Dan Rather just won’t let it go.
Nearly eight years after his fabled career at CBS News imploded like a death star over the notorious George W. Bush/Texas Air National Guard segment on 60 Minutes Wednesday, he can’t stop combing the debris for shards of vindication.
“I have a story to tell from my point of view,” he says about his new book, Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News, which roasts network management for its “spineless” behavior during the Bush episode; takes potshots at his successor in the CBS Evening News anchor chair, Katie Couric, as a purveyor of “News Lite”; and settles scores with former colleagues who, as he writes, “after pretending to be friends for all those years, stealthily snuck around giving anonymous newspaper quotes and otherwise scheming to put the dirk in deep when I was down and hurting.”
Rather explains: “I wanted to tell it as honestly and as candidly as I could with—as Lyndon Johnson used to say—the bark off.”
The Sept. 8, 2004, Bush segment and its use of dubious documents to bolster the case that the 43rd president benefited from family connections and then went AWOL during his Vietnam-era stint in a “champagne unit” of the guard, plus Rather’s subsequent lawsuit against the network he served for 44 years—24 of them as anchor and managing editor of CBS’s flagship news program—account for only a fourth of the book. Rather initially dug in his heels during the firestorm that accompanied his damning report on a sitting president two months before his reelection. But he ultimately apologized for airing widely debunked photocopies of purported memos critical of young Bush’s performance and allegedly written by his commanding officer, the late Jerry B. Killian, lieutenant colonel in the Texas Air National Guard, saying CBS News could no longer vouch for their authenticity.
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A CBS-commissioned investigation of the disaster—headed by Richard Thornburgh, U.S. attorney general when Bush’s father was president, and Associated Press chief executive Louis D. Boccardi—faulted Rather and his top producer, Mary Mapes, among others, for their misplaced reliance on a dubious source and their sloppy vetting of the questionable documents, which should never have aired. They made the situation far worse, the investigation concluded, by defending the documents for nearly two weeks after the initial report—never mind the mounting evidence against them from the blogosphere, competitors in the mainstream media, and CBS’s own hired document experts. Five news executives and producers, including Mapes, lost their jobs in the aftermath, and 60 Minutes Wednesday was canceled.
But these days Rather insists the Killian memos were real.
“I wanted to tell it as honestly and as candidly as I could with—as Lyndon Johnson used to say—the bark off.”
“I believe them to be genuine,” he tells The Daily Beast, holding forth in his corner office at his weekly HDNet magazine program, Dan Rather Reports, in a musty old building off Times Square. “I did at the time, I did in the immediate aftermath of it, and yes, I do now ... And I think the longer we go, nobody has ever proven that the documents were not what they purported to be, and after this length of time and given the controversy and high profile of it, my view is that if they were not genuine, by this time somebody would’ve come forward and said here’s the proof that they’re not. Nobody has done that.” (Unfortunately for Rather, nobody has come forward with proof that they are in fact legitimate, and the preponderance of the available evidence continues to cast doubt on their authenticity.)
On the whole, Rather Outspoken, written with veteran journalist Digby Diehl, is a frequently fond memoir of his inspiring, often-admirable rise from wrong-side-of-the-tracks Houston, the son of a pipeline ditch-digger and waitress, to the vertiginous heights of television stardom as “the Face of CBS News.” It is awash in nostalgia for the “Tiffany Network” of William S. Paley, Frank Stanton, and Edward R. Murrow—who, Rather writes, seldom if ever buckled to outside pressure—and, naturally, it is rife with Ratherisms, such as this one about meeting his future wife of 55 years, Jean Goebel, a leggy secretary at the Houston radio station where Rather cut his teeth: “She also had a figure that would make a bishop kick out a stained-glass window.”
But, at age 80, Rather has been around long enough to realize that in a media milieu where soundbites leave tooth marks, his bitter barbs at enemies will overwhelm the sweet spots.
Former news-division president Andrew Heyward, Rather’s onetime executive producer, comes in for particularly rough treatment: the author portrays him as a once-worthy journalist who betrayed his professional values and independence (and, not coincidentally, Rather) to become a corporate toady, continually caving in to the business and political interests of network chief Leslie Moonves and Moonves’s boss, Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone. Moonves hardly fares better. “I just wish I’d remembered that he’d started his career as an actor,” Rather writes.
He depicts Jeff Fager, the current head of CBS News as well as executive producer of 60 Minutes (the successful Sunday program where Rather had thrived as a ratings magnet and superstar in the 1970s, only to falter upon his return, damaged and depressed at age 74), as a talented journalist and deft political operator who sometimes let his ambition get the better of his principles.
“I probably spent more time writing those sections—chapter, paragraph, line—than anything else in the book,” Rather says. “Because as odd as it may seem—and I grant you it would seem odd, maybe because it is odd—with each and every person who’s going to take offense, with one exception [Redstone], these are people that I know well and have respect for in a lot of ways. They might guffaw after they read the book and say, ‘If he had so much respect, why would he write this?’”
