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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 4)

The odd and somehow disappointing thing is a lot of people simply didn't believe that it could have been that simple. Among the most creative and unsubstantiated stories to be put forth came from Rather's colleagues at CBS who believed, seemed to need to believe, almost begged for it to be true, that Rather had been beaten up by the jealous husband of a woman with whom the anchor was supposedly having an affair. The assault on his reputation might have hurt as much as the physical wounds.

The context missing in most of the reporting about the incident is that Rather has been stalked before, and his reputation attacked, mostly for being Dan Rather. That's especially true in the world of American politics, and politicians' general dislike of the network anchor has almost certainly fed the public's perception of Dan Rather as tough and unyielding.

His first political run-in occurred in 1974, when Rather, then the CBS correspondent covering the White House, stood at a Houston news conference to ask Richard Nixon a question after thinking the president had pointed to him, though some claim Nixon had pointed to the ABC reporter. "Thank you, Mr. President. Dan Rather, of CBS News. Mr. President..." and then Rather was interrupted by applause and jeers. Nixon took the opportunity to ask Rather, "Are you running for something?" Rather responded, "No, sir, Mr. President, are you?" With performances like that, Rather gained the enmity of the Nixon White House.

Rather, who co-authored a book about the Nixon presidency, still views Nixon harshly. "History will accurately record President Nixon's strengths and weaknesses, both as a person and as a president," says the man whom Nixon considered his tormentor. "He will get full credit for his accomplishments opening the door to China, but it will be harsher on him than current history about his being part of a criminal conspiracy."

Questions about a scandal in the Reagan administration led Rather to a run-in with then-Vice President George Bush during a live interview on national television in January 1988. This incident highlighted Rather's testy relations with top politicians, but also his vulnerability to attack. In the midst of the interview, Bush chastised Rather for creating a six-minute blackout on the network the previous September. It was the vice president's retort to Rather's insistent questioning about Bush's role in the Iran-Contra affair.

There is general agreement about what caused the six-minute hole on the air of the CBS network on Sept. 11, 1987. CBS Sports was showing a U.S. Open semifinal tennis match between Steffi Graf and Lori McNeil. The match was running long and the CBS News team in Miami, covering the visit of Pope John Paul II, was told late in the day, maybe as late as 6:10 p.m., just 20 minutes before showtime, that it might have to collapse the half-hour show into less time. Rather, by all accounts, resisted the move to cut the news short. When CBS Sports ended its coverage of the match at 6:32 and switched to CBS News, Rather wasn't there and the screen went black--for six minutes. Although CBS would later try to say that it took Rather that long to get back to the set after the end of the prolonged match, in fact, it took him that long to gather himself after losing the argument with bosses in New York not to let the tennis coverage eat into the news. The official explanation ended up sounding like a cover-up and made both Rather and CBS look bad.

The blackout, Rather says, "was an effort to convince the powers-that-be that news is more important than sports. Among the many battles I've lost, that's one." However, the point Rather was trying to make, one of a number that has earned him the nickname "Dan Quixote," was lost in the thicket of bizarre, confusing and often contradictory explanations. From a journalist's perspective, Rather's stance was heroic. He was standing up for the news, but it ended up being another weird incident.

Four months later, on Jan. 25, 1988, Rather was in New York doing a live satellite interview on the "CBS Evening News" with Bush, who was in Washington. Rather asked the vice president, who was running to succeed Reagan, about the Iran-Contra affair and his involvement in it. Bush was not being responsive and Rather kept pressing. Bush finally let Rather have it with a planned assault.

"It's not fair to judge my whole career by a rehash on Iran," Bush began. "How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven [sic] minutes when you walked off the set in New York [sic]? Would you like that?" Bush got the length of time and the city wrong, but it was plain that he had thrown Rather.

"I had raised the possibility with the staff before the interview that he might raise Miami," Rather recalls. "The staff unanimously felt that no way he'd do that, but I thought he might." In fact, some at CBS News had gotten word shortly before the interview that Bush would raise the Miami incident. "I wasn't shocked or surprised by it. I was thinking at the time, 'Let's get to the core questions.' That's exactly what I did. Now, what I wasn't prepared for, and this is where I made a big mistake, was for the whole weight of the vice president's presidential campaign--even before the interview was over--to begin spinning things their way, and to succeed."


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