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A Rather classy guy

Nov 26, 2001  •  Post A Comment

Suddenly everybody’s writing about Dan Rather, and I want to say, “I saw him first,” which is ridiculous, or maybe “I liked him first,” or the slightly more accurate, “I’ve always liked him first.” Even that is a stretch of the truth as I’m on record as having made fun of him when, in 1980, he went “undercover” to Afghanistan.
I said he looked like something out of “Gunga Din,” and the late Reed Beddoe, a copy editor whose responsibilities included headline writing, came up with the apparently immortal “Gunga Dan.” I have been credited with coining that nickname ever since. Reed told me once that it was OK with him; he made a gift of it to me. I am forever indebted.
After that piece appeared so long ago, Rather called me, laughing about it and being his distinctively disarming and self-deprecating self. He claimed the haircut whose cost I’d guesstimated at $50 actually cost him a mere four bucks in the CBS employees’ barber shop.
Having been screamed at and cursed by the best of them, or those who imagine themselves to be the best of them, I was impressed that Rather would pick up the phone and make a friendly call after such a dig. Following his misadventures in the intervening years, it eventually dawned on me: This man really is “the best of them.”
Singular sensation
Before and since taking over for Walter Cronkite as anchor of “The CBS Evening News,” Rather has been news himself as well as being the bearer of it. From standing up to Richard Nixon to a mugging by Mr. “Kenneth, what is the frequency?” to, most recently, weeping on “Late Show With David Letterman,” Rather has been a human lightning rod. He has the mesmerizing presence of a truly great politician, but fortunately he set his career goals higher and became a journalist instead.
Rather keeps you off balance as you watch, sort of the way Jack Paar did when he was at his electrifying peak, so that you can’t go slack and numb out when he commands the screen. Some people find that too demanding and say Rather makes them “nervous.” But there’s something riveting, even thrilling, about watching Rather-a high-wire tension that has to do with his epitomizing unpredictability on a mass medium tightly controlled by vast corporate oligarchies. They may control television, he is telling us, but they will never control Dan Rather.
Feisty trendsetter Alicia Mundy led the rediscovery of Rather with a profile, written in her blunt and blistering style, for Mediaweek. The gist of the piece, it seemed to me, was, “Dan Rather is the noblest anchor of them all, and deep down we always knew it,” and that in the days and weeks since the atrocities of Sept. 11, it had become clearer than ever.
He’s human
In the current TV Guide, J. Max Robins writes of Rather’s “opinionated, outspoken style, as folksy as it is sharp,” and calls him a “passionate, sometimes over-the-top, hard-driven journalist who works as much from the heart and gut as from the head.”
At PageSix.com, in a piece about reporters letting their feelings show while covering the war against terrorism, Rather is defended by CNN executive Chris Cramer, who thinks the jabs Rather took for breaking down on the Letterman show were unfair: “For us to ridicule and condemn colleagues who show emotion-we are missing something,” Cramer said. “Why does it surprise us that Dan Rather should show genuine emotion on the air?”
Part of that emotion, I think, was simple exhaustion. Rather had been on the air for up to 16 hours a day in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. It’s not a matter of hogging the camera the way Walter Cronkite sometimes did but more about Rather’s values-duty, honor, country, network. The general’s in command, but a part of him has never left the trenches.
Beyond that, his shedding tears on the air-saying, in effect, screw decorum at a time like this-gave us permission to shed tears, too. Or if we didn’t, Dan was shedding them for us, expressing what we were all feeling but were still too shocked to articulate. Tears really are a logical reaction to crimes so monstrous, to human misery so epic. When Rather apologized to Letterman for conduct allegedly unbecoming a “professional,” Letterman said, “Yeah but, Jesus Christ, you’re a human being, too.”
Yes. Exactly. And of the three network evening anchors, Dan’s the one who seems, and always has, the most human-openly, unashamedly, unaffectedly. Network evening newscasts obviously don’t matter nearly as much as they used to in the economic scheme of things, and we all know their audience has gotten smaller and older (the commercials suggest most of them have hemorrhoids, false teeth and incontinence), but Dan Rather behaves as if they matter more than they ever did. He’s a believer who makes you a believer as you watch, the Johnny Appleseed of network news, spreading the word it’s still the biggest game in town.
One irony of conservatives always pouncing on Rather (they printed up bumper stickers that said “Rather Biased,” ha ha) is that Rather was a flag-waver long before it came back into vogue. He’s a sentimental patriot of what might be called the old school. His last book was about “The American Dream.” And yes, he has a Bible in his office that is opened to different passages on different occasions. He likes fishing and hunting and rock ‘n’ roll.
No mincing words
He does indeed editorialize on “The CBS Evening News.” A while back, for instance, he stubbornly decided to stop calling the presidential debates “debates” because they aren’t really debates and insists instead on calling them “joint appearances.” He all but banned the Gary Condit story from his newscast while others were beating it to death. And unlike the namby-pambies at Reuters, he hardly shrinks from the word “terrorist” when the shoe fits. He has taken to referring to Public Enemy No. 1 as “mass murderer Osama bin Laden.” Well, that’s what he is.
Years ago, I often stayed at the office to watch the network news with my distinguished colleague, the legendary Jack Carmody. When Dan said “goodnight,” Jack liked to say “goodnight” back at the TV set-or if he was in a particularly good mood, “God bless you, Dan.” Jack’s political leanings were rightward, and he had many friends in the news divisions at NBC and ABC, but he thought Dan Rather was just one helluva guy.
I think he was right about that. In memoriam, then, a tip of the old rabbit ears: To Dan Rather, America’s Anchor.