Dan Rather is making the rounds for his new memoir, “Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News.” The veteran TV anchor spoke this past Friday at the National Archives, in front of the biggest crowd I’ve seen there, something like 200.
Before attending the event, I bought his book with a great sense of ambivalence. On the one hand, the once sterling reputation of Rather, CBS’s Evening News Anchor from 1981 to 2005 and now with Mark Cuban’s “HDNet,” took a nosedive in 2004 during the Killian documents controversy. On the other hand, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Bob Schieffer’s and Roger Mudd’s memoirs. Why not make it a Big Chair trilogy?
Three for three. Rather’s book is a page-turner, holding the sandman at bay for several nights in a row. Saving his upbringing for later chapters, Rather gets right to work, covering his reporting on Abu Graib and President Bush’s service with the Texas Air National Guard. Both caused him major grief, the kind of story journalists know will produce flack.
The sad irony, however, is that some of the pushback came from those above him. While praising the firewall leadership of past executives like William S. Paley and Richard Salant, Rather pulls no punches in criticizing those who did not back him up.
Of course, one expects such bitter thoughts, especially someone who chaired a major network’s “Evening News” longer than Cronkite or anyone else. But even if you don’t like Rather, and believe his fall from grace was what he deserved, the larger picture, the corporatization of news, is worthy of discussion and thought.
A strength of this book is the human touch Rather conveys about himself. It’s easy to think of journalists as schadenfraude-filled, gotcha-getting seekers of a Pulitzer Prize or two. Rather reminds us of the other side of the coin when he relates a conversation he had with Mary Maples, his producer/reporter on the Abu Graib story. Along with their colleague Dana Roberson, they had arrived at the point of their investigating where they knew they had enough to bring it to the big boss. In their possession were copies of the photos of prison abuse that would rattle the nation (at least those concerned with human rights). They knew the story would be explosive and were worried about its negative impact. Rather even says he wished the story were not true.
Interviewed by Cokie Roberts, Rather, 81 and soft-spoken, echoed the things he says in his book. But having these two giants trade jokes and war stories was worth the redundancy.
Rather lost his case against CBS, but said he is now at peace with it. In his book, the ugly litigation of “Rather v. CBS” is covered in full detail, and enhanced by his razor-sharp memory and passion for standing up for the principles for journalism. Might sound like boring reading to some, but it is anything but. Rather names names, calls on the carpet friends he thought were friends. More importantly, he exposes the shady nature of the investigation by CBS into the alleged forging of the documents provided by Killan.
Roberts and Rather were indeed a great pairing, both old enough to remember the Cronkite days. I was worried the polite nature of these noon-time events would be shattered by someone who might say something disparaging about Rather. The audience, peppered with boomers, was very supportive. At one point, a questioner said it was disgraceful what CBS had done to him. We clapped in agreement, some loudly.
I have to admit, I have not always liked Rather’s style and I’m not saying he is an untouchable angel. He can seem arrogant, and his infamous quip to President Nixon (“No, Mister President, are you?”) just enforced his reputation as a “lightning rod” and made him the story, something journalists consider a sin.
But if you stop and think about his career of reporting, from working for beans in his early gigs, being near the grassy knoll in Dallas in 1963, dodging threats and bullets during the Civil Rights protests in the 60s, entrenched with the troops in Vietnam, reporting from Iraq and Afghanistan, and all the reporting that robbed him of his sleep.
On top of that he dug ditches and overcame a crippling disease when he was young, and worked odd jobs to make money for college. Cronkite was a god, Rather is one of us.
I’m an impatient reader and will skim if need be. No such occurrences, however, in this book. Particularly poignant is Rather’s chilling encounter with a burglar at his house in 1972. The shadowy figure had gone through his files, but was apparently not interested in anything else. This occurred after a conversation he had with John Ehrlichman, President Nixon’s Counsel and Advisor who told him, “The problem with you Rather, is that people believe you.”
Now it’s our turn. If I can speak for millions across the country and even the globe, we reach out to you Dan, and say, thank you. May your beers be cold and your Tamales hot.