Few people have witnessed firsthand as many of our country’s triumphs and trials as Dan Rather. History and innate optimism inform Rather’s belief that Americans can pull together through the COVID-19 crisis—yet in our conversation on The National Podcast of Texas, he volunteers that he isn’t absolutely certain we can. And for that, because very little is the same as it was two weeks ago, talking to Dan Rather is different now too—what used to be a purely comforting experience is now also unsettling and sobering.
My conversation with Rather was recorded just a few hours before President Trump, at the White House’s daily coronavirus briefing, announced there will be reassessment of the administration’s coronavirus-containment policies next week, declaring, “We’re not going to let the cure be worse than the problem.” At the same briefing, Attorney General William Barr announced a crackdown on people price-gouging and hoarding medical and personal protective equipment, which Rather raises in our interview as a concern.
In this conversation, Rather also discusses our need to lean into patriotism rather than nationalism; what he’s learned about himself in quarantine; why this is the biggest disruption to America since World War II; and what keeps him up at night amid this crisis, as well as what brings him hope.
Rather’s playbook has always featured an outsized chapter on self-deprecating humor, so it’s little surprise that on Monday afternoon, calling in from sheltering in place in New York City, the 88-year-old opened with a joke.
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“I’m at a stage in my life when, even before the virus, I didn’t buy green bananas.”
Punch lines aside, Rather is taking his health and safety very seriously. For the better part of two weeks, he’s been sharing an apartment with his grandson Martin (Saturday night, the roommates posted on social media an instantly viral video of a midnight grilled-cheese cook-off). He generally leaves the apartment just once a day for a forty-minute walk and is otherwise burning off hours monitoring the news, making occasional CNN appearances by Skype, and checking in on family in Texas—including his wife of 62 years, Jean—who are on similar self-isolation protocols. He’s also, of course, posting to Facebook and Twitter. Throughout the 2016 campaign and especially after President Trump’s election, Rather’s social media profile skyrocketed: on Facebook he has more than 2.5 million followers, and nearly a million follow him on Twitter. He’s been a consistent critic of the Trump administration, and three weeks ago, just as America was trying to draw up its COVID-19 policy, he tweeted, “In a crisis, one of the most precious commodities for a government is credibility.” But Rather says that while he thinks we should be talking about accountability for our current health crisis “hour in and out, day in and out,” he’s also confident a deeper discussion of accountability can only happen when we’re on the other side of this crisis.
“Reality is going to be the ultimate judge of how both we as a people and our leaders performed,” Rather says. “But the final reality is a long way from being played out.”