"60 Minutes" opens its 52nd season later this month, and for the first time in 30 years, it will be without Steve Kroft. Without his eye for the outrageous, without his willingness to unpack the complicated stories most reporters would tell you are impossible to tell on television. Most of all, without his elegant, spare writing that serves the story without ever calling attention to itself. As Kroft, and everyone here just calls him "Kroft," says, "It's always about the story."
We had some questions of our own when we talked with the 74-year-old, newly-retired correspondent at his waterfront home on Long Island's Peconic Bay.
Lesley Stahl: "60 Minutes." People do not walk away from this, Steve. And there's a lotta people want to know why. I want to know. I tried to talk you out of it.
Steve Kroft: Right.
Lesley Stahl: I'm surprised. How can you walk away from this?
Steve Kroft: I've always felt like-- I had-- great amount of respect-- for people who-- who've left their professions when they were on top. And I felt that-- that this was the time for me to-- to go. That there were other things that I wanted to do, that I still had the energy to do it, and I still had the interest in doing it.
"It was more a period where I was, like a junior partner in a law firm."
Thirty years ago, when Kroft joined "60 Minutes," giants roamed the halls.
Mike Wallace and Morley Safer, Ed Bradley and Harry Reasoner.
Kroft was a veteran of the CBS London Bureau and the newsmagazine "West 57th." But "60 Minutes" was a whole new league.
Lesley Stahl: Was the red carpet out for you? Did you have a tough time in the beginning?
Steve Kroft: Well, I think everybody who comes to that show as a correspondent has a tough time at the beginning. It's very intimidating, and…
Lesley Stahl: But-- but didn't you once say that there-- that there was-- a hazing period for you?
Steve Kroft: It was more a period where I was, like a junior partner in a law firm.
Lesley Stahl: Ah, there you go.
Steve Kroft: That's the way it felt. Ya know, if you were fighting over a story, there wasn't any question--
Lesley Stahl: Forget it. Yeah.
Steve Kroft: --who was going to get it. I was not going to get it.
Lesley Stahl: Right. That's kinda hazing. We go-- we all go through that--
Steve Kroft: Yeah, yeah. It wasn't like a level playing field. There was seniority involved. And the place was very competitive. You know, and I never quite felt like I made it. In part, because, in some ways, if I did, really, a good story, it just created more antagonism, particularly for Mike.
Lesley Stahl: He'd-- yeah, he would be jealous. And--
Steve Kroft: He would be jealous.
Steve Kroft: And then he'd try to steal the producer.
Lesley Stahl: The prod-- but what about-- didn't Dan Rather sorta give you a warning?
Steve Kroft: He said "It's like a jungle, and there's a lot of big cats over there. And they can just with one swipe of the hand, you'll be limping for, like, a year."
Lesley Stahl: Welcome to "60 Minutes."
Steve Kroft: Welcome to "60 Minutes." And he was pretty much right. He was pretty much right.
"I think you can scrape the bottom of hell with a fine tooth comb and never come up with a man like Steve Kroft."
Lesley Stahl: Very early on, you were doing stories that are iconic stories for "60 Minutes," that people want to see again and again. Like, Chernobyl. That-- wasn't that your very first season?
Steve Kroft: Yes.
Lesley Stahl: And you just walked into radioactive city. I remember watching that and thinking, is that guy crazy?
Kroft from Chernobyl story: The only sign of life is the music, piped in continuously to keep the decontamination crews that have to be here from going crazy... In some hot spots we found radiation levels 100 times normal.
Lesley Stahl: Were you ever nervous about that or?
Steve Kroft: I wasn't nervous, because we had done a lot of research.
Lesley Stahl: People don't appreciate how much research goes into our stories. Not just on whether we're gonna be in danger or not. But--
Steve Kroft: That's what makes 'em so good.
Before he was a familiar face on Sunday night, Kroft went undercover in Houston to explore the classic scam of rolling back the odometers on used cars.
He met Bill Whitlow, who was a master of the art.
Steve Kroft: He was a crazy Texas character. And everybody in the used car business brought 'em to Bill, and Bill would roll back the odometers.
Kroft from report to Whitlow: This is not exactly legal, right?
