Skip to comments.Rather climbing down from the pinnacle
Posted on 03/06/2005 8:27:35 AM PST by Dog Gone
NEW YORK - Dan Rather, gracious and in good spirits, points with pride to an old map of Houston hanging in the corner of his office.
As his anchorman career comes to a close this week, he is fully aware of the significance his hometown has meant to his long and storied life. After 24 years on the job, he steps down Wednesday from his job as managing editor and anchor of the CBS Evening News.
Speaking a week before his sign-off, Rather is coatless but looks dapper in his striped tie and suspenders. His hair is mostly salt with a hint of pepper. His face is lined with the creases earned in his 73 years.
Perhaps he's earned more than his share these last six months, since his Sept. 8 report about George W. Bush's tenure in the Texas Air National Guard aired on 60 Minutes Wednesday. The report immediately came under scrutiny, with bloggers and critics arguing that the memos on which it was partly based were fraudulent.
"Memogate," as the resulting crisis has been coined, has plagued CBS News ever since, a lightning rod for the conservatives who say the media exudes a liberal bias.
"Listen, I've made every mistake in the book at least twice," Rather says, "and I'm very much aware of how short I've fallen and how often."
Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer called the report "the most blindingly partisan bungle in recent journalistic history."
Rather initially stood by the report. Twelve days after it ran, he issued an apology. He's been tight-lipped about it since.
Rather's is the most public face of that report, and his many critics think he championed it. An internal investigation came down hard on CBS but spared Rather and CBS News President Andrew Heyward.
"This is my personal view, but there are two things that have not gotten the attention they deserve," Rather says. "One, this panel found that whatever mistakes were made, they were not born out of political bias. No. 2, after spending four months and $5 million trying to establish that the memos were 'forgeries,' as so many have called them, the panel was unable to do that.
"I think it's fair enough to say that the documents weren't conclusively authenticated. I've acknowledged that, said I'm sorry and taken steps to see it doesn't happen again."
To an outsider, the most striking thing about the second floor of CBS News' headquarters on 57th Street is how dark and quiet it is. Few people roam the halls, and many offices sit empty, giving the place a ghostly feel.
The presidential race is hotter than a Laredo parking lot. (2000)
This race is as tight as rusted lug nuts on a '55 Ford. (2000)
Rather's departure has affected the mood of the network, says Susan Zirinsky, an executive producer at CBS and a Rather colleague for 30 years.
"People feel very sad about Dan's leaving," she says. "It has pushed CBS to look at where the evolution of CBS is. You're always going to find someone to say something that's not nice, but there is such a well of support for Dan at this network."
Zirkinsky, portrayed by Holly Hunter in the movie Broadcast News, has produced a Rather retrospective that will air at 7 p.m. Wednesday.
"It's the journey of a journalist," she says. "He was in those riots, at those churches, on the floor of the conventions, in Bosnia ducking shots. There isn't a single other person that has lived that man's life."
Most people suspect Memogate was key to Rather's decision, announced in late November, to step down as Evening News anchor. But he contends that his retirement was imminent, without regard to the incident.
He considered stepping down as early as 1996. Then in 1999 came a stunning offer from CNN a 10-year contract, with a salary in excess of $60 million, sources say. CBS countered and persuaded him to stay.
After the 2000 election debacle, he again looked at retirement. "Florida was a screw-up all the way around," he says.
After the election, "things got complicated. Then we went into Sept. 11," and thoughts of retirement evaporated.
"There's no conceit in this," Rather says. "Anchorpeople can be some of the most arrogant, narcissistic, egomaniacal people around. But on 9/11, everything I saw in the street ... " he says, his eyes welling and his voice trailing off.
"I do remember getting strapped into the chair. ... I remember thinking, 'This is horrible, this is terrible. I remember thinking, you've prepared all your life for this,' " he says, his voice breaking. "In a way, I had.
"All those years of ad-libbing has probably been the spine of my being able not only to make it but to last as long as I have."
He went on to Sam Houston State Teachers College, as Sam Houston State University was then called. He covered sports and news for the Huntsville radio station.
"I tried desperately to get on with the Chronicle," he recalls, "but I was a horrible speller."
So he ended up in radio.
Rather was given an assignment by KTRH to write a 15-minute and a 5-minute newscast. He had it done in half an hour. By late 1954, Rather was the anchor of the 50,000-watt "Voice of the Golden Gulf Coast."
It was at the radio station that he met Jeannie Grace Goebel.
She was an "absolute teetotaling knockout, one where pickup trucks not only stopped but would back up to get a look," Rather says. "She had a great smile. Wide as Texas. She wasn't there very long before I asked her out."
They married in 1957.
"We lived in a very small, no-bedroom apartment," he remembers. "I came in one night, and she had made my favorite dinner, a Mexican salad. I knew something was up. She had circled a couple of ads for houses in the Chronicle. At this time I was making $87.50 a week, and we could barely afford where we were at."
