Cigar at the ready, CBS News Abnchor Dan Rather battles it out in the TV news wars.
"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.
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.
"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."
The core of Rather's problem is simple to understand: He is one of the most competitive people in the world. "He loves news too much," says Tom Bettag, a longtime producer for Rather at CBS News and now the executive producer of ABC's "Nightline." "He pours himself so much into news that it is such a huge part of his life. I mean, he is a great family man, but that's all there is in his life: news and family. [Rather and Jean have two grown children--a daughter, Robin, and a son, Danjack.] For his sake, you'd love to have him have more time for other things. I think that's a real fault. It is an imbalance. Generally, people who are really great at what they do, do it because they're really fanatical about it; Dan is fanatical about news."
Rather is a hot magnet in a cool medium. "There is something about Dan, I don't know what it is, but he plays very big no matter what," Bettag says. "You can be in a place where a bunch of other anchors are gonna be, and when they walk in the room, some people will notice, some people won't notice, and then Dan will walk in the room and there's this electricity about the guy that people will say, 'Look, there's Dan Rather.' "
That kind of celebrity often throws everything out of proportion. The controversy around his dual anchor role with Connie Chung highlighted that reality. The Chung-Rather on-air dance is a painful episode in the annals of broadcast journalism, and the pain doesn't lessen in the retelling. Suffice it to say, as Marc Gunther succinctly wrote in his book, The House That Roone Built, "When Dan Rather's 'CBS Evening News' lost viewers, Connie Chung was named his congenial co-anchor and the broadcast took on the feel of local news, with cutesy features and reporters who strolled along as they did their closing stand-ups."
Rather is on the record in his 1994 book, The Camera Never Blinks Twice: The Further Adventures of a Television Journalist, as saying he supported the idea of co-anchors, and that it was a service to viewers. But he was wrong about the latter. The viewers, accustomed to the setup on their local news, simply didn't see it as much of a service on the national news. Finally, even the network realized the tandem anchor team was failing. "Clearly it wasn't working. Clearly they had to do something," says Schieffer, a close and longtime friend of Rather's. "They made the decision to go with Dan, and I happen to think it was the right decision. I don't mean to speak ill of Connie and I'm not trying to kick her while she's down, but it's certainly the decision that I would've made."
Chung, additionally slapped with the impending cancellation of her magazine show, "Eye to Eye," ended up leaving CBS altogether, even though she was offered another job there. At the time she said she declined a smaller role because it would have been "inappropriate for the only woman on the three major network news programs to have anything less than co-equal status." Although Rather insists he has made peace with Chung, criticism of him didn't end with her departure. Her agent, Alfred Geller, recently refused to comment about the entire affair, but stood by earlier comments made to The New York Times in which he essentially accused Rather of lying about his role in Chung's departure. Chung, for her part, was unavailable for comment.