Dan Rather: How I Bagged Saddam Chat

“As I speak to you, we are cruising across where the Iraqi desert meets the Jordanian desert, though a desert wind and a rain storm,” Dan Rather said. “I haven’t had as much sleep as I sometimes do.”

It was late on Tuesday, Feb. 25, and Mr. Rather, 71, was speaking via a crackling cell phone from a car racing himself and his CBS News colleagues away from Baghdad, barely a day after they had scored one of the most sought-after journalistic exclusives of the year: an interview with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Set to air on 60 Minutes II on Feb. 26, it is Mr. Hussein’s first interview with an American journalist in more than 10 years.

During the hour-and-43-minute televised interview-which was followed, Mr. Rather said, by a separate hour-and-20-minute conversation in the President’s palace office, without TV cameras-Mr. Hussein denied having missiles that violated United Nations mandates. He said he wouldn’t go into exile, telling Mr. Rather: “We will die here.” He even proposed a televised debate with President Bush, with Mr. Rather moderating.

But as Mr. Hussein spoke, Mr. Rather said he detected resignation in the infamously stubborn Iraqi leader.

“He is convinced, reconciled, that the probability is extremely high that he’s going to be attacked,” Mr. Rather said. “He’s confident there will be an enormous attack on him, and if it comes, it will be punishing-but he speaks confidently of his and Iraq’s ability to absorb it and survive.

“You can’t be around him and not understand that the key to him, his whole id, is survival,” said Mr. Rather, who last interviewed Mr. Hussein in 1990, right after Iraq invaded Kuwait. “He sees himself as that proverbial ultimate survivor: Whatever happens, he’s going to survive. When he talks, he’s a combination of sometimes the lion and sometimes the fox-but always with survival at the forefront of his mind.”

For Mr. Rather, the interview with Mr. Hussein was both a long-shot surprise and the culmination of more than a year and a half of intense lobbying. For months, he and CBS News producers had made their case to Iraqi officials, trying to get Mr. Hussein to sit down with them, but their requests were met with skepticism. Mr. Rather said that in one discouraging conversation he had with Tariq Aziz, Mr. Hussein’s deputy prime minister, Mr. Aziz waved a cigar and said, “Well, everybody in the world wants to interview Saddam Hussein.”

Still, Mr. Rather and his team-like virtually every other major news organization in the world-kept pressing. Mr. Rather visited Iraq in January and made a flurry of visits to sources in the region who could get word to Mr. Hussein. He returned without an interview-on Feb. 2, Mr. Hussein did grant an interview to a British peace activist and ex–Labour M.P., Tony Benn-and in mid-February Mr. Rather talked to CBS News president Andrew Heyward about going back and trying again. Mr. Rather was permitted to return, though he conceded that his chances of getting an audience with Mr. Hussein were “basically in the neighborhood of 5 to 10 percent.”

“We had no real indicators,” Mr. Rather said. “When I was in New York, I just began to feel that time was getting short, and if he is likely to do an interview, this was the time he was beginning to think about it. I talked to one good source, and he said, ‘Well, you are right-I don’t think he’s going to give an interview. But if he is going to, he’s probably getting to the time where he might do it.'”

Mr. Rather left New York on Feb. 16 and went first to Kuwait. While there, he and his crew, which included CBS News executive producer Jim Murphy, were encouraged when their visas to Iraq were approved quickly-something Mr. Rather said had been increasingly rare. The team took it as a positive sign, he said, but there were no promises that Mr. Hussein would sit for a story.

After Mr. Rather did his Feb. 21 broadcast of the CBS Evening News , he and his CBS News colleagues went to Amman, Jordan, where they piled into a car and drove through the night to Baghdad, an 11-hour trip. Upon reaching the Iraqi capital, they put word out to sources that they were anxious to meet with Mr. Hussein. Among the people who put in a good word for CBS News was former United States Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who himself had met with Mr. Hussein on Feb. 23 as part of a peace delegation.

But despite all this lobbying, there was no indication that Mr. Hussein would submit to any interview, Mr. Rather said. Later, however, came a minor breakthrough. The CBS News anchor had a long meeting with Mr. Aziz in which he described the deputy prime minister as “noncommittal” but for the “first time, interested.”

Mr. Rather called Mr. Heyward after the meeting. “I told him I think our shot is probably a 15 to 20 percent shot,” he said.

