C.J.: Hattie Kauffman knows the power of words
- Article by: C.J.
- Star Tribune
- November 2, 2013 - 4:54 PM
Who better than Hattie Kauffman, the first American Indian to report on a national newscast, to enlighten Dan Snyder about the BIG PROBLEM with the name of his D.C.-area NFL team.
Kauffman, a U and WCCO-TV alum and member of the Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho, returned to the Twin Cities last month while on tour for her book “Falling into Place: A Memoir of Overcoming.”
It’s a sad book about her impoverished upbringing. When I informed her that I no longer read books about children and women in peril, Kauffman, the middle child of seven, stressed: “But it has a redemptive aspect. That’s a message that comes out of my book. We hung together, we had like a sibling bond; by the end of my book I’m looking back at what had seemed horrible and it doesn’t seem so horrible. I see how we were protected. I see how our love kept us there. I pay tribute to a beloved aunt, who checked in on us.”
Kauffman has been carrying these stories around for a long time: “When I was 25 I wrote a table of contents, but it took another 25 years before I did anything.”
A multi-Emmy winner, Kauffman was a special correspondent for ABC’s “Good Morning America” before joining CBS, where she worked for nearly 22 years until her departure in 2012. I remember Kauffman as the warm spot on the set during the reincarnation of the CBS morning news show that included Paula Zahn. Kauffman reported from many CBS platforms including “CBS This Morning,” “The Early Show,” “CBS Evening News with Katie Couric” (and Dan Rather) and “48 Hours.” Despite how Kauffman radiated warmth to me, she said she didn’t become a truly giving, caring person until “my coming to God, my conversion experience.”
She talks about it at length in the book, about which she razzed me twice on video for not reading.
When asked to make a pitch that might open the eyes and heart of the owner of the team whose nickname I stopped using in print in 1992, Kauffman said, “Well, I have to just cut in here for a second because actually the visual of the [former mascot of the Cleveland] baseball team is more offensive to me. That big grinning visual …” is repellent to Kauffman, who can be seen recoiling on my startribune.com/video. The name of the D.C. NFL team, however, wins the verbal contest for offensiveness. “Words,” said Kauffman. “On the Washington team you have a team that’s named after ‘skin,’ ” she said, holding up the backs of her hands on camera. “Could you do that with any other skin color in America?”
And it’s especially hurtful and disrespectful that it’s OK to do so with the people I consider the Original Americans.
Q What is something you keep in abundance at your home because of your impoverished childhood?
A Oooooh. Duplicates. [Laughter] I have to change that about myself. Having not had enough, you can get the sense that you’re never going to have enough. So you get two of this. Some of that’s changed in recent years. I think part of it actually fueled a career. You know what it’s like to work in this business. It’s a competitive business, journalism. Especially television journalism. When your face is on the air, somebody else’s face is not on the air. Elbowing. Get out of the way, it’s mine. I think I had a lot of that because of my childhood, because of the hunger and scarcity.
Q You are someone who spent a lot of time trying to be liked, a mind-set that is foreign to me and many reporters. What is something you once did to get somebody to like you that you wouldn’t do today?
A Wow, that’s a good question. I was on my way to a story just as an accident on the freeway happened. I thought this camera person I was working with didn’t want to stop. That person said, We don’t need to do this, do we? I said, No, and yet once we got to our location the executive producer called and said, You stopped and got that didn’t you? You were right there. And we didn’t. That’s one tiny example that’s not going to hurt anybody’s feelings, I don’t think.
Q You’re still trying not to hurt feelings?
A There you go-o-o-o-o-o. You’re very good.
Q Because you’ve become rather religious, I’d like to know when you last dropped a swear word.
A Oh, you are an unusual interviewer. I can’t remember the exact last time, but is has been since my coming to God. Nobody gets perfect in that moment. My coming to God, my conversion experience, was so real for me and yet I didn’t know what it meant. As with everybody, it’s sort of a slow evolution of yourself. Hopefully we are becoming better human beings.
Q Were you an atheist before you accepted “The white man’s God,” which is strange coming from someone whose daddy was white while your mom was Nez Perce Tribe of Idaho?
A Exactly. I was exposed to some Native American spirituality as a child. That sort of fell away in my 20s. Maybe I had a thought here or there, like an eagle flies over and I think I’m being blessed or something like that. Then I started working in the news business. I probably became just more and more skeptical of anything and everything. You know, you go out and interview people. You hear, I am strong. The Lord will get me through this. I don’t even know what that means. I was probably along that [line of thinking]. I don’t know that I would call myself a professed atheist. I’ve met those and I would not say that’s what I was. I was just sort of an off-the-path person.
Q What would have been different about your life if you had found a connection to God earlier?
A Well, I probably would have had less of that “Please like me, please like me” and “Do I have enough stuff” to make sure I’m OK. I have so much more peace and happiness right now. I certainly would have loved to have that peace and happiness sooner. [Laughs] Also, I find I do things that are not just for me anymore. For instance, giving up of a day to be with somebody. Not, “Oh, I came to visit a sick person, can I go now?” Just giving. I don’t think that part of myself existed.
Q You always seemed more caring on TV.
A [Laughter] That’s funny.
Q What would the 11th Commandment be if you could decide it?
A [Extended laughter] I could never even … I can’t even go there, I don’t think. You are asking me to put myself in God’s shoes and I can’t do that.
Q Why were you named Hattie?
A My great-grandmother was named Hattie. My mother’s grandmother on the American Indian side. She died about a month after I was born. It’s not even on my birth certificate. It was just stuck on me.
Q Your name, Hattie, always stopped me, and I wondered why you didn’t change it. It’s an old name, like Hattie McDaniel, the most famous Hattie I know, who’s been dead since 1952.
A She was the only Hattie anybody ever heard of when I introduced myself through the years. They call me Pattie and I said, “No, it’s Hattie.” Call me Mattie, I’d say, “No, it’s Hattie.” Finally I would say “Hattie McDaniel.”
Q If you had a stage name what would it be?
Q Which morning network news show do you think is the best and why?
A Where do you come up with these? [Laughter] Oh, I kind of stopped watching. You think I’m dodging but it’s the truth.
Q Your reporting style reminds me a little of NBC’s Ann Curry’s. You’re a gentle spirit, empathetic — apparently less empathetic than I realized — but without being sappy or overly emotional. Am I close?
A Well, I would aspire to that.
Q Is this an appropriate tease for a TV show: “I asked Billy Ray if reports are true that Randy [Travis] is on life support. You’ll hear what he told me tomorrow …”
A Was than an actual one? [It was stated on “Entertainment Tonight.” Sound of exasperation, from Kauffman.] That is horrible.
Interviews are edited. Reach C.J. at email@example.com and see her on Fox 9. A highly edited, shorter version of my interview with Hattie Kauffman’s appears in print editions.
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