The Education of Dan Rather

Life is complicated, people are complicated, and most of us are a jumble of virtues, flaws and contradictions. I like to try to understand the past, try to put it together in a way that makes sense to me. This can involve judging not only your own actions and decisions but those of others, which can be hard. I have a friend who once said in the middle of a conversation, “Don’t understand me too quickly.” Don’t categorize me; don’t decide you broke the code. Sit back and watch; it’s more interesting than you may know.

Which gets me to Dan Rather, who was once my boss, and who of course has announced his retirement from the anchor chair at CBS News. Everyone I know is asking me what I think of it. I think a lot of things.

I’m going to use the past tense in speaking of him because I’m speaking of his career, and speaking of when I knew him in the past.

My first thought: It is a hard world. We all know this in the abstract, but it can take you aback in the particular. In public life the entire body of your work—an entire career of almost 50 years—can now essentially be summed up and dismissed by the last headline on your career, which in this case is “Rather Retires Under Cloud After Forged Documents Story.” If Dan had retired of his own volition a year ago, that would not be the headline. “Long Career Reflected Stunning Rise of U.S. Media” would be more like it.

I am not saying timing is everything, although it can be rather a lot. I’m thinking of . . . well, Richard Nixon. Nixon had one of the great gutsy careers in American political history, and on the greatest issue of his lifetime—the ugliness and destructiveness of communism here and abroad—he was right, and put his career on the line. He did much good. But his headline is Watergate.

I think the bitterness of Nixon’s presidential years, the personal darkness he seemed to display, was in part a product of simple human pain, and the pain was the result of this: He had been right and brave and done the right thing in the 1950s, and the American left and its cousin the American establishment would never forgive him for it. And he couldn’t stop wanting their approval. He put a traitor named Alger Hiss in jail. The left would make him pay. He paid the price in terms of his personal peace. He handed his enemies a sword.

One of those who picked it up and used it against him was Dan Rather. There is an amazing and unseen circularity to life. And wanting approval can make you do strange things.

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Dan was a great boss. He was appreciative of good work and sympathetic when it wasn’t good. He was one of the men—Douglas Edwards and Dallas Townsend were two others—to whom I am indebted, for they taught me how to write for the ear, how to write for people who are listening as opposed to reading. He was generous with praise. Someone who did a good job on a story got flowers and a note. Someone in the newsroom once knocked Dan in a magazine profile, saying he was insecure, always sending too many flowers. Dan thought, Really? Life’s tough, you can’t send too many flowers! He was open to ideas, he was democratic and not hierarchical in his management style, and he tried to be fair in his dealings with people in spite of a personal emotionalism that was deep, ever present and not entirely predictable.

For three years, from 1981 through 1984, I wrote his daily radio commentary, a four-minute essay with a one-minute spot that went out to all the CBS affiliates and network-owned stations. It was a great job. We did some good work. Here’s how it got done: When I had been doing the show for a few weeks I could see that my work was not good—uneven, without voice, without a clear point of view. I thought I knew the reason. I had become increasingly a political conservative. Dan, it was obvious to me, was a sort of establishment liberal—not a wild leftist and not an ideologue, but whatever smart liberals thought was more or less what he wound up thinking, and saying. I couldn’t write his views well, because I didn’t buy them and didn’t fully understand them. I couldn’t write my views, because the show had to reflect his thinking. So I went to him and told him my problem. He was great. He said: On any given issue that we discuss, give the liberal point of view fairly and give the conservative point of view fairly, and then we’ll end it with my opinion, because it’s my show. I thought that sounded good.

And it worked. “Dan Rather Reporting” actually got something of a conservative following, not because it was a conservative show—it wasn’t—but because it actually put forward the conservative point of view in what might be called a fair and balanced way. At CBS News in those days that was surprising.

CBS then was full of people who liked to argue about who opposed the Vietnam war first, this producer or that reporter. It was a matter of pride who was antiwar first. On the night in 1980 when Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter in a landslide, and brought with him a Republican Senate, CBS News, a busy hive full of people charged with telling America the news at a dramatic moment, was like a morgue. I was happy, and the blue-collar workers—the cameramen who were bringing up families on Long Island, the secretaries from Queens—were delirious. Finally someone would lower their taxes—payroll taxes on overtime were killing them—and stop the humiliation in Iran. But the white-collar workers, the producers and writers and on-air talent—oh what a sad and depressed lot they were. The forces of evil had won.

Two things to be said here. One is that CBS News hasn’t changed that much, and the other is that the media world in which it operates has changed completely. The whole context has changed. No one has to accept the enforced corporate liberalism of the networks anymore, as they did from 1950 through 1990. They have options, from cable to Fox to the Internet to hundreds and thousands of radio shows, newspapers, magazines. The old network hegemony is over. That’s why network news viewership is down, that’s why the evening news isn’t appointment TV anymore. America didn’t turn crazily right, Americans just finally got political options in how they’d get the news, and took advantage of them.

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Dan Rather’s career traces all this. He rose as network TV rose, rose in the age of Cronkite, and when he took Mr. Cronkite’s chair it was front-page news. He was one of the three men in America who’d tell the entire country the news. It was big stuff.
Along the way, on the way, he had his dramas. He was the young reporter at Parkland Memorial Hospital who got word from a priest that JFK was dead. He had it first. He covered the civil rights era down South in the 1960s—an insufficiently appreciated shaper of the views of young reporters of Dan’s generation. They saw white men in uniforms use fire hoses on young blacks; they saw black people trying to get a cup of coffee at the counter at Woolworth’s punched and dragged away; they covered the bombing of the Birmingham church, and the funerals of the little girls who died there. (Nine-year-old Condi Rice, who lived nearby, could have been one of them.) The civil rights struggle seared everyone, but few more than the young reporters who covered it, and few, I think, more than Dan.

