August 11, 2013

1952. Nixon's Headset

"Walter Cronkite and Ed Murrow want to talk to you."
Bill Downs interviewing then-Vice President Richard Nixon in the 1950s
From Don Hewitt's 2002 book Tell Me A Story: 50 Years and 60 Minutes in Television, p. 57-58:
We also were fierce in our competition with the other networks for breaking news and interviews. Right after the Republicans chose Richard Nixon to be Dwight Eisenhower's running mate, Nixon was holding an impromptu news conference in the hallways leading from the convention floor. NBC, ABC, and CBS, among others, were carrying the news conference live on radio and television. As usual, it was a mob scene.

Our man in the crowd was Bill Downs, who was wearing a headset on which he could hear Walter Cronkite and Ed Murrow in the anchor booth and me when I wanted to cut in and tell him something. He was also holding the microphone over which we were picking up what Nixon was saying. All of a sudden I was struck with a crazy thought. "Take your headset off, Bill," I said, "and put it on Nixon before he has a chance to know what’s happening, and tell him Cronkite and Murrow want to talk to him."

Downs couldn't answer because his mike was "hot" and Nixon was speaking into it, as he was speaking into a dozen or so other mikes that were stuck in his face. Bill thought I had lost my mind, but he did what I told him. He took off his headset and stuck it on Nixon’s head, handed him his mike and told him, "Walter Cronkite and Ed Murrow want to talk to you."

Because it happened so fast and because it happened live in front of millions, Nixon had no chance to think about it. The other reporters didn't know what to do because there was nothing they could do. Here was Richard Nixon, wearing a CBS headset and holding a CBS microphone, talking to Murrow and Cronkite live on NBC and ABC as well as on CBS. We, of course, could carry both ends of the conversation. What the others got were only long pauses and then Nixon's answers, which began "Well, Ed," or "well, Walter." It was delicious.

Putting a headset on news personalities at news events so they could talk to Cronkite became a CBS trademark, and later, a joke. Hughes Rudd, one of our reporters during the '60s and '70s once said he'd had a dream that I told him to take off his headset and put it on Cronkite so Walter could have a conversation with himself.