A light snow dusts the sprawling CBS News complex in Hell’s Kitchen, on New York’s West Side, as a figure in a black slouch hat and long trench coat swirls through the Fifty-seventh Street door, bids good cheer to the security guards in the lobby, then vanishes into the bowels of the newsroom: Dan Rather is in top form this morning. He has just returned, after a grueling 44-hour flight, from Southeast Asia, where he presided over CBS News’ coverage of the killer tsunami. “It was one of those flights where you get drunk two times and still arrive home sober,” he tells me as I hurry behind him up the stairs to his office. In four days he will anchor coverage of the presidential inauguration, then catch a late-night flight from Washington to Iraq, where he will anchor the CBS Evening News during the tumultuous Iraqi election while also doing a couple of segments for the Wednesday edition of 60 Minutes. “My goal is to be a high-productivity, low-maintenance anchor,” he explains as we peel off coats, scarves, and hats and hand them to Allison, one of his assistants. At 73, Rather is three years older than I am; so why am I breathing hard while he appears ready to hit the floor and do fifty Marine push-ups? Work invigorates him, he explains: For 24 years he has anchored and served as the managing editor of the Evening News while also reporting segments for 48 Hours (which he pioneered) and both the Sunday and Wednesday editions of 60 Minutes, doing a radio commentary five days a week, and writing a weekly syndicated newspaper column—not counting being the lead man for numerous special events and breaking news like natural disasters or terrorist strikes. Just writing that sentence makes me dizzy.
What’s so odd about Rather’s apparent rejuvenation is that it arrives at one of the lowest moments in his fifty-year career. A few hours after his return home from Southeast Asia yesterday, a damning report was issued by the panel hired by CBS to investigate 60 Minutes Wednesday’s embarrassing and humiliating use of unauthenticated memos regarding George W. Bush’s service record in the Texas Air National Guard. The panel, headed by former Republican attorney general Richard Thornburgh and former Associated Press chief Louis Boccardi, concluded that the “myopic zeal” of the 60 Minutes team to beat its competition on the story caused a breakdown in institutional safeguards. Rather got to keep his job, but the report’s conclusion was that he and his people had flunked Journalism 101. His colorful Texas aphorisms—he famously described the 2000 presidential election deadlock as “tighter than a too-small swimsuit on a hot day on the way back from the beach”—have caused plenty of critics to question his style over the years. And when he sneaked into Afghanistan dressed as a mujahideen to cover the Soviet invasion in 1980, some reporters mocked him as “Gunga Dan,” as if to imply that his reports from the war front were filmed on a soundstage. But Memogate, as the CBS debacle has come to be called, and the report that followed, is the first time anybody has seriously called into question Rather’s journalistic chops.
The two of us settle into easy chairs in his office. A large painting by Jean Rather, his wife of 47 years, dominates one wall: a reclining woman that she has titled My Conversation With Titian. An enormous Rather family Bible lies under glass at one end of the coffee table. Rather and I have known each other for years, though not well, and we each go out of our way to make the other comfortable for what is to come. I begin with a couple of soft questions about the huge changes in the media during his years in the business, then hit him with one about Memogate: Given that no one has proved that the documents were forgeries, does he think he’s being held to too high a standard? I watch him stiffen, the muscles in his face no longer good-ol’-boy charming.
“I’m not going to revisit that,” he says. “The panel report is what it is. I’ve read it. I absorbed it. I will carry it with me in the future. It was a process that resulted in four good people losing their jobs. My reaction is one of great sadness.”
“But I need to know why,” I say, pressing him. The independent investigation had cleared CBS of charges of political bias, but sources had told me that CBS News president Andrew Heyward was instrumental in hiring Thornburgh for the report. In effect, as Tony Blankley wrote in the Washington Times, Thornburgh took on CBS as his fiduciary client. He had an ethical obligation to represent CBS’s best interest and to minimize any exposure CBS might have had to legal and political liability. “This has ‘whitewash’ written all over it,” I tell him. “As Dan Rather might say, if it walks like a duck—”
“I know what you want, but I can’t provide it,” he says firmly, then insists that he doesn’t wish to comment further on the affair.
It’s a brief and frustrating exchange, and it does nothing to quell the speculation that the controversy ended Rather’s chances of going out on his own terms. He had planned to remain at the Evening News until March 2006, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the date he replaced Walter Cronkite, but in a meeting with CBS chairman and CEO Les Moonves in the weeks before the report was released, Rather had agreed to step down on March 9 of this year. The investigation had absolved him of any wrongdoing—save for his stubborn defense of the documents in the immediate aftermath of the 60 Minutes episode—and the official network line was that he had been planning his retirement for months and only delayed it so as not to interfere with Tom Brokaw’s relinquishing of the NBC News anchor chair last December. Still,