Dan Rather Never Really Wanted This Job

Dan Rather Never Really Wanted This Job
From Deadspin - September 13, 2017

Originally titled Is Everything Okay? this profile appeared in the April 1994 issue of GQ and is reprinted here with the authors permission.

The office park is blank and dead. Denver boomed and Denver busted and this is whats lefta tiny knot of shuttered buildings strung like a browning Christmas wreath around a ruined hillside. Inside, the carpeting is scarred and dirty. The gold leaf on the office doors has flaked away into pointless diphthongs. Wires reach out of the walls, stretching and curling in on themselves and suddenly just stopping in midair, like snakes that have struck once and then frozen. The dead ganglia of communication, gone dumb and twisted. It is a cold place, and dreary. Dan Rather will come here this day to tell the nation about itself.

He arrives on a noon plane, and theres a buzz that follows him up the Jetway and diffuses swiftly throughout the concourse, seeping into the snack bars and newsstands. He greets a reporter like his richest uncle. He speaks earnestly about a Yankees game hes just seen, picks up his own luggage, tells the reporter that the reporters magazine is kicking hell out of its most prominent competitor, thanks P.J. the chauffeur for being with us today, talks a little bit about a JFK assassination piece that he is in the heartwood of right now, and a little bit more about something that happened to him back in the days when he was as green as money.

There is one stop to make, at the local CBS affiliate. He visits the crew, compliments one mans wife on her cinnamon rolls, wanders upstairs to sass the brass, comes back downstairs and, when he discovers that the reporters wife recently had a baby, exclaims Hey, man. You buried the lead. Congratulations all around. Then he and the reporter and P.J. the chauffeur go rolling off toward the dead office park. On the way through town, he sees Father Guido Sarducci, in full clericals, crossing 13th Street, surrounded by a considerable entourage.

Hmm, Rather muses, hes got that anchor thing down, doesnt he? It is two hours to airtime.

Pope John Paul II is coming to town, which accounts for the presence of both Father Guido and Dan. It also accounts for a significant level of anxiety among the CBS news staff. Denver is fairly agog about the whole matter. The streets are filled with thousands of glowing young Catholics. Downtown, great souvenir tents have been set up wherein the glowing young Catholics can buy John Paul II T-shirts, sweatshirts, sun visors and a new kind of coffee mug on which, when it is filled with a hot beverage, the papal face appears over the Denver skyline. God alone knoweth what He would make of all of thisthe Founder, after all, never was much for merchandising, leaving that to His subsequent Vicarsbut thats not what has the CBS people concerned. It is the fact that this pope and this anchorman have something of a history. In point of fact, Karol Wojtyla has not been good for Dan Rather.

On September 11, 1987, Rather went to Miami to cover the last papal visit to these shores. On the same day were the womens semifinal matches of the United States Open tennis tournament, which CBS had spent a great deal of money to broadcast. Waiting in Miami to begin that nights newscast, Rather was informed that the second match was running long and might chew into his broadcast. Depending on where you stand on Ratherand almost nobody stands in the middlehe either flew into a fit of pique and stormed off the set or got caught in the middle of bollixed triangular communications between his people, the people at the tennis tournament, and the upper echelons at CBS who are supposed to resolve these sorts of things. Whatever happened, the tennis match ran only briefly over, the sports people threw the network down to Miami, and, for six long minutes, there was dead air.

Now, with Dan and the pope together again, the CBS flacks know they are going to hear about Miami and that Miami is going to open up the entire existing corpus of Dan lore: the Gunga Dan foray into Afghanistan; the night Rather said he was mugged by two neatly dressed men who kept asking him Whats the frequency, Kenneth?; the wild ride with the Chicago cabdriver who hijacked him in a dispute over the fare; the complete stranger who belted him in the chops at LaGuardia Airport; the week in which he signed off each broadcast by saying Courage to a mystified nation; and, finally, the infamous Six Minutes of Black, which George Bush would use like a club on Rather in their famous contretemps a year later. All of these will rise once more, sturdy and restless ghosts, because Dan and the pope are in the same city again.

