Hurricane Dan’s Last Stand

Dan Rather seemed wiped out. His scruffy gray hair was chopped short like Calvin’s in Calvin and Hobbes ; he resembled a 69-year-old boy who’d already had a very hard day. It was the morning of Friday, May 4, and the newsman–now entering his third decade as the anchor of The CBS Evening News –was still immersed in what he called the “shit storm” that he and his colleagues had triggered May 1 on 60 Minutes II with a story about the alleged war atrocities of former Senator Bob Kerrey and his Navy SEAL commandos.

Mr. Rather said he was satisfied with the story. He thought it was fair. He felt “at peace” with it. But ….

“I was uncomfortable about this story in the beginning, I was uncomfortable all the way through, and I’m uncomfortable now,” Mr Rather said slowly. “It is painful.”

Mr. Rather’s sturdy Texas twang edged just above a whisper. Outside on West 57th Street it was bright and gorgeous, but Mr. Rather’s crescent-shaped office overlooking the CBS News studio was shuttered, dark as a crypt. Mr. Rather slumped his long-legged frame in an easy chair. “People have criticized the [Kerrey] piece, and for that matter criticized me,” Mr. Rather said. “Yes, it comes with the territory. These are the big leagues. And I am certainly no stranger to criticism.”

That’s putting it mildly. They christened him “Hurricane Dan,” but Mr. Rather’s career has often resembled a roiling sea–surges and crests followed by loud, dramatic crashes. A ditch digger’s son, he became the TV reporter’s reporter, a stand-out in the muck of Vietnam, the tumult of the civil-rights movement, the choppy, seasick-feeling Watergate-era White House. He was handsome and cocky, and though plenty of people were aghast at his memorable 1974 showdown with President Nixon in Houston (Nixon: “Are you running for something?” Rather: “No, sir, Mr. President–are you?”), others called it pure, well, balls . Always ambitious, Mr. Rather maneuvered and wiggled and won the most prestigious chair in news and struggled mightily to harness its power. He courted controversy in Afghanistan and sparred with George Bush, along the way churning up the strangest set of associations in American journalism: “What’s the frequency, Kenneth?” … six minutes of dead air … the Connie Chung crisis … “Courage.”

And this week, Don Imus was ranting about 60 Minutes II ‘s treatment of Bob Kerrey, and legions of indignant others were calling for Mr. Rather’s freshly buzzed head.

Yet there was something energizing about it. For Mr. Rather, often left for dead, was deep in the culture stream and relevant once more. For once, people weren’t talking about his retirement, about the ratings of his evening newscast, about the crumbled status of the House of Murrow, Cronkite, Charles Kuralt or whichever other CBS News giant they compared favorably to wild-man Dan. They weren’t putting his replacement’s butt on his anchor chair just yet, talking about big plans for John Roberts or Tim Russert. They weren’t lampooning his Jiffy-Pop rhetoric, as in: “This race is as hot and tight as a too-small bathing suit on a too-long ride home from the beach.” (Election night, 2000.)

No, they were talking about news , as in the old days, back when CBS News was a broadcast-journalism Rome, staffed with tough titans wearing suspenders. And that fact alone was enough to inject some dance into Mr. Rather.

“I want to do journalism that matters,” Mr. Rather said, perking up in his chair. “A great deal of the time in recent years we spend–I spend–developing stories that, in the end, don’t matter all that much …. This piece,” he said of the Kerrey story, ” matters .”

It was for this reason–to be serious and straight and still provoke people, and maybe piss them off–that Mr. Rather kept putting up with it, even as television news had become something odd and hollow. It was why he kept taking the regular batterings from bored critics, for whom his low Nielsens, his excesses, his aging, and his pitted, air-compressed delivery became easy targets.

But when Mr. Rather got the chance, however rare, to report–to unlock something important, something that mattered –it was enough to keep him in the hunt. There was something almost Hemingway-like about it, this Old Man and the C … BS. “He comes to work every day feeling he has to prove himself,” said CBS News president Andrew Heyward, who called Mr. Rather “an extraordinarily competitive person who is also very hard on himself.”

And there was something else making Mr. Rather feel excited, alive. Lately the papers were filled with speculation that CBS News was talking to CNN, that Viacom and AOL Time Warner might find a way to integrate their news properties into a single, cohesive operation. “What, if anything, is going on right now, I don’t know,” Mr. Rather said, but apparently the possibility more than just intrigued him. Presiding over a CBS News-CNN broadcast could prove to be a damned good final act.

Mr. Rather sat up straight. “I would love to do the CBS Evening News with Dan Rather ,” he said, “and then turn around at 8 p.m. or 10 p.m. at night and do the CNN Global News with Dan Rather and [the] resources of CBS,” he said. “As a news organization, that would be amazing.”

