Rather Digs Clinton’s Life …Reagan’s Funeral Director

Wednesday, June 16

* CBS News legend Dan Rather was one of the few people to get his hands on an advance copy of the hotly awaited and tightly guarded 975-page memoir My Life , by former President Bill Clinton. So what’s the verdict, Mr. Rather?

“Maybe he didn’t come totally, absolutely clean with himself, but he made an effort to do it,” he said, “an effort it would be difficult to find with any former President.”

Did Mr. Rather like the book?

“I liked it more than I thought I would,” he said, “more than I was prepared to like it. Who knew that Bill Clinton could write this well?”

“As Presidential memoirs go,” he added, “on a five-star scale, I give it five.”

On Sunday, June 20, two days before the book’s official release, 60 Minutes will air Mr. Rather’s attempt to wrassle with the newly buff (by way of the South Beach Diet), bear-hugging, pain-feeling former President in an hour-long interview. Mr. Rather said Mr. Clinton didn’t attempt to avoid the prickly, Monica Lewinsky–related questions in their sit-down interview. “He made no effort to cut it short, or brush aside any question,” he said, “and he said, ‘I’m not making any excuses. I have no excuse and as far as I’m able to explain it to myself, here’s my explanation.’ There are very few people in public life who can do that on camera.”

Mr. Rather had a lot of praise for the first half of Mr. Clinton’s tome, which deals with his hard-luck upbringing in Arkansas and his years working as a staffer for Arkansas Senator J. William Fulbright, which shaped his views on Vietnam. He called it “informative and revealing.” But when asked about the second half, which addresses Mr. Clinton’s Presidency-and specifically, the Monica Lewinsky blowup that plagued his second term in office-Mr. Rather could not characterize it as revelatory.

“I didn’t find it as rich or as revealing as I found the first half,” he said. “And I found the first half very revealing indeed.

“We all lived that and he lived it in a very public way,” he continued. “On this most critical stuff, frankly, I think people would make a mistake if they went to that immediately. I think a lot of people will. There’s a lot of that in it.”

Mr. Rather said he was suitably convinced that Mr. Clinton had written the book himself, having glimpsed notebooks filled with longhand in Mr. Clinton’s Harlem office. Of course Robert Gottlieb, Mr. Clinton’s editor (and The Observer ‘s dance critic), has a long history of turning literary coal into diamonds. Mr. Rather compared Mr. Clinton’s homespun Southern style to North Toward Hom e, by Willie Morris. As it happens, Mr. Gottlieb was Mr. Morris’ editor in the 1960’s.

Was Mr. Clinton critical enough of his actions while President of the United States?

“In some portions, yes,” said Mr. Rather. “In some ways, I thought he was surprisingly, if not remarkably, so. But that is not to say that he is hard on himself about everything everybody thinks he should be hard on himself about.”

Mr. Rather was being coy.

“That’s what makes the first half of the book so effective,” he added.

Tonight, the newly censored version of Sex and the City appears on TBS, in which both the first and the second halves of the hour are equally nudity-free. [TBS, 8, 10 p.m.]

Thursday, June 17

* The TV coverage of Ronald Reagan’s stately one-hour funeral service at the National Cathedral on June 10-a powerful mix of choral music, somber eulogies, martial formations, stained glass, candles and, of course, the granite visages of the free world’s leaders-was a marvel of on-air reverence and meditation in an age of the quick cut. And the duty of directing the sensitive TV affair for all five news channels-NBC, ABC, CBS, CNN and Fox-went to 54-year-old Craig Janoff, a one-time ABC Sports producer.

As it happens, Mr. Janoff directed ABC News’ coverage of Reagan’s Presidential inauguration in January 1981. But he really made his name in TV as a producer of Monday Night Football and the Kentucky Derby. It makes sense when you think about it: In what amounted to a funereal Super Bowl, there were no advance scripts and a lot of players on the field.

“Once you go on the air, it comes from the hip to a large degree,” said Mr. Janoff. “It was totally spontaneous for me.”

While the funeral unfolded, Mr. Janoff sat in a mobile unit on southeast corner of the cathedral grounds. With 21 cameras at his disposal-10 of which were well-hidden robotic cameras (manned ones were frowned upon by funeral organizers)-Mr. Janoff deftly made Nancy Reagan the star of the show. He was especially pleased with a shot of a candle that slowly focused to reveal Mrs. Reagan in the background.

“I could have spent a lot of time on the eulogizers the whole time,” he said, “but I wanted to give a little more of a feel for what was going on. We took a little bit more of a chance, but it was the appropriate thing to do.”

Mr. Janoff said his favorite Hollywood directors were Stephen Spielberg and James Cameron.

Among the 30-person crew, Mr. Janoff had three ABC News “spotters” helping him identify the power brokers in the pews. At one point, when President George W. Bush recalled in his eulogy “the prisons and gulags, where dissidents spread the news” of Reagan’s freedom-loving message, “tapping to each other in code what the American President had dared to say,” the camera landed squarely on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s face. That was pretty interesting.

