09/21/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Memories of Don Hewitt

I knew Don Hewitt when he was up and down, mostly up. It was before I joined CBS News. I was an AP reporter on home leave and passing through Manhattan, Sandy Socolow invited me to watch a broadcast of a mid-day news program with a relatively unknown anchorman named Walter Cronkite, a program in which Hewitt was the executive producer.

Socolow and I had been roommates in Tokyo back in the days when he was a wire service reporter for the International News Service. When we started across the bridge that passed over Grand Central Station in Manhattan, the tempo changed with each step we took enroute to the broadcast studio on Lexington Avenue. Once inside and ready to go to air, I was transfixed on Hewitt and his then director, Freddie Stollmack. At the commercial break, there was shouting and bombast that made my head spin. I said to Socolow later, anyone who goes into broadcast journalism ought to have his head examined.

Of course, three years later. when I was an NBC News reporter (!) covering the 1960 presidential campaign, Hewitt was the executive producer of the first televised presidential debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. The Republican candidate brushed off Hewitt's suggestion that he allow some makeup be applied to his heavy facial shadow. Nixon said did not want "any of that Hollywood stuff." If you are a presidential history buff, you will remember that Kennedy won on his good looks, his articulate answers and his charm. Nixon, whatever one may have thought of his reputation as a leery man of darkness, suffered by comparison.

When the debate was over, three reporters ( I was one them, the others being Tom Wicker of the New York Times and Al Otten, of the Wall Street Journal) were sitting with Henry Cabot Lodge, Nixon's vice presidential running mate. As he rose from a sofa. the normally circumspect Lodge angrily shut off the television set and declared, "He Goddamned well has blown the election." We agreed that Kennedy had emerged with the upper hand. But Lodge's aides, who had been listening to the debate on radio in an adjoining room were convinced that Nixon had won.

Hewitt took a lot of the heat from the Republicans, but that didn't bother him. He would kill for a good story and the debate was one of those rare moments in history .to relish. Two years later, when I was with CBS News, I had to set up a telephonic interview between Nixon, who was trying to regain some traction in the great game of politics by seeking the governorship of California. We were set up in Nixon's law office when the anchorman, Harry Reasoner, who was filling in for Cronkite that day, literally seemed to wander out of the studio to shop for a tie. Hewitt was furious, but he never let on how angry he was. His main concern to me was "whatever you say to Nixon don't tell him I'm the producer. He'll think for sure that it's a plot against him."

Don was one of those guys, rare in the television news business whom you feared or admired because you always knew that while he had to deal with a passel of egos in the Sixty Minutes era, his judgment of talent was a valuable asset. On at least two occasions, he contacted me to come to New York to be one of his writers on the CBS Evening News.

But I loved being a reporter and was not about to give up covering the war in Vietnam or traipsing all over Asia and the world. So I would always say no politely, but I was truly flattered. But what I can say is that I doubt that there ever was a man with a greater instinct for what made good television journalism. "Tell Me a Story" was the title of his memoir and it became a signature quote that Hewitt used frequently in interviews and retrospectives about his life in broadcasting. He had so many stories to tell for which he will be remembered by old hands at CBS News.

In 1962, when the Evening News was only 15 minutes in length (that is about 10 ½ minutes of news). the San Francisco Chronicle carried a story about the Society for the Prevention of Nakedness on Animals , a campaign to put diapers on the behinds of our four-legged creatures-- the household dog-- from pooping on the sidewalk. The president of the Society was a man identifying himself as Buck Zimmerman. It was a funny story, bizarre as a matter of fact, and Bob Schakne, my colleague in the Los Angeles bureau, played the story to the hilt. The otherwise taciturn Walter Cronkite was even caught smiling. After using up an unprecedented two and a half minutes on the piece, Walter said he would be back after a commercial break to hear the Society's rallying cry, played by the USC Trojan Marching Band. It was the kind of story that Hewitt loved to milk to the hilt. Frothy but a great yarn. The problem emerged the morning after when Buck Zimmerman appeared at the CBS News bureau to meet with Schakne and me to make an apology. He conceded that his real name was not Zimmerman, but Henry; Buck Henry, the comedian.

The Society was all a gag, a make-believe story, to see how far a gag could go. Schakne was embarrassed and Hewitt swallowed hard, but it was quickly forgotten.

At the 1964 Republican National Convention, Hewitt was in the control room high in San Francisco's Cow Palace when Barry Goldwater won his party's nomination for president. The delegates went wild. Red, white and blue balloons floated down from the ceiling and through the pandemonium, I could hear Hewitt screaming through his headset at me, "Slap the cans on her, Slap the cans on her!: I looked up at him and watched him pointing down at the senator's wife, Peggy Goldwater. Hewitt was referring to the headphones. He wanted to set up an interview for Walter Cronkite by having her wear the headset. But I was on the convention floor and Mrs. Goldwater was sitting high above me, about 20 feet away. I don't remember how I did it, but I jumped on the shoulders of our sound technician and with microphone in hand, I climbed up the side of the wall to reach the Goldwater box. The chaos made contact with Hewitt indecipherable. Then suddenly, the usually reserved NBC correspondent, Edwin Newman, copying my pole vault up the Cow Palace wall, came up alongside of me. "Peggy, Peggy," I screamed. Unfortunately, I had not realized that Ms. Goldwater had a hearing problem and. she stuttered. as well. That was one more episode of enterprise journalism that collapsed. Hewitt slapped his forehead in disappointment.

Hewitt was imaginative like no other producer I've ever encountered. He invented ways to marry journalism and entertainment. Those of us who knew him remember how he emerged from the dark days when he was bounced from the Evening News in 1964, after some backdoor politics that seems inherent in corporate journalism, Cronkite wanted the full authority of being the Evening News' managing editor Hewitt wanted to preserve the power of story selection .Walter won that battle and Don was removed from the executive producer's chair. Momentarily at least it seemed as if he was being sent into limbo.

On a lengthy overseas trip, he surprisingly showed up in Bangkok where I was based in 1965. If you never imagined a subdued Don Hewitt, you would have had to remember what he was like when he had lunch with me and my wife and let his feelings out with tears in his eyes. That he rebounded and created the enormously successful 60 Minutes was testimony to his imagination and creativity So much has been said about his genius. Those who participated in Hewitt's shadow were grateful for the opportunity to be one of the lucky ones. I worked on the pilot for 60 Minutes in 1968. But I regret the minutes, hours and years I missed afterward when the program was in its glory and Don called me one more time, inviting me to come to New York as a producer. In retrospect, my stubbornness to turn him down once more now seems like a dumb decision.