Two years and two children later, Rather was bringing home $9,000 a year, supplemented by doing play-by-play of University of Houston football and basketball games. He also began calling baseball games for Houston's minor-league team, the Buffs.
He heard about an opening at KGUL, the TV station in Galveston. To get the job, he wrote a script in 10 minutes and then did the entire on-camera audition without looking down at what he'd written.
"Frankly, it was no big deal because I was used to ad-libbing for ball games," Rather says.
Shortly thereafter, KGUL became KHOU, a CBS affiliate, and Rather was its anchorman.
The station quickly became known for its aggressive coverage, one with a reputation for cutting into regular programming with news.
His break came with Hurricane Carla in 1961. The CBS network picked up his coverage. CBS executives were not only watching, they were charmed with Rather's ad-lib reporting style.
By the end of the year, the network had hired him. He was so naive about the business he didn't know that reporters had agents; when he was asked who his was, he said American General, his insurance agent.
His career took off after coverage of President Kennedy's assassination. Rather broke the news of the story to the nation for CBS.
He also found himself in the middle of the tumultuous 1960s with the civil rights struggles and Vietnam. He would go on to become White House correspondent and, in 1981, anchor.
Even to some of those who call him a friend, Rather can be an enigma.
Mike Wallace and Walter Cronkite were both critical of Rather in a report in the current issue of New Yorker magazine.
Others admire him, and have for years.
"He's always been a man of integrity," said Ron Stone, whom Rather hired away from a station in Oklahoma to work here for KHOU.
"We have spent 20 years working together and against each other," says ABC anchor Peter Jennings. "When I was in London, my two best friends were the chief correspondent from CBS (Rather) and NBC (Tom Brokaw). ... We are very competitive but very good friends."
Newswoman Linda Ellerbee's first exposure to Rather was when she was in high school in Houston, watching him report on Hurricane Carla.
"Like most Texans, when we first met, we got along," says Ellerbee, who recently sent Rather a note thanking him "for never giving up and never giving in" and "for showing us how to spread the credit and take responsibility when things go wrong."
Rather says that he warned his boss, Heyward, that the Air National Guard story "could be something big but also could have a heavy backside, that this could be radioactive."
Rather says now that he and CBS were "remarkably unprepared to meet the reaction and, in some portions, counterattack."
"We didn't handle it," he says. "We should have been prepared, and we should have reacted to it. And I wish we had worked harder to further authenticate."
His unwavering support of the report sparked further criticism. Does he regret that now?
"It's a hypothetical question because you can't go back."
Was the report rushed to air?
"The decision to go to air was not mine. My job (for 60 Minutes Wednesday) is to report stories."
He bristles at the suggestion that it was the result of his being overworked. In addition to being newscast anchor and 60 Minutes reporter, Rather writes a syndicated column and hosts a daily radio segment. Rather plans to work full-time as a correspondent for 60 Minutes.
"I'm a can-do Houstonian," he says.
"I had to leave Houston to find out how special it is. Houston is the capital of can-do.
"The greatest compliment my father could pay to anybody was to say he's a hoss. Which is to say he has a strong back, you can ride him forever, he's going to get you where you're going. You bet, I always wanted to be a hoss."
Tears again well in Rather's eyes. "It's in that spirit that I reject this notion, this whole theory that somehow I was taken advantage of. That is not true. It's very much in my nature ... that if it's worth getting done, get up, stand on your feet and say, 'Send me.' "
May he go quietly into the night, as is befitting his disgrace.
Manoshevitz, did you hear Trump take off after him with Chris Wallace on Fox this morning?
"Gracious"?....baloney! Good riddance to this lying, treasonous, pompous, pretentious, flatulent gas bag.
I thought the headline said...
Rather climbing down from the PINEAPPLE(that probably would have made a better story)
You mean he's cliff diving off the top of the pinnacle?
Put it on your tombstone (as an understatement), Dan.
You will always be known by 90% of America as a con man.
Sorry your anchor-for-life thing didn't work out, Dan...
Bwah! More like shot down in flames, run out of town, tarred and feathered.
Somebody better break the news to Danno that the above is exactly why "the panel"'s report was laughed off as a lame whitewash the same day it was released.
And the sweeps results are proving this point. Hello? Anyone... Nope nobody is 'home' at the networks. Their porch lights are on, but nobody is there.
I predict that in a 'few' years that network news will go back to what it was in the early 1960's - 15 minutes of 'National News' that interrupts your local news and comes on before your weather forecast.
In other words, completely and utterly irrelevant to 94.6523% of America. :-)
I want him to pull a Howard Beale (Peter Finch-Network) as he signs off.
The staff of the Houston Chronicle is all teary-eyed over his departure. This article was a tribute to a man they adore.
Dan Rather has set the standard for Yellow TV journalism.
Good riddance Dan, you won't be missed.
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