Tall Tower, Full Power
Cigar at the ready, CBS News Abnchor Dan Rather battles it out in the TV news wars.
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Summer 96
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Whether he's covering a story such as last fall's Hurricane Opal (hanging on for dear life to a pole so he wouldn't blow away) or simply delivering probing questions to a reluctant interview subject, Rather remains the standard-bearer for what an anchor should be.
Bob Schieffer, a fellow Texan and CBS News' chief Washington correspondent, Saturday anchor and host of the Sunday morning show, "Face the Nation," confirms that Rather will use almost any reason to get out on a story. "Without being corny about this," Schieffer says, "he's a very brave guy. He's been willing to do whatever you needed to do and go wherever you needed to go to get the story over the years, whether it was Vietnam or Iraq or wherever."
Schieffer then begins to laugh. "These hurricanes--he likes no story better than a good storm. We always used to say Walter Cronkite's favorite story was a fire. Dan's the same way about weather. You get any wind above 30 miles an hour and Dan begins to think we may have a hurricane here. That's how he got his start." Rather caught the eye of CBS executives in 1961 when he fed coverage of Hurricane Carla to the network.
Covering hurricanes also gives Rather the opportunity to smoke cigars, difficult as that might be in high winds and torrential rain. "Let me say to you," Rather insists, "and I can bear witness, [it's] difficult, but not impossible."
Unless an exception to policy is made, a hurricane is about what it takes these days for Rather to smoke one of his Oscar No. 9s on the job. The cigars are close by in the office, stored in a box in the refrigerator along with sodas and water. But in a bow to office decorum, he doesn't smoke cigars there; Amy Bennett, Rather's assistant, says, "He holds on to them. I don't know if it's out of habit. I know that he doesn't light them in the office, but they're always around. Like, he'll have one in his hand or one in his mouth, but it's never lit or anything."
That wasn't the case years ago. "There was a time, I guess about the time I came to this job on the 'Evening News,' where if I had something to write that was more than a few seconds, I thought I could write better if I had a really nice cigar. At that time I probably smoked 14, 16 a week," Rather recalls, despite the fact that he is not immediately comfortable talking about cigars. "This is a very difficult conversation for me because [my wife] Jean Rather has been on me to stop smoking cigars entirely. Occasionally I'll have a celebration cigar. Usually now when I smoke cigars is when I'm fishing."
Rather tries to fish a lot. "I go as often as I can. I love to fish, but it depends on the run of news," he says. "But from the spring until about the middle of October, when I can get to my fishing camp, which is in the Catskills [in New York], I'll get up every weekend if I can. In Texas, where we fish mostly lakes for bass, I get there five or six times a year." He has a house on Lake Travis, near Austin. "Now, when winter descends, I try to get to the Keys as much as I can. I love it down there. I have fly-fished for redfish along the Texas coast, not very successfully. I grew up fishing. My father loved to fish and to hunt, and I think it traces back to that. It has gained in recent years, gained with things such as good cigars and good Bourbon," he adds with a smile.
Rather began smoking cigars at an early age in his native Texas, working with older men. "I started when I was 14. I worked with a brush-cutting crew. First of all, they smoked cigarettes and chewed tobacco, [but] I had in my mind that I wanted to be an athlete. At that time and place--the time was the 1940s and the place was Texas--if you were gonna play football you knew you couldn't smoke. But this brush-cutting crew, at night they would sit around after dinner and smoke cigarettes and one of them after dinner would have a cigar. I remember that he had a White Owl, which was later described to me as the sweepings from cigarette factory floors. I didn't want to smoke cigarettes, but I wanted to be one of the gang, so I smoked White Owls and Roi-Tans."
Rather, never one to sit around, also went honky-tonking. "Yes, and saw some pretty amazing things," he recalls. "But it was a different era...that's when I got onto cigars. Now, fortunately for me it was a short time. It was only the summer and I was gonna hold the line on cigarettes so cigars were all right. Didn't inhale--guess that has a bad connotation now. I got on that summer and I've smoked cigars ever since."
He mellows a bit and chuckles as he remembers how he unwittingly almost committed botanicide with a cigar he had received as a gift. "The year is 1957, possibly early 1958," he says, sounding like the start of a bad documentary. "I had just gotten married. We had gotten a plant, a very nice plant someone had given us for our apartment. And Jean, who's very good about plants, has a green thumb and kept this plant alive against all odds. It was an indoor plant. She was encouraging me not to smoke cigars in the house. She had no objection to me smoking cigars at that time and knew that I smoked cigars, but she was pregnant and preferred that I not smoke cigars in the house. I took a nice cigar [outside]; I can't remember what it was, but it was a far better cigar than I was accustomed to smoking.
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