a bad time when we went out on stories with the cameramen. But our colleagues really helped us.
I’m almost embarrassed, really embarrassed, because I wondered what’s wrong with me? I didn’t have a #MeToo experience. [Laughs] I wondered why not? What’s going on here? But I do think that the bureau chief was a protector and a promoter. He set the tone. The three of us went on and had wonderful careers.
N MAGAZINE: Do you feel this is a permanent sea change in the way that male behavior is going to conduct itself in these kind of industries, or do you think at some point it will be same old, same old?
STAHL: That is a wonderful question. I’m going to go back to the idea of the boss setting the tone. I’m almost blown away by how quickly people who are accused of harassment or abuse have been fired. It’s breathtaking. Wham! The axe comes down and their careers are ruined. The high-profile people who have been swept up in this are giants in what they’re doing. People now know that the boss is going to cut them off, and they’ll be out of what they love to do. It’s Shakespearian. It’s huge. And the message is clear: The bosses are not going to tolerate it.
The women are empowered to speak out when they weren’t before because they were terrified that they would be fired or ostracized, which they were. This was widespread and universal. If you spoke out and complained, you were finished. Women today are in a tribe of other women. They are empowered and it won’t be one woman anymore.
Now will there be any kind of backlash? Yes. I don’t know when it’s coming, but I believe it is. But we will never go back to a time when women are so afraid that they won’t speak up, or back to a time when the company won’t react.
N MAGAZINE: Which world leader whom you’ve interviewed has surprised you the most?
STAHL: Probably then-President Sarkozy of France, who you know walked out on me. He turned his microphone off and stormed off. What really surprised me about him was his temperament. He was so emotional that he lost his cool. My question was one that he could have easily flicked off. The question was about his marriage, which was falling apart. He said a vulgar word in French that was so vulgar that the interpreter wouldn’t tell me what it was. [Laughs] There was kind of a gasp on the other end of the line. I was very surprised by a head of state who couldn’t control his temper. In some way or other, every head of state does surprise me.
N MAGAZINE: Which president did you feel the most connection to or have the best relationship with?
STAHL: As a White House Correspondent, I covered the second half of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, all of Reagan and the first half of George Herbert Walker Bush. And without question, it was George Bush. In some ways, he was the most normal of the three.
Jimmy Carter spent an inordinate amount of time micromanaging and reading everything. He kind of buried himself away and was not that engaged with the press. Of course, by the time I got there it was one crisis after the next. I arrived in ‘77 and there were gas lines, and then the hostages. So he was a little aloof.
Everyone liked Reagan, all of us in the press corps, because he had a sweetness to him— but he, too, was aloof. He did not mix it up. He did not come out and chat with us. We would have the opportunity to ask him questions, but rarely. As far as I know, he never wandered the halls. He just stayed in the Oval Office, and the Oval Office was off-limits to us then.
Then there was George Herbert Walker Bush. He loved people. He bounced around the White House. He’d come into the pressroom. I kept bumping into him. In those days, reporters could roam almost all the way up to the Oval Office door. I was out there for some reason several times and we just chatted and he joked. He teased us. I had already known him when he was running the Republican Party, so I had a personal relationship with him, and I respected him enormously. I thought he had total integrity, and I appreciated the struggles he confronted, how difficult the job was. I saw him as a human being. I think his presidency has been underestimated. It’s awfully hard to get that kind of historical admiration if you’re a one-term president. I think he deserves more praise.
N MAGAZINE: Do you think there is a liberal bias to the media? To the extent that there may be, has that helped fuel the backlash of the Trump phenomenon among the element of the population that feels disenfranchised and came out and elected someone who very few people thought would have risen to this position?
STAHL: What I think is that Fox News and Roger Ailes set out to weaken and wound the press. Their constant pounding against the mainstream media had an enormous impact on a section of the country. It’s been extremely destructive to our democracy because the system needs a strong, independent, adversarial press corps. Because otherwise who is going to cleanse our system?
Just look at what is going on right now with all the revelations that are being made about Trump’s cabinet choices. None of this would come out. He would be hiring people who only see lobbyists that give them money. He’d be allowed freedom to do whatever he wants without a microscope on him. We need the free press.
Fox—I don’t even want to call it Fox News—and Roger Ailes deliberately set their sights on weakening us, and sadly they have succeeded. I do not think that when you look at The New York Times, The Washington Post, CBS News, NBC and so forth, that there’s a liberal bias.
N MAGAZINE: Can you think of anything positive about the Trump presidency?
STAHL: Well, I’ve done two interviews with him: one during the Republican Convention and the other three days after he was elected. I would say that he pulled off a miracle getting elected. He completely understands how to pull those levers of power. He did it himself. I still can’t believe it. He couldn’t believe it. I interviewed him after the election. He said he knew all along, but he didn’t. His body language showed that he was kind of in shock three days after.
You know what else he’s done that is stunning? He has shut down all those generals. He shut them down. He lords over all the generals. He squelches them. He is just somebody to really dissect, study and figure out. How is he doing this? He is becoming a one-man band in terms of policy. How is he doing this? He is changing the system. I am amazed. Really, I’m amazed. Not in a flattering way.
N MAGAZINE: You quite famously covered Watergate, do you see any comparisons between this Russian investigation and Watergate, or is it an unfair comparison?
STAHL: There are a lot of similarities. It’s déjà vu almost every week. Obviously, the special prosecutor and the sense that he might get fired. Of course, Nixon did fire Archibald Cox, tried to get the Justice Department to fire him. Every time there’s a story that he’s going to fire Mueller or get him fired—that’s huge.
The other thing that’s really similar is the way the Republicans in Congress are reacting. People think that the Republicans turned on Nixon early—they did not. They were solid, surrounding him, protecting him, doing everything they could to sabotage the investigation. The Democrats, of course, controlled Congress. The Republicans stayed with Nixon until the bitter end. Only when there was a tape with his voice saying that he was part of the cover-up did they say, “Ok, enough is enough.” But they really stayed with him.
There is one more similarity: the drip, drip, drip. There’s just a constant drip of little leaks coming out. Just when you think this story is dead, there’s another drip and it just doesn’t go away.
STAHL: That is really hard to tell. It is possible that in two and a half years the public will desperately want something different and the opposite of Trump. Jimmy Carter came in because Nixon had lied to us. Jimmy Carter was going to tell us the truth. Then the public didn’t like anything about him, and they really turned on him. They went after the absolute opposite of him in every conceivable way, and they elected Reagan. I think it’s conceivable that a lot of the Republicans who strongly support Trump today will peel off and another kind of white knight guy who is a hundred eighty degrees different will come along and capture the imagination and we get someone who changes everything in a different direction.
Lesley Stahl will be speaking at the Dreamland Theater on July 10th at 5 p.m. with moderator and CNN commentator David Gregory. To reserve tickets, go to Nantucketdreamland.org.