John Dickerson could hardly have picked two better subjects to exhibit his grit, or lack thereof, as the new anchor of “Face the Nation,” a promotion he received after Bob Schieffer’s emotional sendoff. Yet hosting two combative figures from the right and left – New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio – seemingly exposed Dickerson as someone who will be courtly to a fault, allowing his guests to deliver complete answers but scarcely challenging them on anything.
In his unflappable demeanor and style, Dickerson does seem to fit the CBS News mold established by Scott Pelley, the kind of guy who looks like he wakes up with his shirt pressed and hair perfectly in place. But the new host also conveys a sense that he sees his role strictly as asking the questions and letting politicians run through their talking points.
While that approach doesn’t figure to unleash a lot of the partisan bombast the position entails – Schieffer, notably, came under fire from the right in recent months for asking the Family Research Council’s chief, Tony Perkins, about being labeled a hate group – it also reflects an inside-the-Beltway mentality, one where having access to everyone frequently comes at the expense of ruffling feathers or rocking the boat.
In perhaps the most glaring example of that on Sunday, Christie spoke about the need for vigorous congressional oversight regarding the conduct of national security issues. Yet if that sounded like an obvious invitation to ask the governor about oversight of his own administration – clearly an issue, given the controversy over the closure of the George Washington Bridge, leading to indictments of former New Jersey officials – Dickerson didn’t take the bait, preferring to focus on his potential presidential ambitions.
Similarly, Dickerson didn’t press De Blasio — an equally polarizing and oversized personality — about his push regarding income inequality, or the soak-the-rich concerns raised when Democrats start talking about raising taxes on top earners.
About the only teeth Dickerson flashed were with former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, opening the interview by asking the obligatory question of his latest presidential campaign, “Why are you gonna do better this time than you did four years ago?” Those expecting any kind of follow-up regarding Perry’s fitness, however – or simply questioning his claim that the U.S. economy has suffered since President Obama took office – were left waiting, while Dickerson moved on to whether governors or legislators are more suited to the Oval Office.
Dickerson, who is clearly knowledgeable and exhibited a light touch presiding over the roundtable discussion, might not have wanted to come out of the gate guns blazing. Yet even charitably allowing for that, this was a tepid debut — one calibrated to policy wonks, while giving newsmakers zero reason to have any qualms about facing the new host. Several of the guests congratulated Dickerson on his new role, and if he maintains this sort of kid-gloves posture, it’s no wonder why being happy to have him around will be a source of rare bipartisan agreement.