CBS’ “60 Minutes” will devote its full broadcast Sunday to profiles of John McCain and Barack Obama with fresh interviews, hoping to set the stage for the general election campaign’s first presidential debate on Sept. 26.
Scott Pelley plans to interview McCain in Wisconsin on Thursday, the same day Steve Kroft is talking to Obama in Nevada. Both candidates also talked with the CBS newsmen earlier for pieces that will be unusually long by “60 Minutes” standards.
“I can’t get into a cab or have a conversation with somebody on the street without the conversation turning to politics,” Kroft said. “The country is totally engaged right now.”
Forty years ago “60 Minutes” founding producer Don Hewitt gave the same treatment to candidates Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey, although they didn’t get the whole show.
Even though Obama and McCain are seen on TV every day, the “60 Minutes” crew believes it can produce pieces that make news and offer perspective. The separate, nearly 20-minute pieces will mix profile material with a snapshot of a moment in the campaign.
“The beauty of being able to do this for ‘60 Minutes’ is we don’t have to take that first answer,” Pelley said. “We’re going to follow up. And then we’re going to follow up again. You don’t have that opportunity in most other broadcast venues.”
CBS executives considered the timing of the interviews very important, believing the stories would be less effective once the debates began.
“They both have been very receptive to us, even though they know they’re going to get hard questions,” said Jeff Fager, executive producer of “60 Minutes.” “They both know that we’re going to be fair.”
Pelley plans to ask McCain, for example, about his thought process behind selecting Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate, and about criticism of some of his campaign ads. With the Wall Street meltdown this week, both candidates will be pressed on economic issues.
Other stories are being prepared over the next few weeks on campaign issues, including reports from Lara Logan in Afghanistan and Lesley Stahl in Iraq, Fager said.
He acknowledged it was a “major disappointment” that “60 Minutes” lost to ABC’s Charles Gibson in its bid to get the first interview with Palin. CBS’ Katie Couric did secure a Palin interview later this month; Fager said it’s not known whether that material will be used for ‘60 Minutes.”
Sunday’s broadcast will be the first “60 Minutes” in high definition.
Both Kroft and Pelley negotiated some exclusive access to the presidential candidates at their party convention. Pelley and his crew filmed McCain coming backstage after accepting the GOP nomination.
“We caught him right at the moment he was stepping off the stage at what was arguably the pinnacle of his life and career,” he said.
But no, Pelley said, “I did not ask if he was going to Disney World.”