Right-wing talkradio hosts and Fox News Channel talent like David Asman and John Gibson could barely contain their glee over the announcement that Dan Rather would be leaving the “CBS Evening News” next year.
“Should we celebrate?” asked Gibson, sitting in on Bill O’Reilly’s radio show, before temporarily slipping by suggesting that Rather had been driven from “office.”
Dan Rather is not an elected official. Yet over the last quarter-century, few figures have been more polarizing, and certainly none within the broadcast news landscape.
Part of that has to do with a shrill “us vs. them” mentality among conservatives who are convinced that the “mainstream” or “elite” media is just an extension of the Democratic Party — a mindset that talkradio and Fox News have cleverly cultivated as a marketing tool.
Rather, however, has consistently been a lightning rod in part because of his own unique quirks. While counterparts Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings have faced similar accusations, they carry out their duties with a Mt. Rushmore-like stoicism and sense of detached coolness, respectively, which deflate such charges. By contrast, Rather has often seemed as unpredictable as the news itself.
Having distinguished himself as an intrepid reporter throughout his career, Rather always brought a somewhat prickly demeanor to the anchor’s role. And while there is no shortage of ego and high-handed behavior among TV news giants, his had a habit of finding its way into the public sphere. There was Rather storming off the set and leaving dead air behind in 1987, his testy interview with then Vice President George Bush a year later and his recent defense of CBS’ increasingly shaky report on the current president’s National Guard service.
Oddly eccentric, Rather has been prone to humanizing displays of emotion uncharacteristic of the anchor gods, briefly breaking down on David Letterman’s show shortly after Sept. 11. Like Jack Valenti, he has also kept homespun Texas homilies like “That dog won’t hunt” or “mad as a rained-on rooster” close at hand, making every extended bout of live coverage something of an adventure.
In his autobiography “Roone,” the late ABC News President Roone Arledge, whose attempt to hire Rather helped Rather secure his current position — and hasten Walter Cronkite’s retirement — in 1981, described Rather on camera as being like “a panther pacing in a cage: coiled, restless, ready to pounce.”
With Brokaw signing off and “The CBS Evening News” running third in the ratings, there was little doubt that the network would seek a graceful way to prod a broadcasting legend out and execute its own baton pass. Just as he saw it happen to Cronkite, Rather knew that day would inevitably come and doubtless wanted to leave proudly, on his own terms.
Then along came the National Guard story, a neatly wrapped gift to his critics — who, like Rather in his prime, were coiled, restless and ready to pounce.