|Illustration by Ryan Ward|
One torrid July afternoon during the 1988 Democratic convention, I was covering a Jesse Jackson rally in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park — as ever, the good reverend was running late. Suddenly, the crowd began buzzing behind me. I turned around, expecting to see Jackson sauntering in like a pop star. Instead, there stood Dan Rather looking exactly like, well, Dan Rather. Except for one thing. He was smaller in the flesh than he was in my head.
Back then, you see, he still seemed destined for a glorious entry into media Valhalla. The CBS Evening News was the top-rated nightly newscast, and Rather himself was clearly the biggest star among the network anchors. That afternoon, nobody would have guessed that 17 years (and two Bush presidencies!) later he would be forced to do a kamikaze leap from his lofty anchorman’s seat, his departure hastened by the scandal surrounding faked documents in a 60 Minutes Wednesday report on President Bush’s dodgy service in the National Guard.
Rather leaves plagued by low ratings (high ones would’ve saved his job), a New Yorker article revealing that even Mike Wallace doesn’t watch the CBS newscast, and the cackling schadenfreude of conservatives, who have long reviled him as the most unrepentantly liberal of the anchors. (His supposed sins are copiously documented on the Web site Ratherbiased.com.) For those over 60, Rather has become the man who let down the glorious news tradition of the Tiffany Network — “Dan never really made it, did he?” my mother said to me last Sunday — while younger viewers treat him as an outdated figure of fun, the real-life version of The Simpsons newscaster Kent Brockman.
It’s easy to understand the mockery, and though I cut my teeth on the CBS Evening News, I watch his newscast only rarely. Each time I do, I find something to amuse or astound me. Last October, after the “Rathergate” kerfuffle, he reported that the Pentagon planned to let Halliburton keep part of $2 billion in disputed payments, noting that its former CEO was Dick Cheney, who still gets a pension and other benefits. “Republicans,” he added, “generally believe that it’s unfair to point that out in the present context.” Blog that up your ass, you sumbitches.
These psychic eruptions will make me miss Rather’s presence in the anchorman’s chair. And I’d wager he’ll also be secretly mourned by the denizens of Ratherbiased.com, whose hatred is so lovingly detailed it borders on idolatry. After all, for the last 40 years, Dan Rather has been one of the most reliably enjoyable figures in our national mythology. He’s a pop icon, even if we’re not exactly sure what of.
Although the right treats Dan Rather as a house propagandist for the liberal elite, he didn’t come from privilege. He had a hardscrabble Texas childhood that was actually far harsher than that of Bill O’Reilly, who immodestly oversells his modest beginnings. Rather got his degree from Sam Houston State Teachers College and worked his way up by reporting. Indeed, it was always central to his identity, and not just his success, that he saw himself as a hard-nosed reporter.
He was brave in Vietnam, perhaps too pointedly so. He got slugged by security guards on the floor of the 1968 Democratic convention and became renowned for his verbal skirmishes with Richard Nixon.
“Are you running for something?” Tricky Dick memorably asked him at a press conference.
“No sir, Mr. President,” Rather shot back. “Are you?”
We don’t have press conferences like that anymore.
Like Hunter Thompson, Rather peaked during the Nixon years. But unlike the gonzo master, who saw how America had changed just by looking at Aspen, Rather often appeared lost in an earlier era. He clung to his self-image as an intrepid reporter. And in a twist worthy of Rod Serling, if not Sophocles, it was precisely this that led to his downfall. Given the scary, almost instantaneous speed with which bloggers began picking apart the National Guard story, I’m sure we will eventually learn that the whole thing was a giant setup designed to inoculate Bush against charges about his service record by discrediting those who investigated them. The scoop-happy Rather made the perfect patsy, allowing his 60 Minutes team to proceed with insufficient evidence and, as usual, bulldozing the doubters. This was the kind of story that brought together two defining strands of Rather’s personality — his romantic belief in reporting and his vaulting Lone Star ambition.