Mr. Rather had almost gone to CNN in 1997, when he attempted to wriggle free from CBS News and join Ted Turner’s cable operation. CNN had tempted him with big money and grand global plans. “If I could have gotten there, I would have gone there,” Mr. Rather said. But there were contract issues, and CBS came back with its own promises. “It probably turned out best for me and best for them,” he said.

But now he was back to that old possibility. Part of Mr. Rather sounded like a kid who had been teased too many times with fake birthday candles and didn’t want to be fooled again. “I have no illusions,” he said. There was also a hint of fear that a merged news operation might ultimately undo CBS News, that the powers that be might decide to exile the news operations mostly to cable, leaving the network more time for sitcoms and Survivor clones. “I would not want to be part of anything which winds up to be the diminution, much less the dissolution, the dissolving, of CBS News as a worldwide news-gathering organization,” Mr. Rather said. “I don’t want to be a part of that.”

Still, the big, elusive chase kept him going. Yes, he had written another book, his sixth American Dream: Stories from the Heart of Our Nation –an earnest, optimistic chronicle of several dozen lives. But he was never really about books, even in the era when anchors had to write books to establish themselves in the market. Sure, he enjoyed the fame–the job supplied plenty of “NASA-grade rocket fuel to the ego,” he liked to say–but he was not ready to be bronzed. “I think he has not been comfortable settling into the anchor-as-statesman role that is quite a natural evolution for somebody that has been doing it for [20] years,” said Mr. Heyward.

No, Mr. Rather had remained in the mix, stubbornly. To be sure, there are those who believe he is Dan-o-saur, a chomping, plodding relic of another news era. Though CBS News has been revamped and made recent, promising gains, Mr. Rather doesn’t yet have a nimble, modernized shop, as Tom Brokaw has with NBC and MSNBC. As an anchor, Mr. Rather has improved, but he was always a reporter first, and he never possessed Mr. Brokaw’s Patagonia-wear approachability or Peter Jennings’ silky, almost preternatural sense of style. And because the name CBS News no longer provokes the awe it once did, there is a sense of vulnerability to Mr. Rather’s position that figures to continue until the day he steps down .

But Mr. Rather’s legacy is assured. Within CBS News, testimonials about his energy and instincts as a reporter and anchor are almost exasperating in their praise. “He’s got one of the best gut [instincts] I’ve ever seen,” said Evening News executive producer Jim Murphy. Said 48 Hours executive producer Susan Zirinsky, who first met Mr. Rather when she was 18, and who became the model for Holly Hunter in Broadcast News : “He never says, ‘Stop the train, I want to get off.’

“When somebody gets older, they are more seasoned,” said Ms. Zirinsky. “It’s hard to imagine somebody more seasoned than Dan. But he’s like a chicken that keeps getting basted over and over, and he doesn’t get dry, he just gets tastier . It’s true ! He’s this incredible bird; he keeps getting more and more seasoned, and he never, ever dries out.”

But broiled and basted, Mr. Rather is still not terribly impressed by the state of his business. As he has for years, he repeatedly chastised news organizations, including his own, for weaving what he called “entertainment values” into news broadcasts. He attacked old-news desecrations like the O.J. Simpson and Lorena Bobbitt trials. And although he wouldn’t tackle a question about CBS’s constant hyping of Survivor , or about CBS Early Show news anchor Julie Chen’s hosting of Big Brother –”I’m not going to go there; I wouldn’t go there at pistol point,” he said–there was clearly a little Howard Beale lurking underneath.

“We’ve lost a lot of our credibility,” Mr. Rather said of his business. “We’ve lost it with good reason. We deserve to lose it any time we make editorial decisions on the basis of what’s entertaining.”

Mr. Rather was distressed about the reduction of broadcast time for international news, debates, political conventions. He said he was troubled by the scant time given to covering George W. Bush’s inauguration in January. “Once every four years, it’s not too much to say that we’re going to devote most of the broadcast day to the inauguration of the President,” he said. The news networks, he said, chose “the least they could get away with.”

Mr. Rather conceded that he’s been delivering versions of these rants for years. He chuckled when a reporter brought up a chapter in his 1977 memoir, The Camera Never Blinks , called “The Celebrity Syndrome,” in which he railed against the invasion of big money and showbiz content into the television news business. Mr. Rather was asked what would happen if the Dan Rather of that era were suddenly beamed into the 21st-century news environment. “He would be unrecognizable,” Mr. Rather said. “His hair would probably fall out on the spot.”

Mr. Rather then offered what he described as a “joke”:

“There was a time when I covered wars and I interviewed world leaders, but now I go into makeup and do promos,” he said. He again called the line a joke, but he didn’t erupt in laughter.