Then, he said, the CBS News team “waited and waited.” Saturday bled into Sunday, and as Sunday progressed without any word from the Iraqi government, Mr. Rather-who dressed Sunday morning in a suit and tie so he’d be ready to meet Mr. Hussein and spent the day in his hotel room rehearsing questions-remembered that in 1990 he’d been summoned to visit Mr. Hussein after midnight. But no late-night call came, and when Monday arrived, Mr. Rather began to feel his chances were bleak.

“All we had was a reasonable indication from Tariq Aziz that they had this under consideration,” he said.

But on Monday afternoon at around 4 p.m. Baghdad time, the phone rang. It was an unidentified caller from the Iraqi foreign ministry, telling Mr. Rather that a car would soon be arriving at his hotel and it would be “good for him to meet that car.”

Still, even as he and Mr. Murphy stepped into the government car with curtains on its windows and two armed soldiers sitting in the front seat, Mr. Rather wasn’t convinced he was going to meet Mr. Hussein.

“We drove around for quite a little while,” he said. “We drove around for probably 50 minutes, not quite an hour and we didn’t see any of Baghdad because the car is closed. But I could tell even through the curtains where the sun was-we went south, we went southwest, we went east, we went back west. We just sort of wandered around.”

Finally the car stopped and Mr. Rather and Mr. Murphy were led to what Mr. Rather described as a kind of “safe house.”

“There were security people there, and we were looked over pretty carefully and various people came and went to talk to us,” he said. “Each one of these I thought was kind of looking us over. And we waited there a very long time and during that wait I began to think of myself, ‘Well, maybe this isn’t going to actually happen.’

But then Mr. Rather and Mr. Murphy were escorted outside, placed in one car, moved to another car, and then finally driven to what would be their final destination. The side windows of the car were again obscured, but Mr. Rather could see through the windshield that they were approaching “the gates of the old Baghdad palace – the palace that was built under British supervision after World War I.” The sprawling palace had been heavily bombed during the Gulf War, Mr. Rather said, but it had been meticulously restored. “It’s hard to overstate its opulence,” he said.

Inside the palace there was more waiting, but after several conversations with Iraqi ministers, Mr. Rather finally saw the man he’d been looking for.

“We were signaled to stand, and we stood, and President Saddam Hussein came walking down a long hallway,” Mr. Rather said. “It would have made a good opening scene for a movie.”

“He was outwardly relaxed, very calm,” Mr. Rather said. He said the Iraqi President, who is six foot two, was thinner than he remembered him being in 1990 – “I would have guessed him probably 212-200,” he said – and though he walked a little stiffly (Mr. Rather said he’d heard he’d had a sore back), he was, true to his reputation, well dressed.

“He was dressed in a handmade, very well made flannel suit. Hand-made you can always tell because the button holes on his sleeve: they are real button holes and no two button holes are the same,” Mr. Rather said. “It was a vested, single breasted, beautifully tailored suit.”

After some discussion about the terms of the interview – though Iraq uses its own camera people to tape Presidential interviews, Mr. Rather said the Iraqi leader agreed to give complete and unedited tapes to CBS News, and set no conditions on questions – Mr. Hussein sat down to talk on-camera. Mr. Rather opened with a question about the U.N.’s insistence that he destroy his Al Samoud missiles, and he said he regretted doing so, since Mr. Hussein rambled on dispassionately about the capabilities of his missiles and the interview-already hampered by the fact that both the anchor and the President were using interpreters – wasn’t hitting its stride.

But soon, Mr. Rather said, Mr. Hussein began to grow more animated as he answered his questions. “The pace of the interview picked up,” he said. “He sometimes leaned back in his chair, and when he wanted to make a point with passion he took a finger and hit on the table.” Mr. Rather said that Mr. Hussein did one particularly emphatic table strike when talking about the history of powerful countries expanding into the Middle East.

After about an hour Mr. Rather noticed that the Iraqi leader was looking at his watch. “I said to myself, ‘Uh-oh, he is trying to wrap it up,'” Mr. Rather said. “But after looking at his watch the third time, he had the translator say, ‘It’s time for the President to pray. He hopes you will understand he is going to take a break for his prayers.’ So he broke for about five or six minutes for prayers, and then resumed the interview.

It was at the very end of the televised interview that Mr. Hussein made his surprising offer to debate President Bush. Mr. Rather said that at first, he thought Mr. Hussein was joking.