Indeed. Rather knows his audience. While initial reaction at CBS has been muted (neither Moonves nor Fager wished to address Rather’s various claims), there’s been a good deal of tsk-tsking at CBS News over what some former colleagues see as his obsessive, Ahab-like pursuit of his personal white whale. In the end, Rather spent his own money on a quixotic legal action in which he was demanding $70 million in damages from Redstone, Moonves, Heyward, and CBS. By some estimates he has depleted his bank account by $5 million.
“I wish it only cost that,” Rather says. “I won’t tell you [how much], but that’s low ... It was never about the money.”
A close-knit core of Rather loyalists—who believe he was treated shabbily after giving so much of his life to CBS News, including putting himself in harm’s way to cover the civil-rights moment, the Vietnam War, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and other dangerous stories—are quietly applauding his latest whack at the hornet’s nest.
Not so says Heyward, who has worked as a media consultant since retiring from CBS in November 2005 after nine years as news-division president. “What actually happened is thoroughly documented in the independent report commissioned by CBS at the time, and Dan’s conspiracy theories were considered and dismissed by the courts, including the highest court in New York State,” Heyward tells The Daily Beast, referring to Rather’s assertion that Thornburgh was motivated by his loyalty to the Bush family and political bias, and that Rather’s lawsuit was dismissed by a biased appeals court dominated by Republican appointees. “I see no point in rehashing this so many years later,” Heyward adds.
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Couric, whose broadcast received numerous awards during her five years as managing editor and anchor (including a prestigious Alfred I. duPont award and five national Emmys), is irritated by Rather’s claim that Moonves hired her from NBC’s Today show “to anchor a softer Evening News—you might even call it News Lite.” Rather notes in his book that she brought in her own team of staffers, and links her arrival to reduced budgets, a purge of CBS News veterans, diminished foreign and war coverage, plunging ratings, and low morale—a veritable “dismantling” of the news division. Couric’s spokesman, Matthew Hiltzik, fires back: “Katie is very proud of her years working with the award-winning team at CBS News and has great respect for her Evening News predecessors and successor. It's disappointing that Mr Rather would misrepresent so much surrounding Katie’s time at CBS while glossing over the reality that during his tenure as anchor, CBS News went through the deepest budget and personnel cuts in its history, including the firing of 14 on-air correspondents, and a total of 215 employees in one day, on March 6, 1987.”
Rather, who in 2007 accused Couric’s broadcast of “dumbing it down, tarting it up,” is unapologetic. “Katie Couric is entitled to say whatever she wants to say,” he says. “I’m a believer in what your record is. I am what my record is—some of it good, some of it bad, some of it hard to tell. She is what her record is, and I’ll leave it at that.”
Rather has produced, by any measure, an amazing body of work, especially since 2006, when billionaire media and sports mogul Mark Cuban recruited him to produce a weekly news show for HDNet, a pop-culture cable channel that is available in 35 million homes, and gave him a healthy production budget and complete editorial control. “Where in journalism does that happen?” Rather marvels. Although Dan Rather Reports gets a tiny fraction of the viewership he was accustomed to at CBS, it has the polished look of a network magazine show, and has already won two Emmys for outstanding business and economic reporting.
Rather—whose Tuesday-night program exists amid such offerings as Bikini Barbershop and Girls Gone Wild Presents—is an outlier in more ways than one. He is a grizzled, hearing-aid-wearing octogenarian amid a full-time staff of 22 journalists, plus eight freelancers, many of them in their twenties and thirties (a few of them recruits from CBS); they have been producing original hours on a grueling schedule of 42 weeks a year. “I work with a small, young staff,” he says. “They’re so enthusiastic.” He adds: “I think I have some wisdom about the business, which I wanted to share. I also want to share the passion for doing what I do, which I think even my worst detractors would have to give me that. I have a passion for it. Their version would be, ‘Well, yeah, there’s passion, but it’s misdirected.’” He is usually on the road or in the air instead of the office, circumnavigating the globe for reports on everything from public education in Finland to the Catholic Church’s coverup of pedophile priests to China’s expanding influence in the Caribbean.
“It’s just a joy,” Rather says. “When my feet hit the floor in the morning, I can’t wait to get in here. I know that sounds corny.” He adds that in contrast to his last bosses, “Mark Cuban has been unbelievably supportive. I’m not trying to sell you or anybody else anything. I’m at that stage of life where I don’t have to kiss up to anybody.” Cuban returns the favor, telling The Daily Beast: “Dan has been a big part of our expanding our business ... He has a job as long as he wants it.”
Rather, whose skills as a Texas Machiavelli should not be underestimated, has long been among the more complex and compelling personalities on or off television—but he does seem genuinely happy in his work, and perhaps his book is the cathartic release he needed to, once and for all, leave George W. Bush and CBS behind. He insists he’s not bitter, nor grieving.
“I’m well past that. There was a time,” he says. “And grief would be reserved for something like 9/11 or the death of your grandmother.”