John Palmer On Un-Retirement, Tim Russert, And How He’s Still Connected To Today

By Alissa Krinsky 

5 Questions For…John Palmer

Alissa Krinsky
TVNewser Contributor

Veteran newsman John Palmer is having the time of his life.


He’s happily un-retired now, two years after joining the then-start up Retirement Living TV (how’s that for irony?). Palmer anchors two RLTV shows, The Prudent Advisor and Encore with John Palmer.

Encore‘s third season premieres December 2, and Palmer enjoys his work so much, he’d like to keep on going “maybe for another ten years.”

The newsman’s broadcasting career began in 1960 at Atlanta’s WSB-TV. He later joined NBC News in Chicago, eventually moving to New York, Tel Aviv, Beirut, Paris, and Washington, DC.

Palmer served as White House Correspondent, covering four presidents. He also was Today‘s news anchor from 1982-89.

Palmer talks with TVNewser about his new life, his new Today connection, and his memories of Tim Russert, who gave Palmer a second chance at NBC News, re-hiring him after Palmer had left the network four years earlier.

1. TVNewser: Retirement Living TV has made it worth coming out of retirement because…
Palmer: I left NBC news six years ago — my contract wasn’t up, I had another year to go — but I just had a feeling that I had ‘been there and done that.’

I used [that] time to write a book and try to get a little better golf game than I had before, and so forth, but I kind of got an itch to get back into the business and luckily, two years ago, Retirement Living TV was launched by John Erickson, a real visionary who really felt there was a need for television programs for people over fifty, and I jumped at the chance to get back in the business and to join RLTV right on the ground floor, and I’ve been with them since the day they were launched.

We focus on all kinds of issues that affect the lives of our audience. We just don’t do shuffleboard programs at all! We deal in politics, sports, business, journalism, the arts.

My favorite thing — and what I’m basically concentrating on now — we’re starting our third season next month with RLTV next month — Encore, it’s an interview program.

We interview nationally-known figures…I’ve done about seventy interviews: Art Buchwald, Tom Brokaw, Lesley Stahl, Walter Isaacson…it’s been a real fun thing talking to these people. I even went to Hollywood for a week and did some interviews with Phyllis Diller, Rosemarie, Ed Asner, and so forth.

I just turned 73 and I’d like to do this maybe for another ten years, who knows!

2. TVNewser: Tim Russert‘s impact on my life and career:
Palmer: Tim had a terrific — and important — impact on my career. He was one of the best bosses, one of the best friends, I ever had in broadcast news.

His enthusiasm was just infectious. He was supportive of me and of other correspondents at NBC News in every way possible.

I remember after I was replaced as a news anchor on the Today show by Deborah Norville, I hosted a syndicated news program — I left NBC for a while — I worked for the Christian Science Monitor for a time, and then I called Tim and asked him if there was a place for me back at NBC News.

Usually, when you leave a network, the doormat is not out for you to come back. And I remember what he said — he said, “Is this the same John Palmer who walked away from this network a few years ago?”

And I said, “Well, I wouldn’t put it exactly that way.”

But long story short, he hired me, and that gave me another eight years, to cover the White House — the Clinton administration, and then the first of the Bush administrations, so Russert gave me another decade in the news business.

More than being a terrific, fair journalist, he was just a wonderful human being. People have no idea the people that he helped. I would discover, just inadvertently somehow, the people that he had helped, and done so anonymously — he was just a very fine human being.

3. TVNewser: Having reported on the Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and Bush(43) White Houses, the most interesting President to cover was…
Palmer: I don’t want to cop out, but they were all interesting in their own way. But I think two of them really stand out — that would be Reagan and Clinton.

Reagan very much reminded me of my father: an unpretentious guy, he was warm, a man who really got to the point and gave straight answers. I disagreed with a lot of his policies, but he had a charm about him — that was just something else.

Talk about wanting to have a beer with somebody: there was a guy you’d love to have a beer, or two or three beers with, and listen to his stories and tell a few of your own.

With Clinton, I covered him longer than any other president. We traveled much of the world. He used to come back on Air Force One and he’d chat with reporters, sometimes for hours, about everything from [Abraham] Lincoln and [Thomas] Jefferson and how they handled things, to current events. I remember one long dissertation he gave…about the necessity to drink a lot of water!…

I found he was a fascinating guy. I think he was one of the smartest and well-read Presidents we’ve had, maybe since [Woodrow] Wilson. But his involvement with Monica Lewinsky and that scandal, what a shocker, and it marred what otherwise was a very successful Presidency.

4. TVNewser: How the current Today show compares to the one on which I anchored (1982-89):
Palmer: I still watch the Today show on occasion, certainly not every day. And I always watch when our daughter Molly — she’s an associate producer with Today on the West Coast — when one of her pieces is on, she always lets us know. And her mother and I are up watching that for sure at 7 o’clock in the morning…I’m very, very proud of her.

The Today show runs now for four hours — 7 to 11 — and if you watch that, there’s not much else you can accomplish in the morning!

I had nearly eight years as the news anchor on the Today show with Bryant [Gumbel] and Jane Pauley and Willard Scott, and despite having to get up at 3:30 in the morning, it was still a joy and a pleasure.

And I think that Meredith Vieira and Matt [Lauer] and Ann [Curry] are continuing the show – obviously the numbers are very good following Katie Couric‘s departure, so the show has probably got a bigger audience now than it’s ever had.

5. TVNewser: My thoughts on the direction of the television news industry:
Palmer: Well, I’m not one of those who longs for the ‘good old days’ of television news, that things were better back then when we covered the news. They were in some ways, some ways they’re better now.

We used to spend money just like water, sparing no expense to cover the news. Now, by golly, there’s an accountant who sits at the side of the assignment editors there at the desk, watching the spending. That’s just a reality.

…I hated to see the networks drastically cut back on their overseas bureaus. I was based in Cairo and in Beirut and in Paris — but now it’s a question of money, and a question of priorities.

I think CNN is now the leader with many, many bureaus…I’m still trying to get used to the cable channels — Fox, that gives the news with a conservative slant, and here’s MSNBC increasingly doing the same thing on the other side of the political spectrum.

Again, I think the money is the culprit. There are a limited number of people viewing cable news. It’s growing all the time, but it’s limited. There’s just competition to capture as large a niche of viewers as they can, to make as much money and pay the bills…

The nightly news programs on all three of the main networks…really they’re right now are doing the best job of covering the news of the day, but their days, I think, are not limited toward existing, but their audiences are shrinking year after year after year.

But most people are getting their news online. I get mine every couple of hours during the day — I’ll need a fix and I’ll go online!