“He said, ‘I would like to have a dialogue with President George Bush,'” Mr. Rather said. “The translator used the word ‘dialogue.’ And I said to the translator: I don’t quite understand ‘dialogue’-does he mean conversation, or a debate? And the translator said, ‘Debate, debate, he wants to have a debate with the President.”

Mr. Hussein then made an offer to Mr. Rather. “He said, ‘You, Mr. Rather, could moderate this thing,’ and I said something I probably shouldn’t have said, which was, ‘Mr. President I have enough trouble already, thank you very much.'”

Soon the on-camera interview was completed and Mr. Hussein invited Mr. Rather and Mr. Murphy to join him inside his leather-furnitured office for an off-camera interview. None of the conversation was off the record, Mr. Rather said, but Mr. Hussein, who smoked a cigar during the session, turned the tables a bit, asking Mr. Rather many questions about America and the brewing war, about President Bush, about public opinion in the United States about the war – and what Americans thought about Saddam Hussein.

“He was seeking to understand was why Americans thought of him in the same terms as Osama Bin Laden,” Mr. Rather said. “And he went into, you know, a conversation about how even Osama Bin Laden’s most recent tape was critical of Saddam Hussein. It was basically ‘Why am I grouped together with this guy?’ And he made the point that there was no Iraqi involved in the bombing of 9/11. I’m paraphrasing. It was in that spirit and along that line.”

At one point Mr. Hussein pointed toward Mr. Murphy and asked why the CBS News producer had kept quiet during the entire conversation. “He’s a deaf mute,” Mr. Rather joked, and Mr. Hussein laughed.

Finally the conversation concluded and soon afterward Mr. Murphy and Mr. Rather were on their way back to their hotel. Mr. Rather filed a report for CBS radio, but getting the tapes from the Iraqi government took some time; Mr. Rather was hopeful he could get some excerpts from the interview onto the Feb. 24 CBS Evening News , but translation delays made it impossible, he said. The first excerpts from the interview ran on the Feb. 25 Evening News , with the largest segment planned for the Feb. 26 60 Minutes II broadcast. Mr. Rather said he hoped that after the 60 Minutes II telecast, his interview would then be made available to all news organizations for wide distribution.

Mr. Rather, no stranger to major interviews with world leaders, hadn’t had much time to consider the impact of his latest. Still, he acknowledged it was close to the top.

“However long the list is,” he said, “this is on it.”

Tonight on 60 Minutes II , Mr. Rather interviews Saddam Hussein. Mr. Rather pops up later on The Late Show With David Letterman; then, coincidentally, Mr. Hussein pops up with Alyssa Milano and Uncle Cracker on Craig Kilborn’s couch on the Late Late Show [WCBS, 2, 9 p.m.]

Thursday, Feb. 27

After spending a couple of years teaching at the John F. Kennedy School of Government-that’s at Harvard University, a school in Cambridge, Mass.-former ABC and CNN news honcho Rick Kaplan is rumbling back to television. When and if war breaks, he’ll oversee the control room during ABC’s live coverage from Iraq and beyond.

“We’re in place and ready, for everything and nothing,” Mr. Kaplan said the other day.

Mr. Kaplan said he enjoyed his academic detour, but admitted he felt some heavy withdrawal symptoms when big breaking stories happened, from Sept. 11 to the Florida election fiasco. “It was the first time I was ever a bystander,” he said.

Mr. Kaplan said he was planning to get back into television news this spring, having decided he wasn’t going to return to Harvard for the upcoming semester. He’d met with ABC News president David Westin in the fall of 2002, and when Mr. Westin called him in mid-February to ask if he’d come in to oversee the network’s breaking war coverage, he jumped at the offer.

“It took me a nanosecond to say yes,” Mr. Kaplan said. He added: “I would have done this job for nothing.”

He’ll do it for something north of nothing, of course. Mr. Kaplan steps into a newsroom that has changed in many ways since he left it in 1997, though many of its top personnel are the same. “I don’t think there’s an anchor there I haven’t known more than 20 years,” he said.

Though he’s worked at both ABC and CNN, Mr. Kaplan said he didn’t have any particularly insightful behind-the-scenes thoughts on the potential merger of the two, which has been put on the back-back-back burner as AOL Time Warner reassesses the deal. But, he said, “they are great companies, and if they decided to do it and did it well, it would be an extraordinary combination.”

As for CNN’s troubles in the ratings and its struggles against the Fox News Channel, Mr. Kaplan said that while he and his students paid close attention to television news in recent years, he hadn’t been very interested in the “internecine battles between networks.”

