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At home with Scott Pelley

Reports and interviews that would rattle the best of us, for this award-winning journalist, are simply about airing life-changing stories.



photograph by william taufic

Unless you’re a dictator, it’s pretty easy to spend time with Scott Pelley. His booming hello, his hale and hearty manner, his flashing eyes, his swift interest in you—they can be beguiling. “Is that right?” he’ll say, impressed to the point of solemnity when you reveal some nonsense about yourself. Come in to my world, he seems to say, and, of course, it’s all your world.

The door to the Darien home swings open and you step into a large, sunken living room with a burning fireplace and tall windows revealing a striking view of the wide backyard, clear autumn sunlight breaking through. Pelley is wearing blue slacks and loafers and an oxford shirt with the sleeves rolled up. He looks robust. He was just in the basement, in what he calls the “Darien Bureau,” a fully functional studio where he can compose and narrate the tracks to his latest piece for 60 Minutes.

 

 

The man who has interviewed every sort of person on the planet is skilled at creating a mood of dramatic intensity. You suspect that you are not going to end up bleating like Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who sputtered during an interview that Pelley was like a “CIA investigator…. This is not a secret prison in Europe! This is not Abu Ghraib! This is Iran. I’m the president of this country!”

Pelley’s measured response to that outburst: “I am a simple, average American reporter.”

The downhome Texas earnestness of the statement belies the fact that he’s not all that average. When it comes to meeting a wide variety of people, nobody is more privileged than the top guns of U.S. network news. This was screamingly apparent in the last few years when the careers of three great TV newsmen were commemorated at different times: the retirement of Mike Wallace and the deaths of Peter Jennings and Walter Cronkite. Those men strode the earth, meeting every president, celebrity, athletic hero, villain, author, inventor, saint, criminal…everyone. Who else among God’s children gets this kind of access?

For the moment Pelley has been able to avoid the bright prison of the evening news anchor chair and is still free to roam the world. And roam he does, rumbling across the wilds of Darfur in an armed convoy, walking gingerly through cornfields in Iraq to avoid roadside bombs, nearly getting beat up in a Chinese junkyard, pausing before breathtaking Arctic glaciers that melt like discarded popsicles.

His dance card for interview subjects has been equally full. George W. Bush allowed him to visit Camp David for a lengthy interview. He recently landed one of the first interviews ever with a sitting Federal Reserve chairman in Ben Bernanke. And then there are the encounters where his famed composure turns dramatic, such as his showdowns with disgraced CIA head George Tenet or that Iranian guy.

“I had a ball,” Pelley smiles about those last two grillings. “The interviews that are somewhat contentious, those are tremendously fun. The more evasive the subject is, the more fun it is, the thrusting and parrying, trying to corner them into the answer that they’re so desperate not to give you.” A ton of viewer mail poured in after the Ahmadinejad interview— half of it angry that Pelley had been rude, the other half angry that Pelley kept calling him “sir.”

“As we know now, he lied all the way through that interview, because we were talking principally about nuclear weapons.”

He looks up to smile as Jane Boone Pelley darts in, bearing mugs of coffee. A trim, athletic woman, she was once a TV news reporter in Dallas and, like her husband, retains that skill for getting to the point, nailing the story, and moving on to the next assignment, which in today’s case is a Special Olympics class where she teaches tennis to young adults with Down syndrome.

“I don’t know how much insight Jane can give in to me,” he says, watching her. “We’ve only been married twenty-six years and she’s just getting used to me.” She arches her eyes into a smile and hurries on.

Two years ago the Pelleys moved up from McLean, Virginia, and settled in quite rapidly. They drove around the state and found it gorgeous. They rented powerboats at Rex Marine in Norwalk and toured all corners of Long Island Sound. Next summer they will get a sailboat and see it all again at a more graceful speed.

There is no shortage of TV pros living here, but what sealed the Darien deal was meeting the teachers at the high school that their son Reece and daughter Blair now attend. On Parent–Teacher Night, that would be Scott Pelley in the dark gray suit, dutifully taking notes and staying after for follow-up questions.

As for work, given the prodigious amount of temptation that would hit any TV star, what are the ground rules for sanity? Pelley responds instantly with lessons he heard from wily veterans: When you’re on the road, it’s better to go to the gym than to the bar.

