Four months to the day after I took over Press Clips, CBS Evening News anchor and managing editor Dan Rather is stepping down tonight, marking the end of the brief, glorious shelf-life of my few anecdotes from a couple years at the CBS News website — not to mention the end of Rather’s 24 years in the anchor seat.
So now, hours before Dan’s big exit, it’s time for one last yarn.
Much has been written and said about Rather’s career and its end. Slate‘s Jack Shafer made some common sense proposals to save the Evening News (some of which mirror my two cents’ worth in this week’s Voice). The liberal media advocacy group FAIR makes a good argument against the idea that Rather suffered from a left-wing bias. And in a superb piece, the Observer‘s Joe Hagan took his microscope to the collapse of the infamous National Guard memos story and the lives that, like Dan’s, were forever changed by it.
This little anecdote isn’t about any of that.
One night in the spring or summer of 2001, CBSNews.com’s skeleton night crew was slogging through the evening’s work when the phone rang. Someone picked up and it was Dan Rather at the other end. He wanted to talk about tornados.
Rather always got especially jazzed about big weather. Some of the enduring images of his reportage feature him slicker-clad, squinting through driving rain, or bracing against wind in the heart of some ferocious hurricane. Maybe it was because deadly weather evoked a classic man-versus-nature conflict, or because covering such events required the kind of balls that the reporters—mythical and real—of Dan’s world were supposed to display. Anyway, that night four years ago, Dan wanted to talk about tornados. And the timing made sense, the Associated Press wire that was the lifeline of our operation was firing off a series of NewsAlerts about some twisters down in Texas.
Whoever picked up the phone did not put Dan on hold; that just wasn’t done. Instead, they yelled to our talented assignment editor Chris Weber to handle Dan’s breaking story. For the next few minutes, Weber’s ear was glued to the phone as Dan spoke. The three or four of us who were on duty watched and waited to hear what the big man was saying.
When Weber hung up, he revealed that Rather had told him there were tornados in Texas. We told Chris that the wire was saying the same thing. Weber explained that there was no coincidence: As Rather was dictating the latest tornado news to Weber, Weber was reading the identical report on the wire. Word for word. Apparently, some assistant to Rather was handing the Great Anchor the same wire copy we were all reading, and Rather was so hopped up about it he was calling the website to tell us what we already knew. It appeared, though we could not be sure, that only Rather was unaware that it was wire copy he was barking into the phone.
Sure, it made Rather look pretty silly to us. But looking back, it’s clear that Rather didn’t know what else to do. I mean, Jesus, there was a tornado tearing up the country out there, whipping down highways and across farms, spitting out trees and cows—a big inky black beast, some demon of God’s creation, fused from the air for a brief terrifying moment to visit death on the proletariat’s trailer homes and plain-brick churches, and where was Dan Rather? Trapped in a lumpy chair on 57th Street, wearing a handsome suit instead of a slicker, with a limo driver waiting outside and a cadre of aides leaping to his every need, safe and bored, getting old without trying. Rather had to do something. If he could fly, transport himself molecularly, or if planes were fast enough, he would have zoomed to Texas, squared off in front of the vicious whirlwind, and said “I don’t know who you are or what you want, but if you don’t get the hell out of here I’m going to blow your ass off.” (He actually said that once.) He couldn’t do that, so he called us, and read a piece of paper.
There is a lot not to like about Dan Rather’s style, and a lot to criticize about his reporting. His theatricality often made the news sound like more bullshit than it was. But at the heart of it, to his credit, he loved the news. He loved it. His mistake wasn’t the Guard story or not retiring five years ago, but angling to get that anchor chair in the first place, because it stuck him in a job where he provided the lead-ins and out-ros for the people who were doing what he really wanted to do: telling stories. And now, sadly, that’s the image we have of Rather—an old man in a seat dishing out absurd colloquialisms in cruel self-parody—instead of the roving reporter he was in his soul.
Starting tomorrow, CBS has to figure out what to do with Rather. Will he report for 60 Minutes? Will he get phased out quietly? It doesn’t matter. Just give him a microphone and send out there where the bullets are flying or the hail is rapping down. If avian flu hits, send him out to wade among the teeming, dying masses. If the Big One sends California into the sea, give him a raft. It doesn’t even matter if the mic is plugged in. Dan will be there, and it’s where he wants to be.
And instead of his current and pretty lousy sign-off (“Part of our world tonight”) he can close each daring chapter with his once favored farewell, “Courage.” And it’ll fit.