Eric Sevareid was 16 before he even heard a radio. A dozen years later World War II was on and he was broadcasting from European battlefronts. Last week, having turned 65, Sevareid signed off as commentator on CBS Evening News. Born Arnold Eric Sevareid in Velva, N.Dak., he was first known as “Arnie,’ but later switched to Eric. Raised in Minneapolis and a graduate of the University of Minnesota, he became a reporter at 18 and was working for the Paris Herald and United Press in 1939 when the late Edward Ft. Murrow recruited him for CBS News. Since 1964 Sevareid has been CBS’s Washington-based national correspondent. He married twice, first his college sweetheart, Lois Finger, by whom he had twin sons, now 37—Michael, a CBS executive in Hollywood, and Peter, a law professor. His second marriage, to Belen Marshall, also ended in divorce. Recently Sevareid talked with Penny Ward for PEOPLE.
After 47 years in journalism, how do you feel about retiring?
I’m not sure mandatory retirement is the right thing for everyone. In my case, I think the time is right. I don’t want to wear out my welcome.
Where do you go from here?
I’ll be starting immediately on a series of 16 one-half-hour documentaries for Mobil Oil. They will explore the period between World Wars I and II. I’ve had offers from about 10 universities. I know I’ll continue to write.
You had several close brushes with death. When were you most afraid?
The most sustained fear was the last two or three weeks of a 2,200-mile canoe trip through Canada that I took when I was 17. We nearly froze to death. It was a desperate, desperate experience. There was a sense of death closing in. The most momentary fear was trying to get up courage to parachute out of a disabled plane over Burma during World War II. That was over in seconds. Everybody pulled their cord, and nobody died in the fall.
In 1944 you made a recording on Mount Vesuvius; did you suspect the spot you were standing on would collapse two hours later?
That was sheer ignorance. We didn’t know a damn thing about volcanoes. The lava was flying through the air. We thought we might get burned alive if we didn’t get out of there—but we didn’t imagine it was about to blow up.
Why did you take risks so often?
It’s male ego as much as anything. With a bunch of men, you cannot honorably avoid all those risks. That’s what makes armies move. Pride. Any stigma would have been intolerable. You can’t live with that.
What was Ed Murrow’s influence on you?
Ed had a great influence. When I met him in London in 1937, he was older than me by about five years. But he was a much more sophisticated young man than I was. I was a callow, awkward kid from the Midwest. Somehow he was always rather graceful and poised and commanded himself in a way I did not. I was sort of in awe.
How did you and Murrow differ?
First, he had a remarkable voice. I didn’t have much of a voice. He learned this in college, where he was a speech and dramatics student. He had a certain sense of theater, and I didn’t have that at all. So he was a natural for this business. I couldn’t make a speech. I was terrified. I never took a speech lesson in my life. I should have years ago, but I never got around to it.
It’s been said that with a TV audience of over 16 million, your power to persuade was larger than any public official’s.
I don’t believe that. Those arguments go back to Spiro Agnew’s speech in Des Moines in 1969 when he talked about the power of us unelected types. Later in the speech he said the great silent majority doesn’t agree with us. Well, if they don’t agree, what power do we have?
Could you be specific?
People are very stubborn about things. A lot of us have been talking about this energy problem for years. Nearly half the people in the country don’t believe there is a problem or that there is going to be one. The same with Watergate. Until the very end, most people would not really take it seriously. They thought we were all exaggerating.
Should TV commentators be publicly challenged?
Yes, there should be more rebuttal on the air. I’ve been fussing about this for 15 years. People don’t get the chance to talk back to the little box. It isn’t a policy matter with the networks; it’s just that program formats get so difficult.
Why is it difficult?
I tried to do it myself one time. I searched through my mail for good letters that took issue with me. But by then several days had gone by. I had two and a half minutes. How could I recapitulate what I said? People may not remember the topic or they may not have seen the broadcast. In practical terms, I couldn’t do it very well.
Is there too much violence on TV?
I think so. It’s so damned unimaginative, it gets boring.
Do you think TV crime and violence have a bad effect on kids?
The evidence is not conclusive but you have to be careful about cause and effect. In Japan they tell me there is an awful lot of violence on TV. Yet if you get four murders a year in Tokyo, that about doubles the crime rate. Obviously there are other things at work. We don’t know what they are yet. I just don’t like TV made a national whipping boy for our problems. That’s just too easy.
Why have you taken issue with the print media’s criticism of broadcasting?
The news broadcasting business is the only business I can think of that has its chief competitor as its chief critic. It’s loaded dice. How can the newspapers love electronic journalism? The glamor and advertising have gone to radio and TV. I understand their feelings. I do believe this colors a great deal of TV criticism. We’re always under the microscope. Constantly. They are not.
Do you take criticism personally?
I don’t worry about criticism of me. I expect to be criticized. This industry has to be criticized. It is big and very pervasive. More pervasive than persuasive, I think. But I don’t want criticism to come from the government. They’ve got a club over us. This is a licensed press. We act as though we’re free, but the Fairness Doctrine, equal time—they are over us. I don’t think it’s healthy.
Has TV cut down on family discussion?
I don’t see the evidence for it. I can remember back to the pre-radio days. It was simply not true that families sat around in learned discussion. In my town, half the men would drift down to the pool hall after dinner. The women were hanging over the back fence. The old folks were sitting on the front porch, rotting. Radio is one of the greatest things that ever happened to light up their minds, to make them feel part of their country.
Has TV replaced reading?
I doubt it. Book sales on a per capita basis are a bit higher than before television started. Even children’s book sales are up. A lot of kids do watch too much TV. But the idea that they are spending endless hours sitting and staring at this thing is simply nonsense. Intellectuals have been telling us that grown-ups too are just sitting and staring, and their bodies are going to mush. But there has never been such an interest in sports; everybody is playing tennis or jogging.
It’s been said that you think journalism has gone “barbaric.” Do you?
No, I think it’s better as a whole—more educated, more responsible. There is a raucous fringe in this business, no question about it. That’s the competitive system. But really, I’d rather the press were a little bit irresponsible than too cautious. We’re safer that way.
What is your assessment of the spirit of the American people?
I don’t know how to measure it. There’s still a lot of resiliency and goodness. A lot of reasonableness. After all, we’ve made this show work—with the one interruption of the Civil War—for a very long time.
What distresses you?
To see politics and government becoming more and more a grab bag. Even the ethnic groups are becoming economic demand groups, not just cultural repositories. Too many people think the government owes everybody something or anything he hasn’t got. Where does all that end?
Who seems to have the answers?
We’ve got new problems now—and we don’t know how to deal with them. We use old “New Deal” approaches, because we don’t know what else to do. The traditional right wing—which says that the government should stay out of everything—doesn’t have the answers either. Nobody has yet found a new way of using government that is humane but doesn’t bankrupt everybody. In other words, the old guard is philosophically bankrupt. Somebody much younger is going to have to fill in these pages.