Whitlow: It's not exactly legal, no.
Steve Kroft: He laid out his whole scam for us. And when it was all over I thought we needed to give him a heads up.
Kroft to Whitlow: See that picture? There's a TV camera back there.
Kroft: We've been taping this whole thing.
Whitlow: Well, alright.
Lesley Stahl: And then, one of the great lines. "There's the good news and the bad news."
Kroft to Whitlow: The good news is, we're not cops.
Whitlow: Well, I didn't think so.
Kroft: The bad news is, is we're "60 Minutes."
A few years later, a "60 Minutes" team talked with Bill Whitlow in federal prison. He was no longer unperturbed.
Whitlow: I think you can scrape the bottom of hell with a fine tooth comb and never come up with a man like Steve Kroft.
Kroft keeps a needlepoint pillow with Whitlow's words on his couch.
Lesley Stahl: As a badge of honor.
Steve Kroft: As a badge of honor.
Lesley Stahl: You know, you've interviewed a lotta grifters and scammers.
Steve Kroft: Conmen, yeah.
Lesley Stahl: Yeah, conmen.
Lesley Stahl: What category of person do you most like to talk about, interview, write about?
Steve Kroft: One of my favorite interviews was John Martarano, who was a hitman for Whitey Bulger, who killed something like 26 people.
Kroft to Martarano: A lot of people would say you're a serial killer.
Martarano: I might be a vigilante but not a serial killer.
Lesley Stahl: Why was that your favorite?
Steve Kroft: Because he was just really interesting and he came to play.
Steve Kroft: You could engage with him and he would talk to you.
Martarano: That's the trap door for the cellar.
Kroft to Martarano: Anybody go down there and never come up?
Martarano: I think so, yeah.
Steve Kroft: He was very honest about how he got in the business and he just kind of considered it a job.
Kroft's best-known interview, and perhaps most historically important, came on Super Bowl Sunday, 1992, when the then-governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary tried to save his presidential campaign from a tabloid sex scandal.
Lesley Stahl: They wanted to go somewhere that had a good reputation and answer the questions.
Steve Kroft: One time. They wanted to answer the questions once.
Lesley Stahl: One time.
Steve Kroft: So there was a lotta pressure to keep asking the questions.
Steve Kroft: And they wanted Hillary to be part of it.
Lesley Stahl: Well, she came on to defend him.
Steve Kroft: She did.
Hillary Clinton: You know, I'm not some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette. I'm sitting here because I love him…
Lesley Stahl: It is said that this interview saved his presidential campaign, but it also almost killed them.
Steve Kroft: Oh right, with the light falling down?
Lesley Stahl: Yeah, can you walk us through what you're seeing?
Steve Kroft: A wall-mounted lamp, a high-powered-- a television lamp, like--
Lesley Stahl: One of these things?
Steve Kroft: Right. It just sprung off the wall. It sounded like an explosion. I didn't know what had happened…
Lesley Stahl: Well she jumped. And it really did come close to her. Do you remember what she said?
Steve Kroft: Jesus Mary and Joseph.
Lesley Stahl: Not what I would have said.
Steve Kroft: Not what I would have said either.
Lesley Stahl: So you've covered politicians, celebrities, athletes, eccentrics.
Steve Kroft: Conmen, mobsters.
Lesley Stahl: were you ever scared?
Steve Kroft: No. Because, first of all, you're in a room with-- like we are right now where you have-- lots of people here.
Lesley Stahl: Protection.
Steve Kroft: Because you--
Lesley Stahl: You have your producers protecting you.
Steve Kroft: Right. So I was never really worried that-- that I was gonna come under any-- physical threat.
Steve Kroft: But I was nervous the whole time I was in Beirut. And I spent a lot of time in Beirut.
Steve Kroft: I was nervous the whole time I was in Zimbabwe where we had done a really tough interview with Robert Mugabe.
Steve Kroft: And then we were followed by the secret police. And there was a group of marauders that came over and I was pretty nervous.
Lesley Stahl: Yeah. The craziness of--
Steve Kroft: The craziness.
Lesley Stahl: --all of this.
