All Dan Rather can do is shake his head.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” utters the grizzled newsman, “and neither has anyone else that’s alive today, because there’s never been anything like it.”
We’re seated across from one another in a Spartan conference room at a posh hotel in Beverly Hills, and the mild-mannered Texan, who served 24 years as anchor of the CBS Evening News, is in town to discuss the film Truth—a chronicle of the events surrounding the controversial 60 Minutes story questioning George W. Bush’s National Guard service during the Vietnam War. After a series of reporting mishaps, including leaning heavily on the dubious Killian documents, Rather (played by Robert Redford) and his longtime 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes (a fiery Cate Blanchett) were out at CBS News, and the American public was none the wiser.
The Dubya ordeal is still a sore point for Rather, but right now, it’s the Republican presidential race that’s left him in a state of shock.
“In most presidential campaigns, candidates say outrageous things—things that aren’t true,” he says. “But for the life of me, I can’t remember a time in my lifetime where there’s been this much of it.” And this is coming from a man who covered the Nixon presidency.
Rather is, of course, referring mainly to the political posturing of one Donald J. Trump. The real estate tycoon, who once fired Gary Busey from The Celebrity Apprentice over a lackluster Omaha Steaks presentation, has effectively hijacked the GOP race, dominating the news with one outrageous proposal after another (the most recent: a ban on all Muslims entering the U.S.).
“We’ve reached a point where the belief runs strong that if you can’t convince people of substance, you blind them with bullshit,” says Rather. “Donald Trump’s reached a point where he really thinks he can win. So every time he goes a little bit down in the polls, he thinks, ‘If I say something really outrageous, then I blanket the airwaves.’ And he does. So, every time his poll numbers get a little soft—for example a few weeks ago in Iowa—boom, he comes out with this Muslim ban.”
The veteran journalist also feels that Trump is playing right into ISIS’s hands.
“I can’t prove this, but I will bet you that Donald Trump’s a little worried, because what he said about Muslims—this is the best thing to happen to ISIS in months from a propaganda standpoint,” says Rather. “They’re trying to convince everyone in Islam that it’s ‘us against Christianity.’ They want to boil it down to that. Now, they can say, ‘Hey, here’s a guy who might be the next president of the United States who’s anti-Muslim.’”He pauses. “Now, I don’t think Donald Trump in his heart of hearts is anti-Muslim. But I have great confidence that the public will eventually see this: This helps ISIS tremendously. And by the way, it also helps Hillary Clinton and the Democrats because in a country such as ours—multiracial, multiethnic, multi-religious—if you’re any ‘other,’ you have to wonder if, OK, today he’s talking about Muslims, but what if the next day he’s talking about Asians? What if the next day he’s talking about Jewish people?”
I try to interject, but Rather is not done. “What do you tell those people in the U.S. military who are of Muslim descent?” he asks. “There are thousands of them, and these guys have their lives on the line. What do you tell them? Donald Trump knows better.”
Rather, who hosts Dan Rather Reports on AXS TV, still seems to have plenty of fire in his belly, decrying the fact that this will be “the first $5 billion election campaign,” and guessing that the Republican nomination for president may not be decided until the convention for the first time since 1948.
“On one level, I hate that this campaign is what it is,” he says, before cracking a grin. “But as a reporter, it’s a hell of a story.”