Then he recalls an incident that happened while he was rushing to cover an earthquake in San Francisco, sharing a cab with a longtime veteran CBS correspondent. “He went on and on and on, and he said, ‘Kid, don’t let this ruin your life. One of these days you’ll be walking your daughter down the aisle and you’ll realize, I don’t know this woman.’

“I didn’t have kids at the time, but I thought, Gee, that is the worst thing I ever heard.” The look of shocked concern on his face regroups into an assertive glint. “Having a stable, rock-solid marriage is an indispensable element. I’ve known a lot of people at the network who’ve had their family crack up. A lot.”

You Can Tell
When Jane Boone was a student at Southern Methodist, her journalism professor brought in the chief of a local news station as guest speaker. This director carried in a pile of résumé tapes that hopeful news reporters had sent to the station and let the students judge them. As Jane watched the clips of news reports, one reporter jumped out of the rest. “Oh, definitely, that guy,” she said.

Months later she saw “that guy” doing a news report on the Dallas station. “Naturally, I take all the credit,” Jane beams. Soon she became an intern at the station, and they became an item.

The young Pelley? “He was interesting,” she recalls, “and he was driven.” Having been raised in western Oklahoma, she’d never quite known anyone like him.

“In the beginning, it was just very natural. He liked my friends, and you can kind of tell that way. He was very different from any of the guys I ever dated. When I met him, he was hang gliding and always taking pictures and developing them. He had so many interests. As a student I could get half-price tickets to the opera, and it was hard finding someone to go with, but he’d say, ‘Oh my gosh, the opera! Let’s go!’ He was a scuba diver, so I got certification so we could go diving together. We just kind of walked down the road together.”

In time she became a reporter on a rival station. “When we got married, it was a story in the Dallas Morning News: ‘Competitors Tie the Knot.’ ” The daughter of a surgeon and an anesthetist, she eventually became a medical reporter, and then host of a medical talk show. She started an ad agency specializing in medical issues and kept at it until about ten years ago, when Scott became chief White House correspondent and she realized she’d rather run her household than the business.

The First in Town
The Pelleys were a social family in Lubbock, Texas, a tabletop-flat city in which most things revolved around cotton and Texas Tech. Scott’s mother was in real estate and hosted weekly bridge parties. Dad was a jack-of-all-trades entrepreneur who ran a couple of used-car lots and some small nightclubs.

Going to work as a copyboy at the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, fifteen-year-old Scott dreamed of being a National Geographic photographer. In that precomputer age, the news came to town via teletype machines. As he sorted the printouts of the stories, he took pride in knowing that he was the first in town to get the news: NIXON RESIGNS. SAIGON FALLS. POPE DIES. He knew it first.

“So one day the executive editor walks into the wire room where I was doing my homework,” Pelley recalls. “He’s a big, barrel-chested guy with a silver crew cut, and he looks at me and he barks, ‘Do you want to be a reporter?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, I never gave it any thought. Sure.’ And he picked me out of the wire room, took me into the city room, sat me in front of the typewriter, and that was the end of my photography career and the beginning of my reporting career.”

To hear Pelley tell it, that was the last time anyone ever gave him anything. His transition from city-room flunky to king of TV news is an impressive march of a relentless personality. When one of his fellow reporters moved over to a position at a local NBC outlet, Pelley liked the idea of combining reporting and photography. “So I started badgering the director of the ABC station in Lubbock, and he finally decided it would be easier to hire me than hear me calling him all the time.

“This was a little wood-burning TV station, literally out in the middle of a cotton field. We had to do everything. We went out and shot the stories, we brought the film back and processed it ourselves. We were shooting car wrecks and ribbon cuttings. I would write the ten o’clock news for the anchorman.

“Wonderful experience if you’re going to become a broadcaster! I’m doing every single thing. I’m a cameraman, editor, producer. Magnificent experience. So you can make mistakes, and even repeat those mistakes, and not get fired. So I did that through college at Texas Tech, and when I was twenty-one or twenty-two, I made the completely improbable leap from Lubbock, the 137th market in the country, to Dallas, the 10th. I had no business being there.”

