Even though she is on the cusp of turning 80, Lesley Stahl is still climbing mountains.
Thirty years ago, the “60 Minutes” correspondent “huffed and puffed for two months to get myself in training” for what she has said was “one of the best days of my life,” a visit with the famous Rwanda mountain primates that were the basis of the 1988 film “Gorillas in the Mist.” Her stamina work at that time didn’t do much for her, she recalls in an interview. “I almost died climbing to find them.” Despite her efforts, “what I failed to take into account was the altitude. It just did me in. Luckily, there was a porter or a guide who held my hand and basically made sure I didn’t quit or die.”
Stahl recently attempted the feat again for the CBS newsmagazine and managed to find the gorillas and get down the slopes. (“Down is easy, by the way,” she quips). Shari Finkelstein, her producer, awarded her with a new title: “Grandma Badass.”
Stahl is proving her mettle in new ways as she reaches an age that most people see as a time to break away from any kind of career. She tangled with President Donald Trump on four different occasions in recent years, and managed to walk away from a coronavirus infection. “Lesley does not stay still,” says Bill Owens, the executive producer of “60 Minutes.”
Anyone who might offer conjecture that Stahl is getting ready to step away from the program would be mistaken. Because “60 Minutes” correspondents get to choose the bulk of the stories they cover, they are all “involved and interested,” says Stahl. “That hasn’t waned. I guess when it does or if it does, or if I start to lose it, if I can’t climb a mountain, I get that that’s the time to hang up the spurs. Right now, I’m feeling great, and no one has come to me to say, ‘Time to slow down.’ So I don’t want to yet.”
She is among a small handful of TV personalities and executives who continue to do their jobs with as much gusto as they did when they were younger. Andrea Mitchell, who is nearing 74, not only contributes to a variety of NBC News reports as its chief foreign affairs and Washington correspondent but holds down a weekday hour on MSNBC. Judy Woodruff, also nearing 74, helps lead PBS’ venerable “NewsHour.” And Lorne Michaels, who is expected to turn 76, is getting ready to launch yet another season of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”
“When I grow up,” says Scott Pelley, one of Stahl’s colleagues, “I want to be Lesley Stahl.”
Viewers were surprised in May of 2020 when Stahl disclosed at the end of a “60 Minutes” broadcast that she had been infected with coronavirus. But she says now she “recovered very quickly and I’m definitely not a long-hauler.” Her diagnosis came before the release of vaccines, so she depended upon her own inner fortitude to get through the experience. “I instantly had this sense of protection, this magical cloak on me,” she says. “I felt a kind of freedom.”
Nor has she been daunted by her encounters with the former Commander-in-Chief. Her last interview with Trump, which he broke away from before it was over, was released by the White House in advance of the actual “60 Minutes” broadcast, and brought a swirl of media scrutiny that might surprise even a correspondent at the show. “I don’t know even why he walked out, to be honest with you. I really don’t,” says Stahl. “He really said, ‘Well, we are finished here,’ and I said, ‘Well, I’ll see you, and be careful around the wires,’ and then, afterwards, he seemed to be upset. I never had a chance to a say to him, ‘What was that all about?’” She still hasn’t.
While “60 Minutes” correspondents usually get to pick their stories, coverage of Trump had been assigned to Stahl before the 2016 election. Stahl has been a CBS News White House correspondent and moderated “Face the Nation” for nearly eight years, but she had never covered a president for the newsmagazine. She started off with an interview of him and many members of his family before Trump’s term started and ended with the exchange Trump tried to turn into a controversy. “Everybody who conducted the Trump interviews worked very hard. They were all done on deadline, I don’t know how late in the week each time, and we were literally working night and day to get them on the air,” Stahl says. “The last one was a real high-wire act.”
The correspondent has maintained her balance and is ready to keep going. “This is the truth: I’m not bored,” says Stahl. “My producer is going to come to me tomorrow with a story idea, and I’ll be all excited about it.”
Clearly, she has tales left to tell.