How the new Face the Nation host gently boils politicians like unsuspecting frogs.
Journalists, especially political journalists, are a famously cynical breed.
Considering that much of their job consists of chronicling the nasty bits of human behavior, it’s hardly common for members of this skeptical tribe to wear their hearts on their sleeves.
It’s especially rare for the state-of-the-art Washington reporter, circa 2015—a fashionably disbelieving clique, pickled in the juices of poisonous partisanship, and ever-demanding of evidence—to publicly take that leap of faith and embrace the divine.
CBS News political director John Dickerson, the new host of Face the Nation, the network’s 60-year-old Sunday public affairs program, is a notable exception in this regard.
“I believe in Jesus Christ,” Dickerson declared recently to an audience of college students shortly after being named the successor to Face’s grand old man, Bob Schieffer. “I believe that Jesus Christ existed, and that He died for my sins. And I believe that what He said in the Gospels is a model for the way I should try to lead my life, and that I will always fall short of that, and therefore need Him to redeem me.”
Like most political reporters, a political animal himself, Dickerson, 47, might have been playing to the crowd; he made his profession of faith during a Q&A with conservative Christian academic Marvin Olasky at Patrick Henry College, an institution of higher learning in Purcellville, Va., 50 miles outside Washington, whose “core curriculum,” according to its website, “center[s] all truth on the person and work of Jesus Christ.”
But Dickerson wasn’t necessarily pandering. He is, by most accounts, “a genuinely soulful guy,” as his friend, former Slate editor-in-chief David Plotz, describes him—the opposite of the sort of Machiavellian, sharp-elbowed careerist that one associates with the cliché of success in the cutthroat television news biz.
Current New York Times reporter and Slate alum Emily Bazelon—who, with Plotz, continues to join Dickerson every Thursday afternoon, as they have for the past decade, to record Slate’s popular “Political Gabfest” podcast (“We’re the Three Musketeers,” she jokes)—says: “What stands out most about John is his generosity of spirit. He’s a deeply kind person, more than most people, and that translates into his professional life.”
He is also, apparently, a virtuosic guitarist and singer, with an impressively encyclopedic command of the Bob Dylan catalogue.
Reports of Dickerson’s near-saintliness are so numerous and uniform that they recall the Korean War buddies’ trancelike praise of the hypnotized assassin in The Manchurian Candidate: “Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I’ve ever known in my life.”
Still, Dickerson’s religiosity clearly informs his life and work.
“The most important connection I can see between my faith and my work is that in the progress of my day I try to be restrained and mindful of every person’s humanity and of the overwhelming challenge of pride,” Dickerson, the married father of a young son and daughter, wrote in an email in which he fielded a few questions from The Daily Beast.
“That applies to work life and outside of work life. The other way in which faith helps is in reminding me that momentary disappointments and failures should be seen in the light of a far longer stretch of time.”
Yet he is also a deceptively tough interrogator, having honed a technique—known inside the Beltway as “Dickersonian”—in which he calmly, methodically, incises a politician’s carefully constructed façade until the mask falls away, revealing the scaly reptile beneath.
He calmly, methodically, incises a politician’s carefully constructed façade until the mask falls away, revealing the scaly reptile beneath.
Plotz puts it another way: “He just keeps asking more questions and more questions, and will Socratically draw out somebody’s positions until you realize, oh wait, this makes no sense or contradicts some ridiculous statement that was said five minutes ago. And then you realize, oh my God! That guy just hanged himself! But not because of John. He’s very gentle. It’s like boiling the frog.”
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