The title of Dan Rather’s autobiography, Rather Outspoken, is a bit of an understatement. The cantankerous octogenarian, who was the face of CBS News for almost a quarter century, has never been known as a shrinking violet.
In fact, he uses much of the book to defend his reputation from the lingering controversy over his tumultuous departure in 2005. Unfortunately, there is a bit of conflict between the book’s title and its subtitle “My Life in the News.” The result is a narrative that jumps around and skips over much of Rather’s life and picks up slivers and highlights of a 60-year-long journalism career that began in Huntsville, Texas, at KSAM radio in 1950. Yet there is still plenty of interest for the reader to glean in the two somewhat disparate parts of Rather’s memoirs. Here are some highlights:
Rather spent about three years of his childhood bedridden with rheumatic fever. As Rather puts it, “bedridden seriously, as in using a bed pan.” He spent two separate stints lying in bed, unable to move for fear of developing carditis. Instead, he lay around all day listening to the radio and admiring the voice of Edward R. Murrow as he reported the war news from London.
Rather came from a home where both parents “were avid newspaper readers.” His father was also a very picky one. The Rather household would rotate through Houston’s three daily papers depending on which was currently least irritating. All three “were canceled ... at least five times.” In fact, at different points, the Rathers would instead subscribe to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch or the Christian Science Monitor and get their newspaper via the mail.
Rather just barely remembered to call his wife on her birthday. He did so minutes before midnight, from the Playboy Club in New Orleans. She was not pleased.
The Invention of Modern Hurricane Coverage
Rather, along with his boss, Cal Jones, “invented modern hurricane coverage” while covering Hurricane Carla for a Houston television station in 1961. They superimposed a radar image of the coming storm over a map of the Houston area and broadcast it. It was the first time viewers could “see the mass of the storm in relation to the coastline.” The image spurred half a million people to flee inland.
During his reporting career, Rather’s marriage and family life suffered. He was only home for 31 days in 1962 and 42 in 1963. However, the nadir of his married life was when Rather just barely remembered to call his wife on her birthday. He did so minutes before midnight, from the Playboy Club in New Orleans. She was not pleased.
Thousands of Flies
CBS has long been considered “the Tiffany Network” for its reputation for quality and class. But its broadcast studios were anything but high class. Instead, its building is a renovated dairy barn on the West Side of Manhattan. Although conditions have improved, its past meant the building at one point was riddled “with thousands of fly colonies” that had settled there when the building still housed cows. Further, because the dairy had once been an entrepôt for bootleggers during Prohibition, there were tunnels going down to Hudson that had once been used to smuggle liquor. The result was that, on occasion, CBS’s offices would be swarmed with “nasty, snarly, XXL New York City river rats, big enough to mate with a possum.”
Special Television Skills
Rather always broadcast live breaking news events in a special way. He had an earpiece in each ear, one connecting him to the control room and the other to the editorial desk. The result is that Rather would speak unscripted to the country with a different voice in each ear. He described it as being “as easy as simultaneously rubbing your stomach and patting the top of your head—while also singing the second verse of ‘The Star Spangled Banner,’ hopping on one foot and juggling two raw eggs and a cantaloupe.”
Prior to the Watergate break-in, Rather may have been the victim of an attempted burglary. The then-White House correspondent had been scheduled to go to Florida to cover the president, but instead stayed home. Late at night, his daughter heard an intruder. Rather immediately “did what any Texan would do: I made sure the family was safe, then grabbed the shotgun.” Rather went downstairs and saw the intruder. He loudly chambered his shotgun and the burglar very quickly skedaddled. Examining the house, nothing had been taken, but the files in Rather’s basement office had been rifled through.
As an experienced war correspondent, Rather has developed Rather’s Rules for Survival when covering a story in a dangerous Third World country: 1. Don’t drink the water (without boiling or purifying), 2. Don’t eat the meat, and 3. Don’t even think about looking at the women. Don’t even look in their general direction.
White House’s Non-Answer
During the investigation that CBS commissioned of Rather’s reporting on the Texas Air National Guard—an investigation that was supposed to be impartial—the company appointed former George H.W. Bush’s Attorney General Richard Thornburgh to lead it. However, Thornburgh was one of a number of possible choices, and the criteria CBS was using didn’t seem to include legal expertise. Instead, the other potential nominees included Rush Limbaugh, Roger Ailes, Matt Drudge, Ann Coulter, and Tucker Carlson.
The Long Walk Home
After Rather ended his 43 years at CBS, he walked home in a daze, across to Central Park, to his apartment on the Upper East Side. He sat down with his wife and asked for “a straight shot of bourbon.” After, the restorative effects of “two jiggers from an old bottle of Wild Turkey,” he began the next chapter of his life.