In her early days in Washington, D.C., with CBS-TV, Lesley Stahl was given a routine assignment to cover a ceremony at John F. Kennedy’s grave. But when the cameraman showed up and saw that she was the one reporting the story, he hoisted his heavy camera cases and, one at a time, angrily crashed them back into his car trunk. Everyone who witnessed the incident instinctively recoiled in horror—except Stahl. She later recalled, “The bullyragging was toughening me up.”
At the time, Stahl was 30—which is to say, she was young, a rookie and, strike three, a woman. A lot of veterans at the network felt the new affirmative-action hire hadn’t paid her dues. Then, and throughout her 19-year climb at CBS from White House reporter to evening-news anchor to 60 Minutes correspondent, Lesley Stahl met obstacles by going over, through or around them. She remembers, during Watergate, fighting ABC’s Sam Donaldson for an interview with special prosecutor Archibald Cox by hurling herself in front of the camera. Another time, at the Capitol, she was hauled away by a security guard when she cornered Alexander Haig, then Richard Nixon’s chief of staff, over whether the president would turn over tapes to the Ervin Committee. And often, between the 30 or so calls she made daily to confirm a story, she would race home to try to ease the strain on her marriage and be there for her daughter Taylor, now 21 and a senior at Amherst College.
“Lesley’s a bulldog,” says admiring 60 Minutes colleague Steve Kroft. In fact, she has had to be. As former presidential press secretary Marlin Fitzwater says, “She has survived in a business that’s very tough on women. She has done it because of hard work and tenacity.”
Now, at the peak of her profession, Stahl, 57, looks back on 30 years of proud moments. In her new memoir, Reporting Live, she fondly recalls her days in Washington, from trailing Nixon’s henchmen during Watergate through her coverage of Presidents Carter, Reagan and Bush, where she polished her reputation for carefully coiffed, unrelenting aggressiveness. One morning in 1982, for example, Stahl got a tip that First Lady Nancy Reagan had received as gifts expensive designer gowns that she had not reported. When the First Lady didn’t comment, Stahl put in other calls. “She went everywhere to break that story,” says CBS’ Rita Braver, then a producer who worked with Stahl. “She got it. She nailed it. She broke it. To watch her work was poetry in motion.”
These days, her 60 Minutes colleague Mike Wallace, 80, calls Stahl “a tough competitor,” and producer Don Hewitt credits her with having “all the instincts of a great reporter.” But when she first arrived at 60 Minutes in 1991, says Stahl, she had conflicting goals. “My will to both have a career and be a mother was enormous,” she says. And though Stahl, who is married to writer Aaron Latham, rarely missed any of her daughter’s dance recitals or school plays, she paid a price for her ambition. “I always said I can take any amount of stress. But I couldn’t. Things were churning inside me.” Stahl soon developed an ulcer, since cured through medication and diet.
Little in Stahl’s early life prepared her for such combat. “I had a very normal, healthy childhood,” she says. Growing up in Swampscott, Mass., north of Boston, with her father, Louis, a paint salesman who died in 1994, her mother, Dolly, 80, and brother Jeff, 55, now a real estate executive in Boston, Stahl was a good student and cheerleader who went on to major in history at Wheaton College in Norton, Mass. She started graduate school in zoology, but quit after a year and a half, and in 1968 was hired at NBC News as a writer and researcher. But she got off to a rocky start with David Brinkley when she asked the anchorman for career advice on whether she should take a producer’s job in London. “You’re a pretty blonde,” she remembers him saying. “You should stay in New York and have fun.” Stahl’s reaction? “I decided I’d show him,” she says. In early 1972 she took a job as a reporter with CBS in Washington; for her first national on-air appearance, says her friend Nina Totenberg, NPR’s legal correspondent, “She wore her glasses to look serious.”
That June she was assigned to cover a break-in, little noted at the time, at Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate complex. “At the beginning of Watergate,” Stahl recalls, “they thought it was such an insignificant story that they sent a rookie.” It was during Watergate that she developed her attack-dog reputation. Once, in pursuit of a quote, she trailed Nixon’s lawyer, John Dean, into a men’s room.
In the trenches, she hooked up with colleagues including Bob Woodward of The Washington Post, whom she dated briefly. “We lived in a zone that was all-consuming,” she recalls. “Everything gets mixed up—the romance, the story, the environment. We had a sense that we were doing important things.” She also went out a few times with Bob Dole, then a recently divorced senator.
Then one evening Aaron Latham, a handsome young magazine writer desperate for his own Watergate scoop, took Stahl out to dinner. He didn’t know what she looked like, so before the date he tuned in to her evening broadcast. “I thought she was overwhelmingly beautiful and I wouldn’t be able to talk to her,” he says. “It turned out I didn’t need to.” Stahl fed him enough juicy leads to fill two entire notebooks.
When they began dating, Stahl’s friends warned her that she had little in common with Latham, a hulking southerner from the little farming town of Spur, Texas (population: 1,350). But Stahl had a mind of her own. One afternoon in 1977 she slipped out of work to meet Latham at the late Federal Judge David Bazelon’s Washington chambers. The pair wed in a brief ceremony (Lesley wore an old blue dress, new shoes and a borrowed necklace), after which she headed back to the studio for her evening broadcast.
Before they eloped, Stahl teased Latham, who had a scruffy reddish beard, that it was unnatural for a wife not to know what her husband’s face looked like. But when she arrived in New York City a few days later to find him clean-shaven, she writes, “I burst into tears. I had married a stranger. None of his features were in place.”
Meanwhile, Stahl’s career continued its upswing, and in 1978 she was named CBS’s White House correspondent, covering Jimmy Carter. Once, in ’79, she allowed her competitive zeal to get the better of her when she used an exclusive she had overheard Judy Woodruff (then with NBC) taping about the appointment of a new cabinet member. “It took quite a while for me to admit I was wrong,” she says. She also learned to joke about her heavily hair-sprayed on-air persona. Later, she got a more relaxed cut and traded her frilly blouses for more stylish suits.
Today, the couple—with Latham once again bearded—live in a lavish three-bedroom duplex on New York City’s West Side. Since neither cooks, they mostly order in from neighborhood restaurants. But she provides in other ways, as in 1987, when Latham, best known for Urban Cowboy, became deeply depressed after publishing a new book. “I was terrified,” says Stahl. “I’d be at work at the White House and he wouldn’t answer the phone.” She comforted Latham and convinced him to consult a psychiatrist. “I wasn’t seeing anybody,” he says. “She saved my life.”
As Stahl got older, she also came to value her female friendships. “I started craving the company of women,” she says. Her close pals—ABC’s Cokie Roberts, NPR host Linda Wertheimer and Nina Totenberg—credit Stahl with organizing a regular “ladies’ lunch,” where the talk ranges from politics to lipstick. “I began to need,” Stahl says, “the comfort of that chatter.”
Nowadays, nothing ruffles Stahl, not even 60 Minutes II, CBS’s newly launched sister broadcast, lambasted early on by some of her colleagues. “We’ve all relaxed a great deal,” she, says. But while Stahl appears to have mellowed, friends maintain she hasn’t lost her famous edge. “She has such a lovely smile when she sits down to talk,” says Linda Wertheimer. “Then she asks these dreadfully tough questions. It must be sort of a shock.”
Jennifer Frey in New York City