Dan Rather Is a Good Ol’ Boy

Provided, that is, he’s in Texas and not on TV.

November 1991By Comments

Dan Rather eases his father-in-law’s GMC Pickup along the roads of Buescher State Park, just outside of Smithville. He seems to know every bend, and every acre seems to prompt a small memory. Some forty years ago, the young newsman from Houston spent his weekends strolling these pathways, holding hands with a local girl he was courting, Jean Goebel from Winchester. When the water in the park’s lake was high enough, they would spend the afternoons swimming together, or Rather would fish for perch while, back home, Jean and her mother prepared a Goebel specialty, squirrel with cream gravy.

When Rather returns to Houston from New York, he seldom spends much time in his old neighborhood, which is adjacent to the Heights. Aside from the house his father built (which has long since left the family), there is nothing in that economically and racially diverse neighborhood to recall the Depression-era community that gave Rather his core values. But the past still greets him at Buescher State Park. These days he fishes at Lake Buescher whenever he can, and Jean’s family—Rather’s in-laws for the past 34 years—throw reunions on the park’s campground, where the Goebels swim and fish and eat squirrel with cream gravy. Considering that Rather’s workplace is CBS News, where every tradition—including the ten-year tradition of Rather as Evening News anchorman—must be justified by the latest television ratings, it’s easy to see why he cherishes these moments at Buescher. They are the part of Dan Rather’s life that is in no danger of changing overnight.

He takes these roads slowly, lovingly. (Among the many books Rather would like to write is one about the hidden pleasures of dirt roads—along the lines of William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways, he says, “except only unpaved roads and only in Texas.”) At a certain point, he brings the truck to a halt. As the engine idles, he gestures at the thicket surrounding us and says, “The Indians who lived out here called ’em Lost Pines. They figured that since the trees didn’t look like they came from around here, they must be lost.”

He smiles at the simplicity of the logic. In Manhattan Dan Rather may qualify as a Lost Pine, but here in his father-in-law’s pickup he could pass for a Buescher State Park custodian. Rather is wearing a denim work shirt with blue jeans, a simple pair of black cowboy boots, and a gimme cap that advertises a Smithville welding shop. A chaw of Beechnut tobacco bulges beneath his cheek. When he spits, he opens the door while driving and leans his head out so that the juice doesn’t spray against the truck. Then he closes the door and wipes his lips with the back of his hand. The whole process takes about as much time as it does to say, “Good evening. I’m Dan Rather.” It’s two-thirty in the afternoon, and if Dan Rather were at work today, he would just now be concluding the daily story-lineup meeting, which takes place in the “fishbowl,” the CBS Evening News nerve center. It’s common knowledge that when Rather is fighting for a particular story during those meetings, he is often given to fits of anger. Some of his colleagues walk away convinced that the true Dan Rather is an arrogant hothead, while the Dan Rather who spews out folksy Texas aphorisms to a credulous TV audience is pure invention. As to his arrogance, even Rather will admit, “I don’t take the bridle well.” But anyone who thinks of Dan Rather as a phony Texan hasn’t seen him expel a mouthful of tobacco juice from a moving pickup.

Pointing out the window, he says, “If you ever have time, you really ought to take this road that goes out toward Bastrop.” He shakes his head solemnly. “Great little dirt road!” But instead, Rather maneuvers the pickup out of the park and east down Ranch Road 153, which, though paved, he takes at a respectful 25 miles per hour as we pass through the land of his in-laws, a lush expanse of meadows that was settled by Wendish-speaking Germans in the 1850’s. On the outskirts of Winchester, Rather points to a drab little building and says, “That’s the local bar. Now, if you want to see a part of America that’s disappearing, you come out here on a Friday night. And you’d damn sure better bring your hard hat.”

But the bar where we finally settle in for beers is a few miles away, in Serbin—“Home of Serbin Jackrabbits” says a sign adjacent to a baseball field where, Rather tells me, “It’s 334-feet down the left-field line,” and how the hell he knows that is beyond me. The bar in Serbin is quiet on a Wednesday afternoon: There’s one other customer, a somber soul whose spirits lift when Rather buys him a beer. As Rather and I move toward the dining area, the man seated at the bar sips at the beer that’s been bought for him and fixes his drowsy eyes on us. He’s wondering where he’s seen that guy with the chaw of tobacco in his cheek.

