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