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Courage! Rather Ready To Sign Off

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The sweater is gone. So, too is Connie Chung. And the farewell “Courage” has long passed into memory.

Soon, Dan Rather will join them.

CBS News announced Tuesday that Rather will anchor his last broadcast on March 9, 2005-24 years to the day after he took the reins at the Tiffany Network from Walter Cronkite.

“I have always said that I’d know when the time was right to step away from the anchor chair,” Rather said in a statement. “This past summer, CBS and I began to discuss this matter in earnest-and we decided that the close of the election cycle would be an appropriate time.” Rather will stay on as a correspondent for 60 Minutes.

The announcement comes ahead of a report on the September 8 piece by Rather on memos purporting to show lapses in President Bush’s National Guard record. The memos were apparently fakes. CBS asked former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and retired Associated Press boss Louis Boccardi to investigate. Their findings are pending.

Following on the heels of Tom Brokaw’s retirement on December 1, Rather’s departure will be another nail in the coffin of the “big-time anchor.” Only Peter Jennings will remain from the era when the man behind the desk was an institution, an authority-an inheritor of the legacy of Edward R. Murrow and others who called themselves “newsmen” rather than “journalists.”

Rather was always the most colorful, and controversial, of them all. There was the shoving match on the floor of the Democratic convention in 1968, the on-air shouting match with H.W. Bush in 1988, the brief co-anchorship with Chung in the mid-ninties, the “What’s the frequency Kenneth?” assault, the short-lived switch from suit to sweater, and the flirtation with the sign-off “courage.”

There were also the colloquialisms, which eventually reached the level of self-parody. Election night 2004 was “hotter than the devil’s anvil.” Four years earlier, the race was “as hot and tight as a too small bathing suit on a too long ride back from the beach.”

Rather was always loathed by the right wing. Even his last, great coup-the February 2003 interview with Saddam Hussein-ticked them off. But his liberal instincts were uneven, at best. In the wake of 9-11, he asked the president to tell him where to “line up.” But in a BBC interview several months later he said he thought the media had not reported the war on terrorism with a critical enough eye. Earlier this year, he complained that the coverage of President Reagan’s funeral was excessive, then saddled his own broadcast with undue melodrama by reciting the words to “Amazing Grace” and “God Bless America.”

It was hard to tell which part was sincere and which part was stagecraft. Maybe they were all one in the same.

During a break on one of the first days of the Iraq war in March 2003, Rather was walking off the anchor platform in the CBS broadcast center when he passed a maintenance man emptying wastebaskets into a trash bin. “How’re you doing?” Rather asked them man, who nodded. “You’re doing a great job. I want you to know we appreciate it.”

Rather walked on. The maintenance man seemed not to know quite what to make of it.

Jarrett Murphy worked at CBS during the 2000-2004 period.

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