Once seated, Rather takes a swig of his Shiner and begins to talk about Serbin, CBS, and the vast world in between. His natural speaking voice is so quiet that I have to lean over the table to hear him. He is an unfailingly polite fellow and amiable once he has decided you’re not his enemy, but physically he remains slightly on edge: His movements are stiff and uneasy, and he is unable to smile on command. It has been observed that Rather is not a deep thinker. (Was Cronkite? Is Brokaw?) Whether or not that is true, his mind is active to the extreme. He listens intently to every word, and he remembers everything—including the unflattering things that have been written about him, some of which he can quote verbatim. He’s an engaging conversationalist, but at times you can sense the effort. There’s an uncontrollable side to him that can be charming or alarming, depending on whether you own shares of CBS stock. He is prone to wearing baseball caps and safari hats, for example, and his hair is often a mess. Lately Rather’s locks have darkened, provoking the usual round of speculation. Is management abandoning the softer, grayer look for a more youthful Dan Rather? Or is Rather willfully defying his imagemakers? Apparently it’s neither: Rather’s new hairstylist (whose name now appears on the CBS Evening News credits) asked the anchorman one day if he’d like a little color, and Rather said why not. Perhaps he should have consulted with the CBS executives and publicists. Then again, it was only a little color.

And then again, the Nielsen ratings may rise or fall, and millions of dollars may be won or lost for the sake of a little color. Rather says he hears it all the time: “What the public wants is somebody who spends time concerning himself with dress, grooming, and appearance and who gets into the station at four-thirty and concentrates, as a singer or dancer would, on the performance.” Some of Rather’s best friends in the business have advised him to pay a little more attention to his performance and a little less to being a reporter. They’ve also suggested that he let go of his other passion, which is Texas: They tell him to project a “national” image, meaning no image at all. Over the years, Rather has given some ground. But when he comes home, he drives dirt roads and chews his Beechnut and buys beers for someone who doesn’t know who Dan Rather is—and here, no one tells him to let go of what he loves.

While we’re talking we look up to see that the man at the bar stands before us, wearing a humble sort of grin. “I appreciate the beers,” he says, “but I’d sorta like to know who’s buying ’em for me. You from around here?”

Dan Rather’s youthful face now looks almost childlike. “Yes,” he says, beaming. “I sure am.”

These are not the best of times for Dan Rather. But in this year of Rather milestones—his sixtieth birthday this Halloween, his tenth anniversary as anchorman of the CBS Evening News, and the year marking the publication of his memoirs, I Remember—things could be a great deal worse. The year began dismally, with the once-preeminent news network languishing in the ratings cellar, and with media analysts taking potshots at CBS’s Persian Gulf war coverage—specifically, at Rather’s foray into the desert, which struck the critics as a transparent act of anchor showmanship, emblematic of what has come to be known in the trade as bigfoot journalism. While the Americans dropped bombs on Baghdad, the Wall Street Journal published what Rather calls “a very hurtful piece” that quoted unnamed CBS sources to the effect that Dan Rather’s anchoring days were numbered.

On February 13, CBS News president Eric Ober fired Rather’s close friend Tom Bettag, once described by the anchorman as “my last executive producer.” The new executive producer was Erik Sorenson, an Ober crony who lacked, in Rather’s estimation, “big game experience.” All of this seemed calculated to provoke Rather, especially in light of a clause in Rather’s contract stating that the executive producer must meet with Rather’s approval. “Ober made it very clear that I could nominate a hundred people, but he’d made his decision,” says Rather. “Tom was gonna go, and Erik Sorenson was gonna come in.”

It looked for all the world like a symbolic castration. Perhaps, insiders suggested, CBS executives were hopeful that Rather would blow his stack and storm out, right in the middle of the war in the Persian Gulf. That didn’t happen—“I have a reputation for doing things that are not too good, but leaving a big story is not one of them, no matter what storms may be brewing inside of me,” Rather says. Still, the possibility lingered that he might be dumped or made to suffer the humiliation of sharing his anchor desk. Connie Chung was the obvious choice, though CBS’s overture to Barbara Walters of ABC raised a few eyebrows.

Of course, in the world of television, fortunes change in as little time as it takes to change a channel. So it was for Dan Rather. The pace in the Gulf picked up, and so did Rather: His authoritative handling of Operation Desert Storm’s final days played well. By the end of the war, CBS Evening News had supplanted NBC in the number two ratings spot. Rather’s other program, the underappreciated weekly newsmagazine 48 Hours, was extended for another year. Connie Chung took pregnancy leave. Barbara Walters stayed with ABC.