Rather moves into one of the empty offices now. Someone has sent out for Kentucky Fried Chicken. This, says Rather, biting enthusiastically into a chicken leg, is the glamorous life of network news. One of the CBS researchers is a bit puzzled over some intricacies of the doctrine of papal infallibility. The reporter, who learned this material once at the peril of his knuckles, helps her out. Dan compliments the reporter and, by extension, the Sisters of St. Joseph. It is 90 minutes to air.

Earlier that afternoon, the police identified the body of Michael Jordans father, which theyd fished out of a swamp in South Carolina. There is some brief discussion over whether the murder of Michael Jordans father might just trump the pope on that nights show. Lets talk heresy, suggests Rather. Does this lead ahead of the pope? Somewhere in him there is an old city-room instinct quivering. The pope will make a great visual. That is the reason Dan Rather is in Denver at all. But the pope is not a celebrity murder mystery. There is a brief discussion, and it is decided that one does not lead with the dead father of a basketball player at the expense of the pope, not at CBS News, anyway. Its ironic, Dan says. If theres one person in the world who could run with the pope worldwide, its probably Michael Jordan. He goes to makeup. It is one hour to air.

His is no longer the matinee idols face. He is 62 now, almost a full decade older than ABCs Peter Jennings and older still than NBCs Tom Brokaw. There is a weight beneath the eyes, and just the hint of jowliness, like a penumbra, under his chin. The lines cut deep, petroglyphs of a public career that has been harder than even he supposed it would be. In the preceding month, he dodged sniper fire in Bosnia and went to China for an economic summit, and now hes in Denver covering a pope who has been bad news for him, and they are putting the makeup on him, and Dan Rather is trying very hard not to look tired. To his credit, he succeeds, most of the time. It is 45 minutes to air.

Afterward, he talks briefly about all of it: Miami and what Bush did with it to him. Again, the talk turns to the reporters new baby, and the fried-chicken dinner, and even Father Guido Sarducci. The schmoozing is relentless, but there is a kind of studied formality to it. It is not ironic distance: Dan Rather is the least ironic man alive. His attempts at informality seem curiously bounded by some code of manners that comes from his bones. There is a tension there, fierce and unresolvable, between who he thinks he has to be and who his deepest self says he is. Finally, he smiles, and he pats the reporters tape recorder gently. It is 30 minutes to air.

Well, he says, I dont know what I can do to help you, except to do something to embarrass myself again.

He is not loose. He does not jangle. He moves only at the hips and the shoulders, all stolid purpose, through the dark lobby and into the heart of the noontime power-grazing at an uptown Manhattan hotel. Heads turn. Voices drop. The air is charged and almost sickly with portent. He is a fullback in a scatbacks worldnot quick enough to get out of the way of his own presence. It hangs around him like a shawl too thick for the season.

Ive never gotten comfortable with the celebrity side of it, he says. Ive learned to deal with it. Ive grown at least adequate at dealing with it and, I think, on my better days, better than adequate at it.

Maybe Im out of fashion. I dont know.

Whatever one may think of him, Dan Rather is larger than life. He looms, figuratively and literally, over the industry of television news. Ive worked with Jennings and Ive worked with Cronkite and Ive worked with Koppel, says Tom Bettag, the executive producer of ABCs Nightline,formerly Rathers executive producer for five years. Im telling you, theres no comparison. On the air or off, Rather shakes the very air around him, for good or for ill.

This is what put him in Bosnia as the bullets popped around him. This is also what makes so many of his former colleagues spit nails at the mention of his name. This is what put him in Tiananmen Square hours before the tanks rolled in. This is also what cast him as (at best) Iago in all those books that sprouted like poison mushrooms about the turmoil at CBS News in the 1980s. This has been the making of him. This has also been the unmaking of him. It can be a difficult job being Dan Rather, especially when Dan Rather keeps getting in the way.

