Welcome to Dan Rather’s second segment. The former CBS Evening News anchor couldn’t squeeze all his passion and persistence into those first 15 minutes of fame and influence.
Yes, he was forced out of his dream job in 2005 and limped off the big stage, dogged by an embarrassing controversy relating to the handling of an explosive, contested story on the Vietnam-era Texas Air National Guard service of President George W. Bush. At the time, even the loosest gamblers in Rather’s native Wharton, Texas, would’ve thought his career prospects slim to none.
Clearly damaged goods, his chances of rebuilding a tarnished legacy were further complicated by the fact he was already in his mid-70s. That’s not exactly an age most folks in our youth-obsessed American culture ordinarily craft their strategy for a major comeback, especially when it would have been so much easier to simply fade away.
But acceptance of defeat isn’t in the disposition that makes this former 60 Minutes correspondent continue to tick, now at age 81.
“I am an optimist by experience and nature,” Rather explains. And therein lies the key to understanding how he emerged from his darkest days and found the strength to convert a crushing defeat into a personal victory—a vindication.
His is an example for anybody who has seen his or her dream die and yet refused to give up, fortified by sheer willpower and a dose of good old-fashioned hope. OK, Rather theorized during his darkest hour, I must accept the cold, hard fact that the CBS door is now closed to me—but another door will fly open if I can stay positive, keep up my self-confidence and refuse to lose.
That is what has happened. He’s re-emerged as a working journalist, spearheading the Emmy-winning Dan Rather Reports for Mark Cuban’s AXS TV (formerly HDNet), and further cemented his cultural claim by dishing on the American television industry in a book released last May. Once a square-jawed, just-the-facts newsman, he has even become a staple on the talk-show circuit—nice work for a man who might’ve easily shuffled off to obscurity.
To understand the true extent of Rather’s comeback, we must view the B-roll of his departure from CBS. He needed all his intestinal fortitude when he exited the anchor chair only one year shy of his 25th anniversary in that lofty post, and retired from the network some 15 months later. When he signed off for the last time, it seemed as if one of America’s most iconic journalists had sadly reached the end. But naysayers underestimated the grit, work ethic and tenacity of this venerable storyteller. Rather, as it turned out, wasn’t washed up.
As a matter of fact, the face of CBS News for all of those years was just getting warmed up for the remainder of his life’s work, carrying no intention of leaving the American stage, head down.
The departure from CBS certainly was a disappointment, though. It began with his Sept. 8, 2004, reporting on documents alleged to be critical memos from Bush’s commanding officer in the early 1970s. Ultimately, a review by outside sources and the Columbia Broadcasting System itself deemed the papers inadequately authenticated, resulting in the firing of Rather’s producer and the resignations of several senior news execs.
Though Rather wasn’t officially punished, the writing was on the wall. Less than sixth months later, he sat in the Evening News anchor chair for the last time. By the spring of the following year, he had left the network altogether. It was certainly not the ending envisioned by perhaps television’s most recognizable journalist in his day, a man who had made his name as an enterprising reporter.
“I didn’t feel good about it,” Rather tells me. “I was mostly baffled about what had happened. I had difficulty believing it, after 44 years there. I knew and understood the institution and believed in traditions and histories and people.” I could well sense his lingering confusion as he repeated: “I was baffled by it.”
So how did this proud man overcome his negative feelings? To start with, he immediately got back on the horse, brushing off what had happened and starting again. A new project on a new network reinvigorated him.
“At first I think it was a shock,” says Wayne Nelson, Rather’s executive producer at AXS TV, and a producer and confidant at CBS since the early ’80s. “But once we got into this, I think it was a real blessing. I think it’s contributed to his longevity—to keep your mind that actively engaged has been a blessing to him. We talk about it occasionally; I check in to see how he’s doing, and he shows no signs of slowing down.”
Rather also had help from his loved ones—and that made a world of difference. “I had my low moments,” he admits, “but they didn’t last very long. My wife of 57 years, Jean, said, ‘You were a hell of a man before and you are a hell of a man now.’ ”
I ask Rather the obvious question: Did you believe her? Even over the phone, I could sense he was smiling broadly at my question.
“I did! I did believe her,” he says. “That was a great help, I was thinking. On the last day I was at CBS, I took a walk across Central Park and I gave myself a pep talk: You’ve had ups and downs, and it’s important to look forward.”
Rather even reached back further than his marriage for some good old-fashioned advice from tiny Wharton.
“I remembered what my mother used to say: ‘Yesterday, no tears. Tomorrow, no fears.’ ” To Rather the meaning is clear: “Be in the moment. Concentrate in the moment. Keep on keepin’ on.”
Rather has a confidence in his way with words. He has puckishly titled his latest book Rather Outspoken, a riff on how the sausage is made behind the cameras in the news world. His belief in the field of journalism comes through on every page. Leslie Griffith wrote in her Huffington Post review: “He has proven that he is and will always be a reporter, no matter the venue. Keep in mind, I am not saying he has always been right; however, in my humble opinion, he has always been earnest, tireless and willing to put his life on the line if it meant delivering news and much-needed context to the American people.”
