Column: The return of Dan Rather

COURTESY PHOTO

COURTESY PHOTO

More than a decade has passed since Dan Rather parted company with his longtime employer, CBS, amidst a swirling storm of controversy and recriminations that led to a $70 million lawsuit and years of bad blood on both sides.

At the time of his departure, it was widely assumed that Rather would ease into a well-earned retirement. After all, he was 74 years old and, in a career that spanned five decades, had scaled the heights of broadcast journalism. What more did he have to prove?

But I suspected that the Dan Rather I knew would not be content to go gentle into that good night. Instead, given the ferocity of his lifelong commitment to aggressive reporting, he would do what he could to keep on truckin’ in whatever arena would have him, no matter how small or obscure it might be. And that was the course he chose.

It was quite a struggle. During the first few years after he left CBS, Rather’s only regular gig was a once-a-week broadcast on Mark Cuban’s cable network, HDNet, which was so far out on the fringe that hardly anyone ever saw it. That had to be frustrating for a guy who had flourished for so many years at the center of the national media.

Still, I was impressed by the way he kept at it, plugging away, week after week, year after year, in what struck me as a quixotic mission to regain relevance. Recalling the Nixon years, it occurred to me that what Rather needed in this new role was another foil, one striking enough to engage his attention and perhaps draw his fire.

Then along came Donald Trump in all his outlandish glory.

For me, one of the few and unexpected joys of the 2016 presidential campaign was Rather’s re-emergence as a trenchant voice on our political landscape. Working in an unfamiliar medium, his hard-hitting posts on Facebook began having so much impact that he became, of all things, a digital-media star.

Let me pause here to acknowledge, for the record, that on the subject of Dan Rather, I cannot pretend to be objective. My relationship with Rather dates back to the fall of 1970.

By then, he was already making a big name for himself as CBS’s White House correspondent and in recognition of that, he was given a shot at anchoring his own news show. I was assigned to write for that broadcast.

Right from the start, Dan and I hit it off, both professionally and personally. Our rapport led, in time, to our teaming up on a book we wrote about the forces within the White House that put

Nixon on the road to Watergate and the eventual destruction of his presidency.
“The Palace Guard” was published in October 1974, two months after Nixon’s resignation, and it soon began a six-month run on the New York Times best-seller list, including two heady weeks at number one. Its robust success far exceeded our expectations, and to this day Dan and I happily reminisce about our work on “The Palace Guard” and the good fortune it brought us.

Even before I was drawn into Rather’s orbit, I had admired his reporting from the White House and, like many other viewers, was especially intrigued by the intensity of feeling he brought to his encounters with the president at press conferences. He frequently asked tough questions but was hardly alone in that regard.

Beyond that, what Rather had going for him was a visceral approach that seemed to play havoc with Nixon’s chemistry. In response to a question from Rather, Nixon’s jaw muscles would tighten and, at times, tics or spasms would flick across his face. The result on those occasions was a kind of psychodrama that was fascinating to behold.

Rather was aware of the bizarre effect his presence and queries often had on the president, but he was at a loss to explain it. Yet if he was puzzled by it, he was also amused, especially when he was told about Mark Russell’s take on those exchanges. Russell, who was then a popular night club comic in Washington, had recently added this one-liner to his repertoire: “Dan Rather is to Nixon what hiccups are to a glassblower.”

Rather himself was no slouch when it came to one-liners, and the best of them underscored his strong sense of regional identity. His casual conversations were regularly spiced with Texas colloquialisms.

One time when I happened to mention that a healthy dose of skepticism is essential to being a good reporter, Dan nodded and quoted some advice he got early in his career from a crusty editor in Houston: “Trust your mother, but cut the cards.”

But my favorite is a line I first heard Dan utter in the summer of 1973 when the long hours and pressures of covering Watergate were wearing him down. When he called me late one night, I could hear the deep fatigue in his voice and said so.

“Yeah, he replied and then confirmed that with an equine metaphor:  “I feel like I’ve been ridden hard all day and put to bed wet.”

Now, at the ripe age of 85, my favorite Texan is kicking butt and taking names in a new forum, one that puts him in touch with audiences so vast they dwarf the number of viewers he used to attract during his anchor reign at CBS.

Rather’s ventures on Facebook began quietly in the summer of 2015, not long after Trump launched his run for the presidency and as that campaign heated up, Dan’s posts steadily gained strength and momentum. The big enchilada — the one that really went viral — exploded across the internet last August.

Trump had suggested at one of his rallies that “the Second Amendment People” have the means to prevent Hillary Clinton from becoming president. In his post, Rather denounced that as “a new low in the history of American politics” and accused Trump of making “a direct threat of violence against a political rival.” He then added: “To anyone who still pretends this is a normal election of Republican against Democrat, history is watching. And I suspect its verdict will be harsh.”

The response was electrifying. Rather, by then, had already acquired a devoted Facebook following that numbered in the hundreds of thousands; there were reports that his August post reached an audience of some 20 million.

Since then, Rather has continued his attacks on Trump, taking the president to task on such matters as his immigration policies and his attitude toward the press. In another recent post, harking back to the Nixon years, he described Watergate as “the biggest political scandal of my lifetime — until maybe now.”

He then cited the simmering Russian imbroglio and raised the prospect that in time, it could surpass Watergate and “become the measure by which all future scandals are judged. It has all the necessary ingredients, and that is chilling.”

If Rather keeps this up, there’s no telling what effect he might have on Trump. I know that I, for one, will be looking for early signs of The Donald having to deal with chronic hiccups.

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