When Senator Ted Cruz was caught fleeing to the Ritz-Carlton Cancun during a deadly energy crisis in his home state of Texas, he managed to rankle one of the more imperturbable figures in news media. “There’s an old Texas saying: When the going gets tough, the tough go to Cancun. (No, there is no such saying),” tweeted Dan Rather, adding, “Let’s be fair. Dunking on Ted Cruz is sort of like dunking on a 3-foot rim.”
The veteran newsman took particular umbrage with Cruz’s tropical retreat; after all, Rather is a proud Texan, and first made a name for himself covering 1961’s Hurricane Carla for Houston’s KHOU-TV, helping convince 350,000 people to evacuate quickly and safely. “What reporters do is run toward trouble, not run from trouble,” Rather tells me.
The following year, he moved over to CBS, where he reported on a number of historic events, including the JFK assassination, the Vietnam War, and Watergate. From 1981-2005, he served as anchor of the CBS Evening News—until he was let go after reporting on unauthenticated documents questioning George W. Bush’s supposed draft-dodging service in the Texas Air National Guard. But at 89, Rather is as busy as ever, hosting The Big Interview with Dan Rather on AXS TV (now in its ninth season), penning bestselling books, and launching a Substack called “Steady.” He’s also become quite prolific on social media for an octogenarian, boasting a combined five million followers on Twitter and Facebook, and is the subject of a feature documentary now in production.
When I phone Rather, he’s holed up at his home in Austin, Texas. “It’s kind of a foggy day here in Austin, but we can’t complain,” he says, his voice softer and more fragile with age. “We need the rain, so we hope it rains.”
The Daily Beast spoke with Rather about his career, the state of TV news, and the George W. Bush of it all.
How has the past year and change been for you? And as someone who’s seen quite a bit, how do you place it historically?
First of all, let me say: I’m very much aware of how blessed and lucky we have been, I and my family, to get through this. So many families have suffered so much more than we have, so I’m not here to complain about my personal situation at all, even though we’ve had our difficulties. But it’s been a year in which, quite frankly, I’ve learned more about myself and about my relationships with family and friends than any year I can remember. It’s been an introspective year. Always hard to say when any particular period stands in history, but I’d have to say that I think, five hundred years from now, it will be seen as a transformative time in this sense: right in the middle of attacks on science by some of the most powerful people in the country, including the president of the country, science came through with the development of the vaccine.
We just had Biden’s presidential address last night. I saw your tweet about a napping Ted Cruz where you wrote, “Maybe he was dreaming of Cancun.” I know it’s silly that he did that, but politicians like Cruz making a spectacle of falling asleep during the State of the Union does demonstrate how bizarre and childish the political division in this country has become.
I’ll note—and I don’t mean this in a self-serving way—that I’ve been covering presidential addresses to Congress since 1964, and I’ve lost count of how many I’ve covered. In the substance of the speech, Biden covered a lot of ground, and I think covered a lot of ground effectively. Whether you agree or disagree with the policy outlines he offered, this was a muscular speech in terms of content. In terms of delivery, Joe Biden is not now, nor has he ever been, anything close to a charismatic speaker, or even a very effective public speaker—certainly not along the lines of a John Kennedy, a Ronald Reagan, a Bill Clinton or an Obama. Having said that, he delivered the speech very well, so I think you’d give him an ‘A.’ By any reasonable analysis, certainly compared to what we’ve been through over the last four years, this was a substantial speech.
I mean, what can you say about Ted Cruz? I’m pausing only because I think a lot of attention is paid to him that he doesn’t deserve. He still aspires to be president and there’s no doubt in my mind that he hopes he’ll run for president next time. Such things as his infamous run to Cancun when he was really needed in Texas during the wicked weather we had, where people were suffering and so forth, if I were him, I’d be concerned about what image this projects to people. When the heats on among your constituents you went off to Cancun; when a new president is making an address, you make a spectacle of yourself by either falling asleep or pretending to fall asleep. Perhaps he sees this as road marks on his way to the presidency. We’ll see. There’s no doubt in my mind that we haven’t seen the last of Ted Cruz.
Cruz does seem to be representative of the current state of the Republican Party, which is that it’s the party of opposition. It’s adopted an extreme “us versus them,” “winning at all costs” mentality, no matter who is hurt in the process.
