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Carol Felsenthal

Carol Felsenthal

Posted: August 19, 2009 06:38 PM

Don Hewitt Remembered

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So sad today to read of the death of Don Hewitt, 86, the brains behind 60 Minutes.

I talked to him at length in September, 2006 -- and posted about it last year, not knowing at the time that Hewitt was ill -- when I was writing my book about Bill Clinton's post presidency, Clinton in Exile: A President Out of the White House.

Hewitt was one of the most forthcoming with his time and opinions, entertaining, and sweet people I've ever interviewed, and because of my work writing biographies and magazine profiles, I've interviewed hundreds of people over the years.

The Clinton whom Hewitt described to me was, in the couple of years after leaving the White House, a lonely guy who just wanted to have fun and be admired. Hewitt obviously liked the former president, but he noticed Clinton's flaws early and often.

Hewitt had the brainstorm of updating the old 60 Minutes Shana Alexander/James Kilpatrick liberal/conservative point/counterpoint. He wanted Bill to be the new Shana, and he went to Chappaqua, two years after Bill exited the White House, to pitch his idea in person. Although the former president was no longer holed up in the suburban house against reporters barking questions about his pardon of Marc Rich, he was still unwelcome in some of the more polite precincts, he hadn't quite figured out how to make his post presidency work, and he was happy for the company.

The meeting went far longer that Hewitt expected because Clinton was grateful for the company. For more than four hours, the former president showed off the souvenirs of his travels, each with a story to go with it.

Hewitt had the instinct that the perfect conservative foil for Bill -- a "stunner," Hewitt predicted -- would be Bill O'Reilly, host of Fox News's "The O'Reilly Factor." Clinton's advisors said nothing doing, and, Hewitt told me, Clinton himself considered it beneath him to engage with O'Reilly.

Hewitt's next choice was Newt Gingrich, whom Clinton liked -- he admired the former (and disgraced) Speaker of the House's brains and his wonkiness. Knowing that Clinton's aides would veto Gingrich -- his "Contract with America" was a factor in losing Bill both houses of Congress in 1994 -- Hewitt did not even suggest Gingrich. That it was during the Gingrich-fomented government shutdown that Bill, working late, met Monica who, famously, flashed her thong at him, did not, Hewitt added, bode well for Gingrich.

Still, "I think he would have gone with Newt Gingrich," Hewitt told me. "He respects Gingrich." Hewitt described the two men as big thinkers, equally intelligent and articulate.

And so Hewitt settled, against his better judgment, for the choice of Bill's people -- Bob Dole, the former Senate Majority Leader who ran against Bill in 1996. Dole is known to have a sharp sense of humor, but it's way too dry for a debate on primetime television. Besides, Hewitt said, the two liked each other. Bill did not "violently disagree" with Bob, they had no chemistry, the ratings were lackluster, and, after 10 weeks, Hewitt killed the face-off. .

Hewitt also boasted to me that he saved Clinton's candidacy on Superbowl Sunday in 1992 by inviting the candidate and his wife to Boston's Ritz-Carlton, giving them a huge forum on 60 Minutes to respond to Gennifer Flowers' charges that she had had a 12-year affair with the Arkansas governor. Somehow, even though Flowers had incriminating audio tapes of conversations with Bill, the national platform and the candidate and his wife professing their love for each other, grown stronger as they overcame problems in their marriage, gave Bill what he needed to survive and go on to victory.

"... I knew he was lying," Hewitt recalled, "and she knew he was lying and he knew she was lying and I knew they were both lying, and yet that's the night they got the nomination, when she said, .... 'I'm no Tammy Wynette standing by my man' and somehow that resonated with the American public." [The line was, "You know, I'm not sitting here -- some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette."]

Hewitt added that Hillary, although she lied as much as anyone during the filming that winter night in 1992, was humiliated, furious at Bill for getting caught, and took it out, long-term, on Hewitt. Although he had gone to dinners at the White House during every administration since Eisenhower's, Hewitt called himself "persona non grata in the Clinton White House, not by him, but her." Hewitt told me about going to the Clinton White House to film a 60 Minutes segment on Bosnia that had been deliberately scheduled -- this was confirmed by Clinton's press secretary -- when Hillary was out of town.

As Hillary entered the Senate and dreamed about returning as president to the White House, she decided to forgive, even court Hewitt. At Katharine Graham's funeral in July 2001, Hillary approached him, and, after an exchange of niceties, "She threw her arms around me ...[and] from that day on the feud was over." Hewitt told me that the late Tim Russert "used to say to me all the time, 'What's the matter with her? You guys made him president.'"

At one point in our conversation, in a philosophical mood, Hewitt mused, "Do you know there's not one kid who has died in Iraq who wouldn't be alive today if there never was a Monica Lewinsky. Monica Lewinsky changed the world. Had there been no Monica Lewinsky, Tipper Gore wouldn't have insisted that she didn't want her husband campaigning with Bill Clinton; they would have won two more states if they had allowed him to campaign with them in the South. ...I think [Monica] did more to change the world than Cleopatra."

Here was one point at which Hewitt seemed, in true old-fashioned guy style, to lay the burden on the wrong shoulders. The fault was not with the star-struck, immature intern, not quite seven years older than Clinton's own daughter, but with the eader of the free world.

Hewitt did offer Lewinsky an excuse of sorts. He told me that Clinton is "irresistible to women, ...about as attractive a male as anybody's ever seen, ... an animal who's one of a kind."

About as far as he went in criticizing Clinton was to observe that although Clinton was "the smartest man I ever met in my life, ... he's not very smart on the subject of Bill Clinton."

Oh, and Hewitt said that he thinks there is genuine love between Bill and Hillary. I told him that friends of Bill's told me of overhearing telephone conversations between the two, post presidency, that always ended with "I love you." Hewitt grew animated and said, "There are different definitions of 'I love you,'....I think he means it sincerely. I think they do love each other; maybe like a brother and sister."