For example, in 1990, as more and more American troops began spilling out into the area around the Persian Gulf, Rather turned to Connie Chung, who would become his most improbable coanchor, and said Im told that this program is being seen in Saudi Arabia and I know you would join me in giving our young men and women out there a salute. Whereupon, with Chung looking as though shed been hit in the head with a brick, and with his portion of America dropping their jaw into the pot roast, Dan Rather went snappily to his forehead.

Later, though, at the end of a war during which the United States government went to unprecedented lengths to keep Rather and people like him from doing their job, he was most eloquent in his denunciation of the medias sorry complicity in its own gelding. When I covered the White House, Rather told author John MacArthur, you certainly wouldnt be able to drink with the big boys if you caved [in]. Now, read the best papers in the country. Suck-up coverage is in. Without the salute, he wouldnt be Rather. But without the pang of public conscience, he wouldnt be Rather, either.

Im not sure he wants that struggle to go away, says Bettag. He has intentionally kept that torment alive. Other people are not so kind. I dont think Dan is evil, says one former CBS executive. The problem with Dan is that there is no Dan. I think he makes it up every day.

Now, he is supposed to be miserable and depressedwhen it is not alleged that he is, well, unhinged. The CBS Evening News occasionally noses into second place, but it has been hopelessly behind ABC and Jennings for nearly five years now. He is in the 10th month of the misbegotten anchor partnership with Chung, who, seated next to Rather, forever seems in danger of floating out a window. Some rumors have him sleeping 16 hours a day on weekends. I saw him at CBS last year, says a former colleague. I wanted to reach over and say Whats wrong, Dan? Whats eating you? But, of course, I didnt. Author Stephen King has been widely quoted as saying that he watches the CBS Evening News specifically in case Rather freaks completely on the air. This is not the sort of endorsement one wants from the author of The Shining.

In a sense, he did fall out of fashion. The business changed on him in the 1980s. Television news became seriously entangled with the business of television. This came as a particular shock at CBS, where the news division was possessed of a haughty grandeur that would have embarrassed the Avignon papacy. A bloody civil war broke out between the Old Guard, who saw any change as surrender to the cheap and sensational, and the New, who saw their counterparts as a collection of stubborn fogies. The discord lasted almost the entire decade. During this angry time, Dan Rather became the anchorman of the evening news. This put him squarely in the middle of the conflict even as he was trying to define himself as the replacement for the legendary Walter Cronkite. The pressure on him was vast and crushing.

In the end, it was all a battle of toy boats and rubber ducks. The fact is that network news has always been an adjunct of a financial entity that survives through entertainment. At best, it is what the old immigrant priests used to call conscience money, the stained-glass-window purchase that supposedly evened things out for all the bookmaking. Only the naive, or the criminally foolish, ever put much reliance on the essential moral conscience of a television network.

For his part, through all the sniping and all the carping, and along the incredible trek through dark weirdness that has been his careerWhat is the frequency, Kenneth?Rather shrugs his shoulders and soldiers on. There was some talk that he would, as he inevitably says, take it to the ranch at the end of his last contract, in 1991. However, for all his faults, the one great constant about him is that there is always a story he needs to cover, one more fence line he needs to ride. He is the last of the TV cowboys.

Back in July of last year, Rather was visiting a man named Harold Ludwig, the mayor of La Grange, Missouri. Ludwig was afflicted with a bad case of catfish in the kitchen. This was because Ludwigs kitchen was afflicted with a bad case of the Mississippi River. Water up to his sternum, Rather walked politely behind the mayor into his home. If the welcome mat hadnt been five feet underwater, Rather undoubtedly would have wiped his feet. Maybe he did anyway. The two of them waded down the long hallway, past a capsized dining-room table, through a covey of floating coffee cups and into the kitchen.

You know, Rather told Mayor Ludwig as a blender floated past him toward Iowa, you have a nice home here. Id like to see it at another time.

He looked far more at ease as a well-mannered houseguest in the middle of the pond in the kitchen than he does now in the Manhattan hotel restaurant, where the air crackles and snaps, and where the heads turn and the voices drop. In many ways, the 80s was a great decade for me, he insists. Not everything that happened in that decade was terrific to me, but I got to be in Tiananmen Square. I wouldnt take anything for that.