We know more about Dan Rather than we know about Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, and Bernard Shaw combined. Texans remember the sight of the 29-year-old KHOU-TV reporter clinging to a tree in 75-mile-per-hour winds, describing the murderous path of hurricane Carla in 1961. We remember Rather as the first journalist to report that John Kennedy was dead and as the reporter who was pummeled by security guards at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, all the while assuring then-anchorman Walter Cronkite on the air, “Don’t worry about it, Walter. I’ll answer the bell.” We saw Rather in the rice paddies of Vietnam. We watched him square off against President Richard Nixon, who asked, “Are you running for something?” and received the reply, “No, sir, Mr. President, are you?”

We know Dan Rather. Yet it’s Rather, not his rival anchormen, about whom we have questions and suspicions. Today’s preferred model, ABC’s Peter Jennings, spent several years in the trenches and appears to have gotten through those years without so much as a scratch. But when we see Dan Rather on our television screens, we see in his wrinkled forehead and his fleshly lower eyelids and his charcoal-ash hair the travails of a media lifer, and we hear in his voice the echoes of American conflict. “For better or for worse,” he says, “I’m someone who has had to put it on the line in a time when that was considered possibly injurious to an anchorman’s career.” Rather’s history of accomplishments got him the top job at CBS, and that history has been held against him ever since.

The turbulence of Dan Rather’s past still roils through his life as anchorman. It’s true that Rather was mugged on Park Avenue by assailants who asked him, “Kenneth, what is the frequency?” And it’s true that on September 11, 1987, the anchorman walked out of CBS’s Miami studio just before going on the air in protest of the decision to allot some of the Evening News’s time to a tennis match—thus causing the screen to go black for six full minutes. (Today, Rather refers to that event simply as “Miami”—like Pearl Harbor, another day of infamy.) There are several such instances of Rather inviting trouble and just as many of trouble catching Rather unawares. He is out of the hurricane, but the hurricane within him still rages. And it seems to be the case that when we watch him read his 22 minutes’ worth of news every weekday evening, the hurricane flickers across his face like fuzzy reception and disturbs us.

We know Dan Rather, but understanding him is another matter. It’s a partial acknowledgment of this that, fourteen years after the publication of his autobiography (The Camera Never Blinks), Rather is writing about himself again. Perhaps, as Rather insists, I Remember was undertaken as an innocent reminisce about his childhood in Houston’s Heights during the Depression. Perhaps along the way it became, in his words, “a book about values—how one gets values, maybe something on the level of how one loses values.” But Rather has also used the book as an opportunity to address a world that still isn’t sure what to make of him.

Above all, he defends his sincerity, since Rather’s earnest, sentimental side has often been perceived as a contrivance designed to offset his native aggressiveness. Rather explains in I Remember that the open Bible that sits on a lectern in his office is not merely the sanctimonious prop some reporters have implied it to be but instead an old family tradition. Similarly, Rather responds to critics who have derided his frequent use of maps and models during the Evening News as a patronizing gesture: The tendency, he writes, is a throwback to his father, a self-styled teacher “who would rather have me explain too much than too little.” And the Dan Rather who caught flak for appearing to be on the brink of tears while reporting on the Challenger explosion and the death of the Marines in Beirut now defends his watery eyes thusly in I Remember: “My acceptance of openly reflecting authentic emotion on appropriate occasions is rooted in the values of that special country called Texas . . . A true Texan, never mind the transplanted kind, was permitted to show red rims around his eyes in case of hostilities against Mama, the flag, or God in Heaven.”

Also in Rather’s new book, we finally learn that “Courage,” the curious sign-off that Rather employed during five consecutive broadcasts in September 1986, wasn’t just a flaky improvisation but a word often used by his father to buoy flagging spirits. The magnitude of the public’s reaction—and Rather’s bewildered reaction to that reaction—suggests that Rather and his viewers still operate on different wavelengths. “A single word.” He says, shaking his head. “In more recent years I’ve worked pretty hard to understand it but have mentally said: ‘This is a part of the business that I don’t think God put me on this earth to understand.’ I don’t understand it at all.”

