On a flight back from New Orleans Sunday night, I was in luck. The plane was equipped with live television so I could watch the 60 Minutes special about Morley Safer, one of television’s greatest storytellers.
Morley Safer: A Reporter’s Life aired just a few days after Safer formally retired following an astonishing 52 years at CBS News — 46 of them with 60 Minutes. He was the news magazine’s longest-serving correspondent.
It felt like an obituary. But I refused to believe one of my heroes in journalism — one of the most distinctive writers on television — was seriously ill and, I suspected, dying since the special didn’t include any fresh interviews.
With his death, we lose a highly unique voice, but mostly we lose the richness of personality who was not afraid to go wide and deep.
— '60 Minutes' Producer Ruth Streeter
Sadly, my suspicions were born out. Morley Safer died at his home in New York today. He was 84.
What a life he packed into those 84 years.
A Great Sparkle
The Canadian-born journalist brought the intensity of the Vietnam War battlefield directly and uncomfortably into America’s living room; took us for a ride on the Orient Express; and got up close and personal with the likes of comedian Jackie Gleason, actress Helen Mirren and Vogue’s Editor Anna Wintour.
“Morley always looked for the humor, the human side in every story — what makes us human — greatness, courage, audacity but he also understood weakness, vanity and power and arrogance and despotism, ego and narcissism,” says longtime 60 Minutes Producer Ruth Streeter, who worked with Safer on the profiles of Mirren and Wintour. “He understood the human character and human soul. Some people are rich and deep in a narrow way, but Morley had a range across all things. Most of all what set him apart is that he was like Shakespeare in the sense of understanding people in a nonjudgmental way. Morley had a great sparkle.”
Steven Reiner, an associate professor of journalism at Stony Brook University, worked with Safer at 60 Minutes for more than a decade beginning in 1996 on profiles of the late neurologist, author Oliver Sacks and conductor Michael Tilson-Thomas, and traveling with him to the kingdom of Bhutan, thought to be the happiest place on Earth. What stands out, Reiner says, is Morley’s “inimitable persona, his style, his affect, his extraordinarily quirky, unpredictable and brilliant wit, his sense of the absurd, playfulness, irony. He was a wonderful artist, pen and ink. Morley had a lot of passions — racecar driving in the country — a very full and rich life outside of 60 Minutes. I don’t think 60 Minutes ever became his identity per se the way it was for others. But the great irony is he survived Mike Wallace, Ed Bradley, Bob Simon and founding executive producer Don Hewitt.”
Safer, Reiner says, “could be tender, but he was also tough as nails. The toughness must have developed in Vietnam. A fierce defender of his work, Morley would fight for a story in the screening room with Don Hewitt, down to the semicolon.”
Perhaps more than any other trait, it was Safer’s writing that set him apart. “Morley was an essayist, a phenomenal writer,” says Streeter. “With his death, we lose a highly unique voice, but mostly we lose the richness of personality who was not afraid to go wide and deep. The world intrigued Morley, so it was always fun to go on the adventure with him. Always.”
Growing Up With Morley Safer
If the boomers felt like they grew up with Morley Safer it’s because they did. Safer’s career with CBS began in 1964 with his reports from Vietnam, not long after that awful weekend in November 1963 when everything seemed to change — when as a nine-year-old I was shocked to watch Jack Ruby shoot Lee Harvey Oswald on live television. Just six years years later, Safer joined 60 Minutes in its third season.
It was near the beginning of the Safer special Sunday night when I let out a belly laugh that probably carried several rows in front and behind me on the flight home. Little did I know that Safer and I had at least one thing in common: an office that, shall we say was well lived in, though it’s fair to say Safer did me one better. Along with the books, old newspapers and piles of old scripts, 60 Minutes Executive Producer Jeff Fager described Safer’s office as a marked contrast to the impeccably dressed globe-trotting correspondent with the polka dot tie, Tattersall shirt and pocket square. “They found a piece of cake behind his desk from like 20 years ago,” Fager said, “and a couple of dead mice.”
Reiner remembers when they recarpeted the 60 Minutes offices, and had to move the furniture out of everyone’s office. But they couldn’t do it in Morley’s office because he wouldn’t clear the piles from his desk. They gave up and just cut out the carpet around his desk.
“My image of Morley is sitting at his desk with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth, swiveling back and forth from his typewriter,” Reiner recalls, “just thinking for 10, 15, 20 seconds and then coming up with a turn of phrase that might take me a week and even then I wouldn’t get close. He was just amazing.”
Safer eventually transitioned to the computer, of course. A few days ago, he tweeted: “It’s been a wonderful run” and thanked “the millions of people who have been loyal to our 60 Minutes broadcast.”
No, Morley, thank you.