But what was the special Pelley gift that got him there? He doesn’t know, or won’t say it. “I don’t know if anyone saw a developable skill, but perhaps it was my perseverance and persistence. Maybe people thought this kid could be a pretty good reporter because he sure won’t leave us alone.”

As Jane would say later, Scott expects to win. “If he doesn’t win, he just gets up and says, ‘OK, what’s next? How do I try that again?’ He can be confounding sometimes, but it’s a great quality for a journalist.”

Since the local ABC affiliate was a nationally respected powerhouse, Pelley went to work on its chief, Marty Hague. Naturally, he didn’t let up. “Marty had a secretary whose main job it was to make sure I never got through to him. He had decided after multiple interviews that
I was not for him. Well, one day she must have been away, I got to him. He was angry that I had gotten through. He said, ‘All right, I’ve got something for you—eight hours a week, one shift on Saturday, you want that?’

“At that time I was working forty to sixty hours a week, I had a mortgage to pay, Jane and I were together. I said, ‘Absolutely! I’ll take it!’ Of course, you know what I did. I went to work every day and would spend the whole week doing that one story. And they were awesome! Everybody else was doing two a day, and I spent six days on one. After a few weeks of that, Marty said, ‘OK, OK, you can come to work here full time.”

After getting national exposure covering Hurricane Andrew and the Timothy McVeigh trial, and seeing the bright lights of New York, he decided the only network to be at was CBS. He went through a similar process of repeated rejections until finally they broke down and let him in the door.

Pelley was the correspondent on the plane following young Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992, and five years later he was the White House correspondent at one of the most surreal times in the nation’s history, Clinton’s impeachment.

“Dangerous story,” he recalls, his face darkening. “Dangerous. People were gunning for the President of the United States, and you couldn’t be wrong. You had all these entities that weren’t supposed to be talking, but were. The Office of the Independent Council, the President’s lawyers, the Justice Department, the FBI, all leaking information. Which was illegal. The whole thing was tremendously dangerous because there was a lot of bad information—terrible lies being told to reporters to spin the story one way or another.

“We developed a lot of sources and broke a lot of news, and I’m glad to say were not wrong in anything.”

The impeachment era proved to be a shot of growth hormones to the rising cable-news industry and only fortified the sense that news might be a lurid kind of entertainment. Pelley broods over that. “I’m concerned for the media right now. Politically biased coverage has become
popular—and a good business model, which is the worst thing to happen. I worry about a media culture in which people search for news that they agree with, because they’re never going to learn anything.

“But people like confirming information. They like to be told what they already feel is right. And some pretty clever and unscrupulous people have figured that out.” He cautions, though, that while the cable-news rivals Fox, MSNBC and CNN are getting 2 million viewers for the evening news, the networks, with their fair-minded approach, are simultaneously getting 17 million. Still, he finds the situation “worrisome.”

Stories to Tell
The maddening thing about talking with Pelley is that any week of his life for the last twenty years would provide grist for a fabulous conversation all by itself. Even a pleasant tour of the framed photographs lining the walls of his sitting room makes a visitor want to gasp and demand stories.

There are Scott and Jane standing in a crater in Tanzania; pictures of the family skiing on a mountainside in Montana; the kids in India and Antarctica—they’re big enough to go on assignment now and see what the old man does for a living.

Got a favorite place? “The White House, actually. No matter who occupies it, I love the White House. There’s something about being there, the history of the place. I think of the rooms that Lincoln was in, or this part being built by Teddy Roosevelt.”

He recalls the Okavango Delta in Botswana, “a unique and beautiful ecosystem. And I love Antarctica; it’s so unlike any place on earth. No one’s there, so the air and the water are crystal clear. You can stand on a boat and watch whales and dolphins go under the boat.” His resonant voice turns quiet as he walks through the foyer. “I love India. It’s magnificent. It’s such a collision of sights and smells.”

Walking outside, he is hit by the grandness of a bright autumn morning. “Nice day,” he says. “I guess right here is my favorite place. My little corner of Darien.” He smiles expansively and raises his arms in appreciation—the kid from Lubbock, the dad from Darien, the man of the world.

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