It may be a little late to say so, but Dan Rather’s aptly titled, not-quite-farewell retrospective reflects innate understanding of a simple truth: The CBS newsman has always been a reporter first and foremost, while sitting uneasily on the anchor throne he inherited from the august Walter Cronkite. So, 24 years after assuming that marquee position, Rather tacitly acknowledges that his best job was the one before it — a fitting coda to this phase of a career, tarnished by controversy, that made him perhaps the most polarizing journalist of the last four decades.
Given that Rather’s departure from “The CBS Evening News” was undoubtedly accelerated by his report on President Bush based on what appears to be forged documents, some will inevitably view this special as a whitewash, and there are notable omissions. Perhaps the biggest involves how Rather got the job in the first place (his reps pressured CBS into hastening the beloved Cronkite’s exit).
Nevertheless, you can’t please everyone, and this entertaining hour, told almost entirely in Rather’s own words, highlights a body of work that spans the signature moments of our time. From the Kennedy assassination to Vietnam to the 1968 Democratic National Convention — where he was roughed up on the convention floor — Rather always seemed to be at the center of the action.
As a reminder, we see the young Rather covering the hurricane that brought him to the network’s attention; chronicling the civil rights movement; and traveling to Afghanistan (without mentioning the derisive nickname that last episode earned him, “Gunga Dan”).
The most riveting section involves Rather’s testy relationship with the Nixon administration, whose blame-the-messenger tactics are mirrored by the current administration’s posture toward the so-called mainstream media. Not surprisingly, the special shows Rather putting tough questions to various presidents from both parties, as well as snippets from his heated exchange with the first President Bush.
“Be respectful, and polite, but ask the question,” Rather says of how a journalist should deal with the commander-in-chief. “Just ask the damn question.” Later, Rather adds that a reporter is ultimately judged by “how well he or she stands up to the pressure to intimidate.”
The one outside voice allowed into the reminiscence is that of newly anointed Sony chieftain Howard Stringer, a former president of CBS News. “I’ve never seen anybody more comfortable in the field than Dan Rather,” Stringer notes.
Indeed, Rather in the field was a near force of nature, whereas Rather behind the anchor desk proved a curiosity. (Tellingly, most of the indelible moments in the special took place before Rather segued from reporting to the anchor’s chair in 1981.)
A lightning rod for controversy and allegations of “liberal bias,” he was prone to strange homespun Texas homilies (dubbed “Danisms”) during live events, weird encounters (such as the famed “What is the frequency?” mugging, which he endeavors to clear up) and bouts of emotion.
To his credit, Rather addresses most of these issues, though not a word is said about his low ratings, which provided scant shelter from the latest storm.
True to form, Rather chokes up a bit discussing his legacy, concluding that when he walks down the street he’d like people to say, “There goes a real reporter.”
As reporters go, Rather was all that and then some, with those freewheeling days representing this journalistic titan’s Rosebud — prior to discovering that being top dog can get hotter than the devil’s anvil or a Times Square Rolex, or whatever Danism you prefer.