The CBS fishbowl is a telling reminder of what anchoring has become. At the edge of the quiet, cavernous studio sit a handful of diligent individuals behind computer monitors. They make up the 24-hour-a-day news center; everything happening in the world, up to the minute, comes through them. As Rather sits at his anchor desk, reading his notes and flexing his jaws and lips in preparation for the evening broadcast, he is surrounded by cameras, lights, backdrops, TelePrompTers, technicians, a woman who circles him and dabs makeup on his jowls, and a senior producer who buzzes about barefooted with three felt-tip markers dangling from a string around her neck. The earpiece Rather wears connects him to the control room, where Erik Sorenson and his production legions furiously package the news: Ready, back to one, then we’ll rip back to Washington . . . Will somebody help Dan? He’s unplugged his earphone. Come on, will you hurry? Are these rhetorical questions or is this live? . . . Erik, the front office is wondering if the camera isn’t a little soft on Dan . . . Nicely read, Dan. Kill his mike. Okay, no more sitting on the edge of the desk for “Eye on America.” We’re going back to the normal position.

When Rather is reading the news, two distinct burdens bear down on him—and at times, pull him in opposite directions. One is the building at Vanderbilt University where every news broadcast is stored. “I’m almost constantly thinking to myself, ‘What’s going in that Vanderbilt archive?’” he says. “I always say about anchoring that there’s no place to hide. And from Vanderbilt, there’s no escape.”

The other burden, of course, is the ratings. If Vanderbilt represents the burden of Rather’s pride, the ratings represent reality. No network employee can ignore them. When Rather took the helm in 1981 the three major networks controlled about a 90 percent share of the audience. Ten years later, that figure hovers around 60 percent. Back in 1981, no one in his right mind would have suggested that one of the networks might someday terminate its evening news broadcast. Today everyone, including Rather, acknowledges the likelihood that one of the networks will bail out of the news business. An obvious candidate would be NBC, which already has drastically curtailed its foreign coverage. But CBS, with all of its highly publicized corporate turmoil, could just as easily shut down the program that brought us Ed Murrow, Walter Cronkite, Eric Sevareid—and Dan Rather.

“A large part of why people watch a certain broadcast is still based on the anchor,” says Erik Sorenson. “But it’s become less and less so. It might have been ninety percent of the issue fifteen years ago; it may be only sixty-five percent or seventy percent now. What precedes the broadcast is a big factor. Station allegiance is an issue. And then there is the issue of when affiliate stations choose to play our broadcast.”

Yet it’s an irony of the business that as the influence of anchors on ratings has declined, the obsession with audience share has increased. “Walter Cronkite, up to the day he left, didn’t look at the ratings every week,” says Rather. ”Through most of their careers, Cronkite, Huntley and Brinkley, Chancellor—if they looked at the ratings three or four times a year, I’d be surprised. Now it’s overnight. They talk about the overnight ratings.”

While Rather avoids public displays of self-pity, insisting, “I love the game,” he has surely spent days wondering whether the aggravations have been worth it. As a CBS reporter and a 60 Minutes crusader in 1979 making reportedly $225,000 a year, Dan Rather was at the top of his game when it became clear that he was a dark horse candidate to succeed the retiring Walter Cronkite . . . but that the winner would almost certainly be Roger Mudd. Rather, who thrives on adversity every bit as much as his old foe Nixon, felt the familiar churning when he was informed of the odds against him. “I did believe, almost until the last hour, that it probably would be Mudd,” he says. “When someone said, you are in the race, then I said to myself, ‘Well, then I damn sure intend to win it.’ If you want to see me try my hardest, you tell me there’s something I’m not capable of doing.”

Though Rather insists he harbored no gnawing ambition to be the Evening News anchorman, he fought for the job like a man possessed. As described in Peter Boyer’s Who Killed CBS?, the tide turned when Rather received an offer to anchor at ABC, prompting a dilemma for CBS executives: While they weren’t convinced that they wanted Dan Rather as their anchorman, by no means did they desire to see him anchoring for a competitor. Rather got what he wanted but quickly found himself contending with the looming memory of Uncle Walter. Cronkite possessed the two essential components of anchoring, credibility and likability. And though it was understood that no one else in the business embodied both traits, it was the opinion of many—including CBS founder William Paley—that, yes, credibility was nice and all, but likability was imperative. Even during Rather’s first five years, when the CBS Evening News stayed at or near the top of the ratings, enormous effort was devoted to “softening” the veteran reporter: adjusting his sitting position, using tighter camera angles, having him wear sweaters, and above all else, keeping him at arm’s length from the part of the game he has loved the most—reporting.