Personally, however, Mr. Rather said he is more at peace with himself. “I sweat a lot less of the small stuff than I used to,” he said. Still, even now, he said, he doesn’t feel quite … right. He’s sat in the anchor’s chair on West 57th Street since 1981, and there is still an incongruity to it. Part of this is a perfectionist’s obsessiveness–”I honestly believe my best work is ahead of me,” he said–but there’s still the old suspicion that maybe he was never a perfect fit.

After all, before Mr. Rather took over for Mr. Cronkite, the concern at CBS was that he would always be a reporter foremost–astonishing in the field, dark, driven, delivering news in war zones and horizontal rain. He’d never be comfortable in the lion’s cage of the studio, some believed. When he became anchor, colleagues of Mr. Rather’s told him to fix his concentration on anchoring, reduce his reportorial ambitions, focus on the desk. Mr. Rather chose not to take this advice, tried to blaze his own trail: the reporter-anchor, the mobile anchor, the flak-jacketed anchor.

“Maybe that was a mistake,” Mr. Rather said of his decision to ignore the advice. “It isn’t a regret. It’s just an understanding that maybe it was a mistake.”

Undaunted, stubborn as always, Mr. Rather has kept at it, doing both–reporting, anchoring–for a generation now. He has officially spent more time in the anchor’s chair than Mr. Cronkite did. He remains the face of CBS. He still gushes bizarre aphorisms. He still steps into trouble that nobody else would get into, and then has it stick to him in globs that would probably slide off Mr. Brokaw or Mr. Jennings–as when he recently found himself under siege after it was revealed that he’d appeared at a Democratic fund-raiser co-hosted by his daughter, Robin. The dust settled and his colleagues quickly forgave him, but he remains a lightning rod for conservative critics who still think it’s 1970 and that Spiro Agnew was right to assault the “nattering nabobs of negativism.”

Mr. Rather said he has no intention of leaving any time soon. When Matt Drudge dropped a story that Tim Russert had been offered the CBS anchor position, everyone denied it and Mr. Rather kept on ticking. Every time an anniversary date passes, the rumors start flying. But Mr. Rather said he wants to keep doing exactly what he’s doing for as long as his health holds up, as long as Mr. Heyward, Viacom’s Mel Karmazin and CBS President Les Moonves want him to stick around. Every year for the past five years, he said he has set aside some time for a long walk and a discussion with his wife, Jean, about the future. Each year, he has decided he wants to stay.

He’s not sure if he’ll ever be able to think otherwise. Maybe there’s some internal switch that will click and tell him it’s time to go, but maybe this business is so hardwired into him that when it’s time, they’ll have to pry him from the chair. He made some noises about maybe going back to straight reporting one day. He said that if they told him he couldn’t work for CBS News anymore and offered him a job as the AP bureau chief in Alpine, Texas, he’d gladly go. Said Dan Rather, thinking of the end: “I don’t think it will ever be easy.”

Tonight, Dan Rather anchors the CBS Evening News . [WCBS, 2, 6:30 P.M.]

Thursday, May 10

Executive producer John Markus telephoned the other day to call NYTV a yapping bonehead for suggesting a couple weeks back that Mr. Markus’ NBC sitcom, Kristin, starring the former Broadway nymph Kristin Chenoweth, was “toast.”

Mr. Markus didn’t actually use the term “yapping bonehead,” but he did politely inform NYTV that Kristin was not, in fact, toast, and that it was very much fresh and yummy and tasty because NBC had announced a Tuesday, June 5, premiere for the show.

And who helped save Kristin from oblivion? Brand-new NBC entertainment honcho Jeff Zucker! “It’s been communicated to us that Jeff likes the show,” Mr. Markus said.

Though June launches are always dicey, Kristin will get a nice spot at 9:30 p.m., after Frasier . And if the show’s a hit, Ms. Chenoweth will drop that CBS pilot she’s been working on and stick to her own sitcom, Mr. Markus said.

How is Ms. Chenoweth, anyway? “I would think it’s impossible, but she’s even more gorgeous,” Mr. Markus said.

Tonight on NBC, the increasingly crispy Weakest Link. [WNBC, 4, 8:30 p.m.]

Friday, May 11

Tonight, the world crowns Derek Jeter’s next girlfriend in the annual Miss Universe Pageant . [WCBS, 2, 9 p.m.]

Saturday, May 12

Lara Flynn Boyle hosts Saturday Night Live tonight. Adjust the horizontal knob. [WNBC, 4, 11:35 p.m.]

Sunday, May 13

TBS puts everyone in the Mother’s Day spirit with back-to-back showings of The Replacement Killers . [TBS, 8, 8 p.m.]

Monday, May 14

The Pearl Harbor indoctrination campaign continues as ABC, a.k.a. the Bruckheimer Epic Preparatory School, screens Con Air . [WABC, 7, 8 p.m.]

Tuesday, May 15

The shameless A&E preys on prurient minds tonight as Investigative Reports examines the … Rhode Island parole process. [A&E, 16, 9 p.m.]