His focus was now on ABC News and Iraq, he said. Though he’s strategizing coverage, Mr. Kaplan said he hoped a war would be averted. But if one came, he said, the network would be prepared-and he’d have a mild case of nerves.

“You know, if you don’t have butterflies, there is something seriously wrong with you,” Mr. Kaplan said.

Tonight on ABC, Profiles from the Front Line . This is a new reality-TV/documentary series profiling U.S. Special Forces personnel in Afghanistan. In the end, it turns out one of them is a millionaire! But seriously: All of you who complain that networks don’t care about news anymore-see if you can pry yourself away from Friends and American Idol and put the remote where your mouth is. [WABC, 7, 8 p.m.]

Friday, Feb. 28

Ian Rae is back and looking to sex you up. The former tabloid editor, WNYW Fox 5 general manager and co–mad scientist behind A Current Affair is running around town pitching a new series called Talkin’ Sex , which features intimacy advice from real, live … hookers. There’s already been a version in Mr. Rae’s native Australia, and now he’s looking to do an American version here.

“It’s a mix of good information and entertainment and some humor in there,” Mr. Rae said the other day, in an interview at his East Side office. “It’s nothing overly explicit.”

Mr. Rae, a Murdoch man to the core-he’s got the Steve Dunleavy and Neal Travis photographs on the wall to prove it-said he had yet to find a taker for Talkin’ Sex , but he was hopeful.

“I think it could fly,” he said. “There’s a shot with cable operators and late-night.”

As for the news business, Mr. Rae, who was around during the infancy of the Fox News Channel, said he wasn’t terribly surprised at the runaway success of Roger Ailes’ network. Fox News announced on Feb. 25 that it had just completed its best month since its launch, and now appears to be going after the likes of cable giants like Nickelodeon and Lifetime.

Mr. Rae said he saw it coming. And though he and his colleagues absorbed a great deal of grief for trashing journalism with A Current Affair , Mr. Rae sees the show’s legacy in dozens of programs, including most of today’s network news magazines. “They do all the kinds of stories that we were doing,” he said.

And reality television? “You look at reality television, and A Current Affair looks like something out of the Columbia School of Journalism,” Mr. Rae said.

Actually, you look at The Surreal Life , and A Current Affair looks like Frontline .

Tonight on Fox, Baywatch Hawaiian Wedding . Now we’re talkin’ sex! [WNYW, 5, 8 p.m.]

Saturday, Mar. 1

We talked to esteemed newsman Walter Cronkite not too long ago and he offered his thoughts on a variety of television topics, from broadcast news to reality shows to his appearance on tonight’s episode of I’m a Celebrity-Get Me Out of Here! We’re just kidding about that last one, but here’s some thoughts from the Most Trusted Man in America (still!).

On cable versus network news: “I think they [the cable outfits] do a fairly good job when they are reporting. They have got pretty good reporters most of the time, quite adequate reporters on the scene-also with foreign interviews. With all of this, they are giving us a great deal more than the traditional networks are giving us. The traditional networks, in their half-hour evening newscasts, still feel they have got to featurize material. There’s too much inside-the-paper stuff: your pocketbook and mine, your health and mine, your garbage pail and mine. All of that is perhaps valuable material, but it doesn’t belong in a very crowded, or should-be-crowded, evening newscast. That’s where we should be getting the news.”

On the future of news on broadcast networks: “I think it’s highly possible that they will drop news on the traditional networks. Perhaps when the percentage of cable homes has gotten a little bit higher.”

On news magazines: “I am disappointed in the networks for failing to use, for a great deal of the time, their magazine hours to give us the news in depth. It seems to me they have got a perfect opportunity now to do the headlines far more thoroughly than they do in the evening news, and then to augment that in their magazine hours with some real in-depth reporting and telling us what it all means.”

O.K., that’s the way it is. Tonight on ABC, the aforementioned (and surefire Peabody Award winner) IAC-GMOOH! [WABC, 7, 9 p.m.]

Sunday, Mar. 2

On HBO tonight, the season premiere of Six Feet Under . In this week’s episode, Carrie and the girls find a stiff at Lot 61. [HBO, 32, 9 p.m.]

Monday, Mar. 3

Tonight Fox has Married By America , from the people who lied to you with Joe Millionaire . [WNYW, 5, 8 p.m.]

Tuesday, Mar. 4

On Comedy Central tonight, Comedy Central Presents Zach Galifianakis . About time someone did! [COM, 45, 9 p.m.]