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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

(continued from page 2)

"In those days I smoked 15-cent cigars," Rather continues. "This cigar was probably a dollar. Anyway, I didn't smoke it all the way down and said, 'Gosh, I'd hate to lose this thing,' so I put it out and I brought it back into the house and I thought, 'Well, where can I hide this where it won't attract any attention and I'll be able to pick him up again?' So I put him deep down at the base of this plant in a place where no one could see it. Already out.

"Weeks later, Jean says, 'You know, I just don't know what to do. The plant has been looking sickly for quite a little while.' And I remember almost choking, thinking, 'Damn, that cigar's stuck up in there and that's what might be wrong with that plant.' So, quietly, while she was preparing herself for bed, I slipped in there and extracted the cigar and did away with it. I actually threw it out the back door, and the next morning I retrieved it and hauled it away. And you know, the plant almost immediately started getting better."

"The only other cigar story I can think of," Rather says, pausing, though he will actually think of more later, "Fidel Castro had given me a cigar, and I brought it back hidden, which you had to do back then. In those days you did have to hide. I think he gave it to me in 1979. Fortunately for me, the people who were looking either didn't find it or found it and said, 'What the hell, let Dan have one good cigar.' It was one single cigar.

"Anyway, I had treasured that cigar [Rather referred to it in one of his books as a "big, obscene Cuban cigar"] and I thought to myself, 'I'll wait till some time when I really have a good occasion.' I took it with me when I went to Afghanistan and hauled it through Afghanistan, and there was a particular moment, well not to put too fine a point on it, it was a dangerous time. But I took it out after a meal and said, 'Who knows? I may not be here tomorrow to smoke this cigar. I think I'll smoke it tonight.' Unfortunately, the Mujahideen with whom we were traveling had light [as in illumination] discipline in effect and they reminded me of that. And so, having brought my wooden matches and the cigar out, I put it back in its case and took out my Red Man chewing tobacco. Of course, [the guerrilla fighters] were filled with guffaws and great laughter."

To his frustration, Rather's career has not just been about smoking cigars, covering wars and reporting great stories, but about surviving in the rough and tumble world of network news, and of avoiding the land mines associated with celebrity and power. He prefers the clarity of the risks inherent to reporting from places like Afghanistan where he traveled with the rebels: "You pretty much knew where the danger was and who the enemy was. In the badlands of big-time television news, you don't know who the enemy is, and that makes it more interesting--and in some ways more dangerous."

The way he does his job, Rather suggests, may explain the flak that seems to flow his way. "I want to do everything all the time," he says, lapsing into the lingo of radio news, the medium in which he began his career. "I'm all news, all the time. Tall tower, full power, we break in when the news breaks out."

He recognizes his style may attract heat. "That's the nature of being where I am. That's the result of being under the very large microscope. I understand that. I don't complain about it because it does go with the territory," he says, growing more thoughtful.

When he first got the anchor chair, Dan Rather did not sit. He sort of sat and he sort of stood, hanging his left hip on the anchor desk. That first night he was nearly shouting the introductions to Lesley Stahl at the White House and Phil Jones on Capitol Hill and was clearly nervous about filling Cronkite's shoes. Today, if you watch a tape of the inaugural "CBS Evening News with Dan Rather" and a lot of the ones that followed, you would not be surprised by what fright-meister novelist Stephen King once said of Rather: "I've got a sneaking admiration for Dan Rather because I'm never sure when he's going to go bonkers on you. He always looks like he's gonna just stop and say, 'All right, motherfuckers, here it comes. We've got the bodies in hangar 18, the government has been lying to you....' And then they're going to drag him off."

One reporter for a national newspaper always watches Rather instead of ABC's Peter Jennings or NBC's Tom Brokaw because he is convinced that "one day Dan's just going to spontaneously combust on the air, and I don't want to miss it."

"The core of it is," says Rather, "for better or for worse--and you could argue this a lot of different ways, I guess--is that I have tried to remain a working, cutting-edge journalist and I don't do it the way everybody else does it. And I think that's the difference."

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