Steve Kroft: It was fun. You know, it was-- huge adrenaline rush. As Churchill said, "The most exhilarating moment in life is to be shot at without result", and it's true.
Kroft insists that covering politics is never exhilarating for him. So it's ironic that his most frequent interviewee was a politician. For 10 years, beginning in 2007, from the campaign trail to the Oval Office, he covered Barack Obama.
Lesley Stahl:I think you interviewed him 16 times.
Steve Kroft: Uh-huh. It's a lot.
Lesley Stahl: Did you have a relationship?
Steve Kroft: The only thing we had was a reporter-subject relationship.
Steve Kroft: I think he knew that we were not gonna burn him, That we were going to ask tough questions, but we were gonna let him answer them.
Lesley Stahl: And you ran 'em.
Steve Kroft: Well, we edited them down But we were really careful to be able to distill what he was saying. And-- and I think he appreciated that-- and was comfortable with it.
Steve Kroft: Everybody would come up to me in-- in the White House and would say, "This is the only time, in these interviews, when you see the guy we see everyday." And in all the interviews we did with him, I never once saw him lean on an aide or ask for a clarification or, am I saying this right, or anything. 'Cause he understood the issues. I don't think I've ever interviewed a politician quite like that, you interview lots of people in Congress. Some of 'em can't answer anything without four aides in the room-- you know, stopping 'em saying, "Well, that's not exactly right," and, you know.
Lesley Stahl: Did you ever feel that you should have pushed harder?
Steve Kroft: I don't think it was a matter of pushing hard. I think that that criticism came from the fact that I didn't get angry with him. And at the time that I came up and started doing interviews with the president, there was a long track record of how people did interviews with the president.
Lesley Stahl: You showed the office respect.
Steve Kroft: Yes, and you showed the office respect.
Old-school standards come naturally to him.
Lesley Stahl: You grew up in Kokomo, Indiana.
Steve Kroft: Kokomo, Indiana.
Lesley Stahl: What do you think you brought from Kokom,o that perhaps makes your sensibility different from your East-West Coast colleagues?
Steve Kroft: Well, I think that, I still think of the Midwest as being the heartland of the country. Different values. Very religious, for the most part. Or more religious than--
Lesley Stahl: East-West Coast.
Steve Kroft: Than the East-West Coast. And a lot of the people that I know in New York who have been very successful came from the Midwest. And I thought, you know, they send kids off to fight wars.
Including Kroft. He graduated from Syracuse University with an eye on Madison Avenue.
Steve Kroft: Then I got drafted, and then I ended up in Vietnam. and I decided I didn't want to be in advertising anymore. I wanted to be in journalism.
Lesley Stahl: Because when you were in the service, you were writing for Stars and Stripes?
Steve Kroft: I was a correspondent photographer for Stars and Stripes, which was the highest journalism job in the Army, and a great job.
Lesley Stahl: And you got to meet a lot of the network correspondents then.
Steve Kroft: And I knew immediately that that's what I wanted to do. That's when I wanted to be a foreign correspondent.
One striking part of Steve Kroft's 30 years of "60 Minutes" was his range. He set out to be a foreign correspondent, but overseas reporting accounted for only a fraction of his 500 stories. There was almost no category he couldn't, or wouldn't, handle. He dug into medicine and sports, finance and entertainment, authors and autocrats. If the story was good, he was up for telling it. Sometimes, way, way up. Other times, way, way down. Or he'd venture into a minefield.
Kroft searched out eccentrics and spoke with the most chilling and the most quirky, among them, America's last Lord of the Manor. And the leather-clad first citizen of interior design. Kroft took a look into the life of spy-turned-spy novelist John LeCarre. And explained the financial weapons of mass destruction behind the Great Recession.
Lesley Stahl: You took on the task of explaining really complicated economic swaps and secularizations and--
Steve Kroft: Securitization, derivatives.
Lesley Stahl: That. That.
Kroft reporting on the Great Recession: Savvy investors figured out that the cheapest, most effective way to bet against the entire housing market was to buy credit default swaps. In effect, taking out inexpensive insurance policies that would pay off big when other people's mortgage investments went south.