“That was not intentional,” said Mr. Janoff, who recalled the moment vividly. “I happened to be on Rumsfeld. I don’t go into anything like this with any political motivations. We were searching out, trying to find familiarity and find some reaction. It would not be appropriate for me to interpret faces. This to me was a solemn moment in history. There was nothing like that going on in my heart.”

All in all, Mr. Janoff was pleased with the outcome.

“As long as the Reagan family, in the end, is happy in the approach, that would be the most important thing for me, given the situation,” he said.

Tonight, PBS presents America in the 40s , hosted by decorated D-Day vet and actor Charles Durning, who was also great in the 80’s classic Tootsie . [PBS, 13, 8 p.m.]

Friday, June 18

* Onetime Reagan media guru Mike Deaver and his TV partner, Mark Sennet, are looking to revive the Beltway reality hybrid they invented with K Street , this time with a Presidential-election show called Diary of a Campaign Junky .

Wait, wasn’t that show a flop?

“I hope we’ve learned from the K Street experience to not make the same mistakes,” said Mr. Deaver. “I think we’ve got to get people involved who have a little bit more intimate interest with the process.”

K Street director Steve Soderbergh and producer George Clooney wouldn’t be involved this time-is that what he meant?

“Let’s just leave it at that,” he said.

The producers told NYTV that Diary would focus on the Washington, D.C., campaign offices of President George Bush and Senator Kerry. Shooting week to week, they’d intersperse fictional campaign staffers with real politicos, all pegged to real-life election news.

“It would be like The War Room ,” said Mr. Sennet, referring to D.A. Pennebaker’s real-life 1992 documentary about Bill Clinton’s campaign staff. “You’d feel through our cast what you would really like to see if it was happening in the real campaign headquarters, and you’d put them side by side. It would be like the Army-Navy game.”

Should someone pick it up, Diary would air in September, eight weeks before the election on Nov. 2. Would real-life politicians and campaign staffers be willing to appear on a reality show after the K Street series?

“I think more so, because it’s such concentrated time and the focus is on all of this in a much more precise way than it was during K Street ,” said Mr. Deaver. “I do think it would be a show that would be followed.”

Now that Presidential politics have become acutely stage-managed affairs-thanks in large part to the mastery of pros like Mr. Deaver-maybe fiction is the only way we can get a glimpse of reality. “The only way you can really get behind the scenes is to write it rather than record it,” said Mr. Deaver.

Maybe Reagan biographer Edmund Morris was right after all.

Tonight, the movie that coined the catchphrase for our time: “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!” On the funny meter, The Observer ‘s own Ron Rosenbaum has deemed Zoolander up there with Spinal Tap . [TBS, 8, 8 p.m.]

Saturday, June 19

f Mike Deaver may have directed the Gipper in his eight-year blockbuster as President of the United States, but it was David Lynch who captured the essence of the Reagan 80’s with Blue Velvet . TV Guide says it best: Adult Situations; Language; Nudity; Violence. [TMC, 66, 9:35 p.m.]

Sunday, June 20

@ Tonight, as is required by law in all one-hour newsmagazine profiles, Dan Rather and Bill Clinton will both wear blue jeans and amble about a field while discussing childhood. [WCBS, 2, 7 p.m.]

Tuesday, June 22

If you weren’t watching the Reagan funeral coverage on CBS last week, you might have wondered what happened to Edmund Morris, the official Reagan biographer who penned Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan . He was under contract at West 57th Street and on Friday, June 11, he was “in the box,” as he called it, with Dan Rather during the funeral services.

This was more than a little ironic: The writer who had tried desperately to find a flesh-and-blood man behind the TV hologram had found himself watching his funeral from inside a TV studio.

“I got a greatly diminished view of the ceremonies because I had to see it all on the monitor,” said Mr. Morris, “so the drama of life, the sound effects, were diminished by the small dusty monitor. I realized the press often has this inhibition.”

Despite himself, Mr. Morris was swept up in the emotion of it all, the loss of a subject who had torn 874 pages-some fact, some fiction-from his soul.

“I did find my objectivity under siege last week,” he said. “It’s impossible to study a man for as many years as I did and not end up admiring him.”

And now he was prepared for some fallout.

“A lot of the former anti-Reaganites-West Side liberals-are going to have an ideological hangover,” he said. “They’re going to wonder why they were crying so much.”

For all the talk of President George W. Bush donning the superhero cape of Ronald Reagan during his eulogy, Mr. Morris was unimpressed with Mr. Bush’s words. “I thought it was perfunctory and unfeeling,” he said. “My big disappointment was Gorbachev was not asked to speak. That was a real dereliction. A historic opportunity neglected.”

Maybe it’s time to put the clicker down and revisit Mr. Morris’ book. Rather Digs Clinton’s Life …Reagan’s Funeral Director