So did Vietnam, from which Dan reported, again at personal risk. Another perhaps insufficiently appreciated fact: Part of the bitterness of Vietnam was the bitterness of those who were risking their lives in the fight on the ground only to perceive, day by day, that their government, and its Clark Cliffords and other shrewd operators, were pulling the plug on the war and not fighting to win. In Washington they were trying to escape with their careers and reputations intact. On the ground in country, as they used to say, they were trying to escape with their lives. Imagine how you’d feel if you were a grunt losing your friends as all this became clearer day by day. And imagine what it was like to be young Dan, listening to those grunts each day.

And then Watergate. More and more I think that scandal will be remembered as a kind of hysteria, a virus that jumped from reporter to reporter, newsroom to newsroom, raising temperatures to fever pitch. Dan was one of the reporters who went after Nixon, et al., with a vengeance. Looking back one might ask: Why?

For a mix of reasons. Because it was good for business. Because it drove up “Evening News” numbers. Because there was blood in the air. Because Watergate seemed to illustrate what reporters knew, just knew, was the secret truth residing in Richard Nixon’s dark heart: a desire for enemies lists and break-ins and IRS reviews. Because it built up reporters as white knights, and reporters really didn’t mind being seen as white knights. Because it was exciting, and black and white. The good guys were Democrats, investigators, special counsels and journalists looking for The Truth. The bad: Nixon, Republicans, anyone who worked for Nixon except a good source, Charles Colson, then a wild man, and G. Gordon Liddy, a wild man to this day.

If you were a young Dan Rather you knew which side was the side to be on. You knew which side your bosses were on. You knew which side would lead to your rise. And you knew which side would win.

It wasn’t exactly complicated. Every conservative in America in the last century, especially in the media and in the colleges, knew they would be dinged and damaged if they held to their beliefs. Every liberal in the media and the academy knew they could rise if they espoused liberal views. Dan wanted to rise.

Probably the worst moment in his career, because it was arguably the one most obvious in showing bias and a political agenda, was the time Dan tried to beat up George H.W. Bush live, on the “CBS Evening News,” over Iran-contra. Mr. Bush decked him instead, and with a question that reverberates: How would you like your whole career to be judged by one mistake? I do not doubt that CBS News that night thought it was going to take down a vice president, and wanted to. And was embittered by its failure. Which may have contributed to the years long, Ahab-like quest of producer Mary Mapes to bring down George W. Bush with documents it took bloggers less than 24 hours to reveal as fabrications.

And yet. Dan Rather was one of the great breaking-news reporters of our time. Hurricanes, earthquakes, big sudden stuff—he loved it, and he knew how to cover it. A friend reminded me of the beauty with which Dan asked for silence as CBS’s cameras lingered on the sun going down on quake-ravaged San Francisco in 1989. And I think of his delicate coverage of stories like Princess Diana’s funeral.

I don’t think Dan Rather ever saw himself as being destructive in his views and biases when the story of the night was political. He always seemed to me to love America, was moved, always, by those who fight for it. He respected the armed forces and their sacrifices. He surprised me one day by reciting from heart and with tears in his eyes the last letter of Travis at the Alamo. And there was the time, after 9/11, when he went on David Letterman’s show and, in speaking of the heroism of what he’d seen at Ground Zero and the tragedy of it, burst into sobs. He felt it. Anyone who felt 9/11 down to his bones—well, who’s to gainsay that?

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Ultimately this is what I think was true about Dan and his career. It’s not very nice but I think it is true. He was a young, modestly educated Texas boy from nowhere, with no connections and a humble background. He had great gifts, though: physical strength, attractiveness, ambition, commitment and drive. He wanted to be a star. He was willing to learn and willing to pay his dues. He covered hurricanes and demonstrations, and when they got him to New York they let him know, as only an establishment can, what was the right way to think, the intelligent enlightened way, the Eastern way, the Ivy League way, the Murrow School of Social Justice way. They let him know his simple Texan American assumptions were not so much wrong as not fully thought through, not fully nuanced, not fully appreciative of the multilayered nature of international political realities. He swallowed it whole.

He had a strong Texas accent, but they let him know he wasn’t in Texas anymore. I remember once a nice man, an executive producer, confided in me that he’d known Dan from the early days, from when he first came up to New York. He laughed, not completely unkindly, and told me Dan wore the wrong suits. I wish I could remember exactly what he said but it was something like, “He had a yellow suit!” There was a sense of: We educated him. Dan wound up in pinstripe suits made in London. Like Cyrus Vance. Like Clark Clifford. He got educated. He fit right in. And much of what he’d learned—from the civil rights movement, from Vietnam and from Watergate—allowed him to think he was rising in the right way and with the right crew and the right thinking.

People are complicated, careers are complicated, motives are complicated. Dan Rather did some great work on stories that demanded physical courage. He loved the news, and often made it look like the most noble of enterprises. He had guts and fortitude. Those stories he covered that touched on politics were unfortunately and consistently marred by liberal political bias, and in this he was like too many in his profession. But this is changing. The old hegemony has given way. The old dominance is over. Good thing. Great thing. Onward.