Lesley Stahl: I-- no one else would have even thought of writing those stories that you wrote. And you then were able just to make it so understandable.
Steve Kroft: I'm not an expert on that kind of stuff. So it had to be put into language that I understood, that I thought I could explain.
Lesley Stahl: Have you done a lot of stories that ended up with changed legislation or changed rules or changed the world?
Steve Kroft: There was a story called "The Insiders." It was a story about insider trading in Congress and the fact that there were no laws against it.
Kroft reported how middle class politicians became millionaires, profiting from inside information they learned on Capitol Hill, while a reform bill, called the "Stock Act," languished in obscurity.
Steve Kroft: We stood outside the capitol and talked to Congressmen who were coming up. "You know anything about the stock act?" "Nah, I don't think so."
Steve Kroft: After the story ran, um, the bill was passed.
Lesley Stahl: Mmm-hmm. But-- but when you-- when you're working on stories like that, aren't you in a rage, just furious, the injustice, the unfairness?
Steve Kroft: Some of the times--
Lesley Stahl: The sliminess?
Steve Kroft: A lot of the times, my reaction is, like, I can't believe-- I can't believe this is going on. I can't believe that nobody has discovered it, nobody has tried to put a stop to it. You know, I love stories that have a bit of absurdity to it. And my favorite stories are government stories where you say, "You're not gonna believe this is going on. It's been going on for a long time, and nothing has ever been done about it."
Lesley Stahl: One of the stories you did that had a huge emotional impact was Bob Dole.
Steve Kroft: Mmm-hmm.
In 1993, Bob Dole was the Senate Minority Leader and preparing a presidential run against Bill Clinton.
Lesley Stahl: When he was telling you about what happened to him in the war…
Kroft to Bob Dole: Did you realize how badly you were wounded?
Dole: No, I didn't have any idea. I just knew I couldn't get up.
Lesley Stahl: Did he break down?
Steve Kroft: He did.
Dole: I remember my dad coming up on Christmas, he had to stand all the way on the train. The trains are so crowded. He got up there, his ankles were swollen. (Crying)
Steve Kroft: I think we stopped the cameras. I think also it's self-assuring. If you see somebody that loses control, you say, "Let's just stop the cameras." And let them--
Lesley Stahl: Collect themselves.
Steve Kroft: Collect themselves. And the-- you need to be judicious at it. Too many times on television, it's just cheap-- you know, it's just cheap emotion.
Kroft took particular care with the in-studio introductions to his stories. His writing could be light and irreverent or transform the potentially morbid into amusing.
He labored over every line of every script, and then would rewrite his rewrites. Well into his 60s and 70s, Kroft was pulling all-nighters like a college sophomore trying to make sure his term papers were always an "A."
Steve Kroft: It's not an easy process. People think you're a good writer, you just sit down and do it. It takes a lotta work. And all-- it takes a lotta time to do it. And-- to make it good--
Lesley Stahl: Well, I heard that they would-- that the boss would approve your story, done, wrapped, finished, and you'd get a whole new idea and start rewriting all over again, after it had been approved.
Steve Kroft: I think mostly it was kind of, like, this is pretty good, you know. And I'd say, "Well, I'd like to run it through the typewriter one more time," and they'd say, "All right."
Lesley Stahl: Yeah, in the middle of the night.
Steve Kroft: In-- in the middle of the night. (LAUGH)
Lesley Stahl: Come on. Fess up. (LAUGH)
Steve Kroft: It's not exactly, I mean, you're-- I'm not disagreeing with the spirit of what you're saying. OK.
Lesley Stahl: Because you're notorious for working very late at night.
Steve Kroft: Very late.
Steve Kroft: So normally at noon is about when I would get-- (LAUGH)
Lesley Stahl: Start.
Steve Kroft: Started. I would get the mood to write, and then, you know, hopefully was outta there by-- I sometimes, we stayed till, you know, like, 4:00 for a screening the next day.
Lesley Stahl: 4 a.m.?
Steve Kroft: Yeah. (LAUGH)
Lesley Stahl: But it was hard for you, am I right?
Steve Kroft: Yeah.
Lesley Stahl: I mean, that.