It was Rather’s great dream to assume Walter Cronkite’s mantle as The Most Trusted Man in America. That’s one reason he notoriously “went soft” the night Nixon resigned — he was reclaiming the mainstream. And it worked. In 1981 he landed the CBS anchor job, defying the doubts of those who thought he lacked the gravitas of Cronkite or, especially, Edward R. Murrow, the presiding saint of CBS News. In his autobiography, The Camera Never Blinks, Rather noted that years after Murrow’s death, the great man’s born-again acolytes at CBS would look at a story and ask, What would Ed do? They conveniently forgot that, by the early 1950s, what Ed actually had done was marry news to show biz: His Person to Person program specialized in staged visits to the homes of stars like Marilyn Monroe.
It is a tempting pop-culture reflex to insist that media culture’s latest stars lack the dimension of those who came before. My parents thought Johnny Carson a soulless show-biz replacement for Jack Paar, middle-aged folkies invoked the sacred name of Woody Guthrie to diminish the freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, and Clint Eastwood was once written off as a well-built mannequin (no John Wayne) propped up by the mythopoeic brilliance of Sergio Leone. But the years proved them to be cultural titans.
Things didn’t work out so well for Rather. The tragicomedy of his career is that he yearned for a role — the godlike voice of the nation — that could no longer exist. The ’60s attacks on authority (including Rather’s own on Nixon) were soon extended to the media: Cable challenged the Big Three broadcast networks; corporate management began slashing news budgets in search of bigger profits. Rather himself played a part in all this. Even as he publicly groused that the suits were turning news into entertainment, he demanded, and got, the inordinate salary of — an entertainer.
Of course, even if there were such a position as Most Trusted Voice in News, Rather would never have landed it. He couldn’t match the canniness of self-possessed Tom Brokaw, who may well be the more liberal of the two, but who took care to act gung-ho during U.S. military action (God, did he dig the invasion of Panama) and shrewdly wrapped himself in the triumphs of The Greatest Generation.
Rather was always just batty. Who can forget his Greatest Hits? Binding himself to trees during hurricanes. Donning Gunga Dan scarves in Afghanistan. Leaving six minutes of dead air in a huff over a tennis broadcast. Wearing those sweaters (which didn’t work for Jimmy Carter either) and ending his newscasts by saying, “Courage.” It wasn’t Peter Jennings who inspired R.E.M. by getting mugged by a psycho who asked, “Kenneth, what is the frequency?” And you can’t imagine bland heartland-hugger Brian Williams mouthing those deliriously folksy Ratherisms, like calling the Michigan primary “tighter than Willie Nelson’s headband” or declaring, “If a frog had side pockets, he’d probably wear a handgun.” He was not, incidentally, making an observation about the French.
It was this self-dramatizing capacity for craziness that truly defined him, not his much-assailed politics. Rather is a liberal, an old-fashioned, romantic, Humphrey Bogart kind of liberal: He instinctively takes the side of whoever he thinks is the little guy. Such an attitude is a red flag to the right — just look at how it’s begun pounding Cronkite years after the old guy threw in the towel. Not that conservatives mind Brit Hume slanting his newscasts in favor of the president.
Anyway, Rather’s feeling for the little guy isn’t doctrinaire. When he famously broke into tears on David Letterman after 9/11, he wasn’t being a liberal but a man suffering for his wounded country: “George Bush is the president,” Rather said. “He makes the decisions, and . . . wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where.” And he meant it, though somewhere in his secret soul, he may have hoped such carte blanche patriotism would help him win back America. He’s always been a man whose sincerest passions conveniently dovetailed with his deepest ambitions.
Ambitions he could not quite realize. Part of what I’ve always loved about Rather is that a man who longs to be the voice of the American people doesn’t have a clue that he’s so wildly eccentric he could never speak for anybody but himself. Paradoxically, this makes him a touchingly American fantasy figure, one of those oversize originals — like Orson Welles, Michael Jackson or Dennis Rodman — whose talents and dreams don’t comfortably fit into the conventional slots the world has to offer. Like him or not, Dan Rather is not conventional. He’s not a hack or a clock puncher or a TV android. He has always showed us his soul, and without him, the CBS Evening News is going to seem flatter than the Texas panhandle after a twister blows down the very last outhouse.