I am the sum total of what Ive covered. I dont have an apology for that. Maybe I care too much. Also, I didnt come into this game chicken. I didnt come to CBS to be just another correspondent. I wanted to be a great correspondent. I am still trying to be a great correspondent. And I do believe that my best work is still ahead of me.

Ultimately, its the anchormans job that has muddled his legacy more than anything else has, rendering him not a towering figure among CBS correspondents but a hugely curious eccentric. It brought him to New York and into celebrity and all that celebrity entails. It tries to draw him away from the grunts on the battlefields, and from all those ordinary people with catfish in their kitchen. As often as he insists that he loves working in the studio, Rather misses no opportunity to flee what he calls the hothouse atmosphere of West 57th Street. If there is a good Rather and a bad Rather, the good one is walking the levee, polo shirt open at the throat, talking about the sound of shovels scraping on the concrete of a failing dam. His professional conscience is out on the far fence lines of the news.

He is flotsam, blown north to CBS by Hurricane Carla in 1961. Rather was the news director at KHOU in Houston. To cover Carlas arrival, the 30-year-old Rather lashed himself to a seawall in Galveston and reported the storms landfall while looking very much as though he was about to be blown to Cotulla and back. He covered everything as if it were a war. The CBS brass was impressedeven if he did drip Texas like rhinestones from a country pickers lapels.

The Texas part of him is undeniably genuine, if somewhat cultivated. I am a Texan both by birth and by choice, insists Rather, who proves his bona fides in this regard by citing (correctly) Jimmie Dale Gilmores rendition of Im So Lonesome I Could Cry as the finest Hank Williams cover of all time.

He grew up in Houston Heights at the tail end of the Depression. His father was an oilman who dug ditches and put down pipe. As a boy, Rather contracted rheumatic feverits recurrence years later would cause him to be discharged from the Marine Corpsand he was bedridden for most of his adolescence. He was weak and sickly in a culture that was not kind to either condition. The only thing they could tell you was to go to bed and be still, he recalls. For a young boy, thats hell. I was in bed for almost a year once. I went back to school, and I couldnt play. I loved sports, and I was reasonably good at them, but I realized how thin I was, and how weak.

His companion was the radio, and the great crackle of the distant war news. It was a beam he followed all the way through Sam Houston State Teachers College, all the way through his courtship of Jean Goebel from out by Winchester, and all the way from KHOU to New York, where he arrived pure Texan. The first time I ever laid eyes on Dan, my wife and I invited him to dinner, says Peter Herford, who worked with Rather both in New York and in Vietnam. The doorbell rings, and I open the door, and hes standing there in a sky-blue suit, polyester, with a brown tie, white socks and brown shoes.

In 1962, CBS News was many things, but it was not sky-blue polyester suits. CBS owner William Paley once called the division the jewel in the crown. Cronkite was on his way from newsreader to American icon. There was an ineffable style to the place. Advanced degrees hung like ivy on the walls. Murrows boys knew their way around Savile Row as surely as they did Washington or Moscow. It was a desperately long way from Houston Heights, and Rather fairly hummed with insecurity. For the first time, Rather felt himself pushed to be something he was not.

He tried to fit in. Sometimes his efforts were effective. Sometimes they were simply comical. One legendary story has Rather asking a CBS colleague if he had read Edward Gibbons The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in the original Latin. At the same time, he made his bones as a ferocious and indefatigable correspondent. If personally he was marked by the two great news stories of his youththe Depression and World War IIprofessionally, he would be shaped by those of the 60s and 70s. He was in Dallas when John F. Kennedy was murdered, and he was in the South for the turmoil of the civil-rights movement. And he went to Vietnam.

He arrived very much the former marine, all gung ho and parade-ground machismo. He learned quickly that he was being lied to, that the United States military does not always do right in the world and that it often is not honest with the soldiers it sends out to fight. As much as his personal style was shaken by his arrival in New York, his personal values were shaken in Vietnam. Of all the trusts I had in Vietnam, he says, the one I felt the strongest about not breaking was the trust given by the people who were actually fighting the war.


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