“When I got the job,” says Rather, “there were people who said, ‘Okay, now’s the time to start making the transition, to stop thinking of yourself as a reporter and start thinking of yourself as an anchorperson.’ I did not do that—it was a conscious decision. But the characteristics that make one a good reporter sometimes come in direct conflict with those things that are at least perceived to make one a good anchorperson. For example, a good anchorperson doesn’t ask the tough question. Also, a consistency of look is important. When viewers turn on their television sets, they do not expect to see a guy who appears to be a fugitive from a destruction derby as their anchorperson. You can’t continue running around the world looking like a man with his shirttail untucked and expect to be seen as avuncular.”

But Rather can’t sit still. Why a man who earns a salary variously reported between $2 million and $3.5 million a year would continue to insist on “flogging myself into the desert or the jungle or earthquakes or hurricanes or what have you” is hard to fathom. It’s Rather’s belief that “the audience senses who knows what they’re talking about and who doesn’t, and the only way you can know is to grab a pencil and get out of the office.” Yet his knack for finding the action inevitably leads to charges of grandstanding. In 1980, just after being named as Cronkite’s successor, Rather traveled to Afghanistan for a 60 Minutes story on the Afghan rebels. The assignment involved a fair amount of dangerous undercover work, but the critics ridiculed Rather’s Arab garb, labeled him Gunga Dan, and wrote off the mission as pure show biz—“Like I did it all on the back of a Hollywood lot,” Rather says.

In 1988, Rather and Vice President George Bush duked it out before an incredulous television audience. Though Bush was campaigning for the presidency, CBS had previously advertised the live interview as one in which the vice president would be asked about his role in the Iran-contra affair. Nonetheless, when Rather popped the Iran-contra question, Bush behaved as if the anchorman were trying to ambush him and replied angrily, “It’s not fair to judge my whole career by a rehash on Iran. Would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York? Would you like that?” It was Rather who had been ambushed: Despite getting his facts wrong, Bush embarrassed his interrogator and rid himself of the wimp image forever. Later, media critics would condemn Rather for his adversarial approach. Their message was plain: While a reporter is paid to mix things up, an anchorman does so at his peril.

A year later, in 1989, Rather and his Evening News crew went to Beijing and delivered arresting coverage of the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square. It was a proud moment for Rather but one that his detractors quickly forgot when, in the summer of 1990, Saddam Hussein’s troops invaded Kuwait and Rather wasted no time booking his flight. “Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, and I gotta go,” he remembers thinking. So he went and promptly got labeled Bigfoot Rather.

The name-calling, coupled with Tom Bettag’s dismissal, inflicted a noticeable dent in Rather’s morale. He began to put in fewer hours and spent increasingly less time hanging around the fishbowl. Even when it appeared that Rather’s job was no longer in jeopardy, his detachment remained evident. The thrill was gone until the next hot story came along.

“The Gulf war was definitely Dan Rather at his worst,” says one longtime CBS staffer. “Moscow was Dan Rather at his best.” When the Soviet coup materialized this past August, CBS officials ordered Rather to stay behind his desk, and Rather made the most of it. Seeing that the coup wasn’t much of a visual phenomenon, Rather surrounded himself with Soviet experts like Jonathon Sanders and Stephen Cohen and ran analytical rings around the competition. Rather’s delivery was confident and at times even breezy: He noted dryly that the fleeing coup instigators had pulled a “Thelma and Louise,” which won him applause in USA Today. This time around, it was ABC’s Diane Sawyer who went overseas, microphone in hand, and got hammered back home for grandstanding. This time around, Dan Rather’s big feet were firmly planted.

When Rather wants personal solace, he comes to Texas. When he feels the tug of his professional roots, he hits the streets for 48 Hours, where his reporter ethic is deeply appreciated. “By having Dan Rather anchor the program,” says 48 Hours executive producer Andrew Heyward, “we’re saying to the viewers, ‘This is not sleazy. This is not tabloid. This is not exploitative.’ He brings enormous credibility, and that’s very important to us.”