Steve Kroft: Well, eventually, really you-- eventually you come up with a hard deadline. (LAUGH)
Lesley Stahl: Yeah, like, 7 p.m. on Sunday.
Steve Kroft: That's it. Usually before that.
Lesley Stahl: What about people you interviewed who completely surprised you. You thought they were going to be one thing but they turned out to be completely different.
Steve Kroft: The one that immediately comes to mind was Clint Eastwood… I did not think I was going to like him based off of the kind of movies that he had made.
Lesley Stahl: He was a tough interview…
Steve Kroft: He was sort of a tough interview, but the person was completely different.
Lesley Stahl: Didn't he just stare you down or you stared him down.
Steve Kroft: Yeah, but that question was kind of like when we said we have to talk about all the wives and stuff and I thought, "OK." So I tried to like frame the question in a way that it was likely not to get him really angry.
Kroft to Clint Eastwood: Seven kids with five women, not all of them you were married to.
Clint Eastwood: No.
Steve Kroft: He just reacted by just staring at me in silence.
Kroft to Clint Eastwood: I don't think I've had anybody look at me like that before. It's a real Clint Eastwood look.
Steve Kroft: Some of the most effective television you know, everybody feels like everything has to be, like, no silence, you know, like five seconds on television of silence is just like an eternity.
Kroft had a way with celebrities and the famous, when he chose to do them, which wasn't often.
Steve Kroft: One of my favorite stories was the Eagles. You know, they were together, they broke up, they had a singles career, they got back together, they broke up again, and Glenn Frey and Don Henley clearly did not like each other very much.
Steve Kroft: I think it was Frey that was talking and Henley was just rolling his eyes.
Lesley Stahl: And you got the shot-- (LAUGH)
Steve Kroft: Like it was so much BS. (LAUGH) It's the one thing everybody remembered from the piece. (LAUGH)
Steve Kroft: Some people open up and let you see and do anything you want.
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas fit that category.
Steve Kroft: Those are really the ones that are the most fun, because you get to see them over in different settings. Samuel L. Jackson was like that… Dustin Hoffman was like that… Tom Hanks was pretty much up for anything.
Steve Kroft: I can remember doing a profile on Jerry Seinfeld…
Lesley Stahl: It was hilarious.
Steve Kroft: It was hilarious because he was hilarious… He liked being interviewed, he loved the idea of being on "60 Minutes" because his mother was a big fan, and there wasn't anything you couldn't ask him.
Lesley Stahl: But there was one moment where you did ask him what could've been an embarrassing question.
Kroft to Jerry Seinfeld: You think you're immature?
Jerry Seinfeld: Oh yeah.
Seinfeld: I am not going to talk about…(LAUGHTER) being sexually immature on "60 Minutes."
Kroft: But you think you are.
Seinfeld: It's not "60 Swinging Minutes."
Kroft: Right, right.
Seinfeld: Can we get some powder on my face… I'm sweating… God.
Steve Kroft: And then you get people…
Lesley Stahl: This is off limits, this is off limits…
Steve Kroft: Right. The most extreme example of that was Beyoncé. She controlled everything.
Steve Kroft: We had a couple of brief moments with her and a short interview, and couple of walk-throughs and that was it.
Lesley Stahl: Ya know, when you told me you were gonna leave, I thought of all the important things you had done for the show. And those stories that you wrote about the collateralization and all of that. You gave the show a dimension, an important dimension that we hadn't had before. We're really gonna miss you.
Steve Kroft: I'm gonna miss you too, Lesley. But I'm not gonna be a complete stranger. I'm gonna be, you know, I'll-- I'm-- I'm sure I'll see you.
Lesley Stahl: But I'm saying something-- not about personal. I mean, it's about your contribution over your 30 years to the show that was huge. You gave us depth. You-- you brought "60 Minutes" to places that no other television journalism could ever have gone without you. And I think we still need it. And a lot of us are very unhappy that you're leaving. And we don't think that 74 is old. (LAUGH) Some of us anyway.
Steve Kroft: Look I thank you. It means a lot to me to hear you say that. And-- the-- "60 Minutes" will be fine, just fine.
Produced by L. Franklin Devine and Warren Lustig