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Tall Tower, Full Power

Cigar at the ready, CBS News Abnchor Dan Rather battles it out in the TV news wars.
Alejandro Benes
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Summer 96

Dan Rather is in his fifth decade as a journalist, and on a rainy day in New York he sits in his comfortable office on Manhattan's West Side, one floor above the newsroom, talking about covering stories (he loves weather news), cigars and some of the strange things that have happened to him during his career. Perhaps the strangest yet is that he has survived as anchor of the "CBS Evening News with Dan Rather" for 15 years, a milestone he reached March 9.

"I wasn't sure I'd be in it more than a year or two," Rather recounts, dressed in sneakers and a casual, semi-military khaki shirt, ready for anything except sitting down to anchor the "CBS Evening News." "I had a good job at '60 Minutes,' arguably the best job in television news. And while I can be dumb as dirt about a lot of things, I was at least smart enough to know that."

Rather's ascension to the anchor chair wasn't automatic; he not only had to overcome the general perception that no one could replace Walter Cronkite (who was anchor from 1963 to 1981), but he also had to get past his own doubts about the job.

"Everybody from childhood friends to blood kin said, 'Don't take it,'" Rather recalls, often lapsing into a near whisper, belying his legendary intensity. "I thought very seriously about not staying here, but once I decided to stay, my sense of it was as follows: 'Well, I like a challenge and this is a hell of a challenge. While it may be true that the first person after Cronkite is going to get blown out, I'd like to try to prove that isn't so.'"

Fifteen years in the anchor chair is testimony enough that Rather has proven his credentials. Rather has survived two changes in CBS ownership and won every accolade known in American journalism. Since 1961, his "been there" credits are a timeline of the stories that most journalists only dream about covering. Rather has seen firsthand the nation's and the world's most tragic and dramatic events, true turning points in U.S. history.

Talking about which story he considers his most important, Rather says, "It would be pretty hard not to say the [John] Kennedy assassination." He was the reporter who told CBS radio that the president was dead, and CBS beat other news organizations by more than 17 minutes. "I happen to believe it is an ongoing story," Rather continues. "The effects still resonate through this society.

"But it's hard not to say the civil rights movement, which was my first big assignment with CBS News. In fact, I got it practically the day I walked in the door. And how could I not say Vietnam? How could I not say Watergate? The only president in history who resigned the office. Not only did he resign it, but he resigned it as a quote 'unindicted co-conspirator' in a wide-ranging criminal conspiracy. You don't get many bigger stories than that."

Rather ranks the attempt on another president's life as one of the top stories CBS News has covered, though it is rarely mentioned. "I'll tell you one that fades into the mist--the day [in March 1981] President Reagan was shot and very nearly killed shortly after he came into the presidency and shortly after I came into this job," he says. "The Reagan people themselves said, and some of them wrote, that we were the best on that story. How soon we forget that onetime Reagan chief of staff and Treasury secretary [Donald T. Regan] wrote in his book that because of Rather they had their sets tuned elsewhere, but somebody came in and said CBS is the best on it and they clicked all their sets over to CBS and kept them there." What Regan actually wrote in his 1988 book, For the Record, was that although the White House televisions were tuned to ABC, "later in the day we were told that the coverage from CBS was better."

Or take the 1989 Chinese democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square, which, Rather says, was one of the biggest and best stories he has covered because so many people at CBS worked on it. That May 19, an extraordinary live CBS broadcast of the chaos was made possible because CBS News had gotten a "flyaway," a portable satellite station, into Beijing. The reporting was highlighted by Rather telling the United States what was going on, while at the same time negotiating with two Chinese bureaucrats sent to the Shangri-la Hotel with orders to shut down CBS' transmission. Rather and his team capitulated only when instructed to do so by Rather's superiors at CBS headquarters in New York.

Rather hasn't stopped getting the big stories. He was the first to interview Saddam Hussein in 1990 after Iraq invaded Kuwait, and in 1994 he interviewed Haiti's military ruler, Raoul Cedras, live in Port-au-Prince just after President Clinton's speech about invading Haiti if Cedras didn't leave. During that special "48 Hours," Cedras told Rather and the world he would never leave Haiti.

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