On a Wednesday morning at seven-twenty, Rather and 48 Hours senior producer Steve Glauber meet at the corner of Seventy-fifth and Madison, where a vehicle picks them up and ferries them to Central Park. There Rather will interview a group of Upper West Side pet owners who were friends with Alexis Welsh, a woman who took her dogs out walking early one morning, as always, and was murdered, allegedly by a paranoid schizophrenic. Rather wears jeans, tennis shoes, and a safari jacket. He’s in a sullen mood, barely responding to Glauber’s pre-interview coaching. The ride is a tense one until Rather finally mumbles, “I was with a source last night. An Iraqi gentleman. I counted on him to be a good Muslim and not drink.”

He rumbles a sigh. “We began at the restaurant of the Westbury Hotel,” he says. “And then to many other places.”

As we enter Central Park, we see the 48 Hours camera crew at the bottom of a small hill. Surrounding the crew are about twenty men and women and at least as many unleashed canines. Dazed and sag-faced, Rather regards the scene. “Oh, my God,” he murmurs. “Not the f—ing dog people.”

Yet Rather is on the moment he enters the fray. His questions to Alexis Welsh’s fellow dog-walkers are alert and informed, as if he were up all night pondering the Welsh tragedy instead of guzzling whiskey with an Iraqi Deep Throat. He has not lost his chops. While Rather interviews Welsh’s friends, I notice that two feet away from where he’s standing, a German shepherd is digging what is becoming a large hole. My heart skips a beat. Is another Rather mishap about to unfold? But no: As soon as the final question is answered, Dan Rather thanks his sources, then steps neatly to the side of the hole, then over a pile of dog manure, and past a bench crowded with homeless men who stare at the anchorman with glazed wonder.

Why 48 Hours is so important to Dan Rather is evident during the next interview for the Alexis Welsh segment. The interviewee is a woman who had once been attacked by the same paranoid schizophrenic who allegedly killed Welsh. The woman is sitting on the steps of her apartment. Her face looks hollow, her frame is underfed, she is plainly braless, and she has scars up and down her arms. An empty wine cooler bottle sits on one side of her. Rather sits on the other side of her, shakes her hand, and begins to ask questions. As he does, and as the woman responds, Glauber, his crew, and I stand nearby, gaping. The rapport between interviewer and interviewee is astounding. Watching the anchorman draw answers out of the indigent woman, I try to imagine Rather’s unflappable counterparts at NBC and ABC sitting on these steps. But the image will not come. For all their gab and savvy, Jennings and Brokaw are as removed from the stoop as Ronald Reagan. Having succeeded at detaching themselves from the news, they are, in a sense, strangers to the news. Rather, by contrast, lunges wherever the news can be found. He’s grubby with it.

Later he tells me, “Reporters get to see a Dickensian side of life—at the police station, after midnight, in the emergency room, talking on the stoop. You see a part of the world a hell of a lot of people don’t get to see. It’s one of the ways in which one gets addicted to the craft.”

A CBS executive who liked Dan Rather once told the anchorman, “I respect the fact that you’re a reporter. But it will be your epitaph.”

“I’ll trade for that,” replied Dan Rather.

There have been moments, Rather tells me as we lean against the pickup and survey Buescher State Park a final time, when he has considered the “Ted Williams exit.” He explains, “Hit a home run, circle the bases, come back to the dugout, don’t even stop to take a shower, just go to the parking lot and get in your car and get away. There have been a few times when I thought at least for a fleeting second, ‘If you want a Ted Williams exit, this, Dan, is as close as you’re gonna get.’”

The Soviet coup was one of those moments. On Thursday, August 22, as Gorbachev’s captors pulled a “Thelma and Louise,” Dan Rather performed what he regards as one of his finest broadcasts ever, 22 minutes when everything clicked. At the stroke of seven, he could very well have removed his earpiece, wiped off the makeup, and exited the fishbowl to wild, genuinely affectionate applause. He and Jean could have taken a CBS limo to La Guardia Airport and traveled first-class to any one of the Texas regions the Rathers consider worthy retirement sites: the Gulf Coast, Austin’s Lake Travis, or Winchester. Rather could make a clean break of it, leaving the rest of us to say, “That son of a bitch could hit the long ball, couldn’t he?”

For a silent moment, Rather luxuriates in the fantasy. Then he says with a smile that comes easily to his strong face, “But this ain’t baseball, and I ain’t Ted Williams.” He spits a little tobacco juice, and soon he’s back in the pickup, driving slowly along dirt roads, through the land that changes least.

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