“I think I’m a pretty good storyteller,” Rather says, and hastily adds: “After 60 years as a working reporter, I should be a good storyteller!”
He has plenty of real-life material to fall back on, too, stories that have surely made the rounds in his industry.
At the Democratic National Convention in 1968, Rather was slugged in the stomach just before the CBS control room switched the camera to him.
In 1980, he was driven through the streets of Chicago by an emotionally charged taxi driver, after Rather thought he was being cheated by the cabbie and refused to pay his fare. (Police eventually pulled the taxi to the curb; CBS later paid for the $12.55 ride.)
In 1986, as Rather was walking home to his Manhattan apartment, he was mugged by a man demanding to know, “Kenneth, what is the frequency?” Some accounts indicated that more than one assailant was involved. Eight years later, the rock band R.E.M. included the song, “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” on its album Monster. Also in 1994, Rather writes in his latest book, the sole mugger was arrested after killing an NBC employee and said he had wanted Rather to give him the frequency the media was using to bombard him with hostile messages.
Rather’s life is chock-full of stories and lessons. He surely understands how to accept a challenge. One of the biggest he ever faced came in 1981, when he took over for Walter Cronkite as the CBS Evening News anchor, the classic case of filling the shoes of a legend, something many of us undertake in our lives, albeit out of the glare of an audience of millions, including critics. People of a certain age will understand how Olympian the responsibility was, as Cronkite had truly earned his nickname “The Most Trusted Man in America” and set an awfully high standard for his successors.
How much does the memory still mean to Rather, more than three decades later? When I ask about his career highlights, he doesn’t hesitate. Succeeding Cronkite “has got to be in the top five. Having the assignment of succeeding an icon like Walter! Well, no one replaces him. I told myself, I can’t be another Walter Cronkite. I’ve got to be the best Dan Rather I can be. It would be a mistake for me to try and do everything the way Walter did. I had to emphasize the things that got me here, such as being a strong field reporter, a strength I knew I had, and taking the broadcast into the field, to Iraq, all over the Middle East and to China.”
Rather pauses for a moment and offers a thought. “When you move into a higher, new position, it’s worth considering: What got me here and how can I use and build on those strengths?” It’s exactly what he’s done with his new TV project, which focuses on the issues most important to Rather, particularly national and international politics, the environment and veterans.
“He loves what he’s doing now because it’s his true passion, reporting,” Nelson says. “He was the face of CBS News, which he certainly did with grace and style, but he’s a reporter at heart. That’s what he wants to do, and this gives him the opportunity to really dig deep in stories, make phone calls—which is hard to believe, but he does it every day. I’ve been amazed: We’ll come back from someplace like Afghanistan, and I need to go to bed for three days, but he’s in the office the next morning. I don’t know how he does it.”
Rather Outspoken isn’t without detail on the unpleasant aspects of a career in news—the split from CBS in large part, but also the corporate entanglements, an ongoing frustration that Cuban removed for Rather. In a practical sense, Rather was wise to forge a connection with the Internet billionaire, Dallas Mavericks team owner and digital-television pioneer.
“ ‘Whatever you want to do, Dan, you’ve got 58 of 60 minutes.’ We’ve got two breaks—not even for commercials—just breaks,” Cuban told NBC in 2007, before the Emmy. “There’s no corporate interference; there’s no board of directors to deal with; there’s no question about what happens to the stock price. It’s not my call, so I’ve just given him the freedom, and the show’s amazing. The response is that it’s the only real news show on TV. There’s no entertainment fluff in it.”
When Rather speaks of Cuban, his respect and affection come through.
“Working for Mark Cuban has been an absolute joy,” Rather says. “I have learned so much working for him. I don’t need to kiss up to anyone. I’m well past doing that. After I was forced out at CBS News, I didn’t know him. He said he would give me absolute creative control. This is unprecedented for me, someone who was a reporter trained in skepticism, not cynicism. He’s been better than his word. I can’t remember a time in my career that I’m as happy.”
Rather has attained self-fulfillment from many angles. It would have been one thing to have worked on and on and then retired gracefully, on his terms. He could have ridden off into the sunset a conquering hero. But it didn’t quite turn out that way, and Rather was forced to gaze in the mirror and see who looked back. What he saw was a man who had to write his own final chapter, to create a new destiny.
I put the question to Rather. What advice would you offer a person who has found himself or herself in the kind of distress that you experienced when you left CBS? He practically jumped at the opportunity to pass along his hard-earned lesson: “Persistence is a major key to success, as to how success is defined. Keep knocking on doors. Italicize ‘persistence’ when you think you’re at a dead spot.”
Today Rather is anything but a man living on his past glories and regaling his buddies with stories about the good old days. The chance to cover President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and interviewing Saddam Hussein are right there near the top of his prized list of cherished memories. But he’d prefer to look forward, not back.
Yesterday, no tears. Tomorrow, no fears. Or, as Carly Simon once sang, “These are the good old days!”
No doubt, Dan Rather would surely agree.
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I know that my life today—as blessed and real and challenging and joyful as it is—wouldn’t be possible without the horror and sadness and hurt that came before it.