I wrote about this in an essay a few weeks ago on my Substack called “Steady,” and the headline on the essay was “The Party of No.” So, when you ask what I think about the current state of the Republican Party, and particularly as evidenced by the likes of Ted Cruz, we all know that we need two healthy political parties, and it’s dangerous for the country if you have one party that’s dominant for too long. Having said that, with the Republican Party as it’s constituted in the Trump era, it’s “the party of no.” It’s the party that says, “We say ‘no’ to anything and everything that the party proposes.” Ted Cruz is among those who have led the party in this direction, and Ted Cruz is emblematic of where the party is and isn’t at the moment. We know that’s not healthy for the country.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask your thoughts on Matthew McConaughey toying with a run for governor in your state of Texas.
[Laughs] Well, I don’t know what McConaughey was thinking. I’ve met him but can’t say I know him well. There’s been increasing talk of him running for governor of Texas, and I think a lot of it was from when his book came out, since his book has been very successful. But I would be surprised if he decides to run.
Your show The Big Interview is back. You’re still conducting interviews, just launched a Substack. At 89, what’s motivating you to keep plugging away versus, say, a nice little retirement and taking it easy?
I’ve always liked to work. I come from a family of hardworking people—my mother and father liked to work, and their mother and father liked to work. I understand that retirement works for some people—it really fits some people—but as long as I have my health and the ability to work in the field where I’ve spent my entire life professionally, I intend to do it. I just like the work. I feel terrific when I get up in the morning and think, “Well, I have work to do today,” and to feel worthy of the work that I have. If something dire happens in health that can change your mind pretty quickly, but as of today, I feel good and I feel strong, and my attitude is full-throttle forward.
Did the Trump years give you a kick in the butt in that respect, where you thought, hell, I can’t retire with all this going on?
The short answer to it is “yes,” and the long answer to it is also “yes.” If you like covering politics, and you’ve covered politics as long as I have, how could you sit out the Trump campaign of 2016? Not to mention, another motivation was a strong responsibility given how his attacks on the press were widespread, unrelenting, and unlike previous presidents, he didn’t just attack individual journalists or individual journalist institutions, it was a blanket indictment of the press. Who would want to stay on the bench for that? Did I have an extra kick of motivation to stay involved during the Trump years? You bet.
The Capitol riot was a surreal moment—almost like something out of a comic book. I don’t think we’ve come close to wrestling with the gravity of how serious that was.
My hope is that the majority of people will see this for exactly what it was: this was an insurrection and an attempted coup. Keep in mind what was going on inside the Capitol—what this insurrection was designed to do was to prevent the implementation of the people’s choice for president. At that very moment, Congress was certifying the election results—that’s the reason I say that it was an attempted coup. Now, Republicans in general have been trying to do two things. One, they tried to create a “big lie” about what actually happened, and number two, they’ve tried to create an amnesia about what actually happened. As it unfolded, I was thinking to myself: “I never thought I would live to see the day that this would happen in this country I love so much.”
What was the wildest story you’ve ever covered?
Covering the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas on November 22, 1963, was among the most memorable experiences as a journalist I’ve ever had. It was wild in the sense that there was so much unknown, and it happened so suddenly. When we walked into Afghanistan just after the Soviets did in early 1980, having been told we’d never get out alive, that was a really wild, wooly, and yes, dangerous experience. I’d have to put it up there. Covering 9/11? I mean, what a time and what a tragedy that was. For stories that have affected me personally, covering Dr. King in the early days of the civil rights movement, that changed me as a person and a professional.
How did it change you as a person and a professional?
I had grown up in Texas, which had institutionalized racism and was highly segregated. I’m not proud of it, but I had not really thought through what life was like for most people of African American heritage. I also had never really thought through the power of non-violent protest. And having to cover it day by day—things like Ku Klux Klan rallies, the murder of the late Medgar Evers, a really good man who was only trying to organize voters in Mississippi, and listening to Dr. King—all of those things widened me as a person and opened my eyes to a lot of injustices.
You mentioned 9/11, and another Texan, George W. Bush, has been on a book tour recently for his paintings or what have you. I’ve been very embarrassed by how the media has handled George W. Bush on this book tour, because the guy hasn’t been asked a single tough question about Iraq or anything. It’s a whitewashing of his presidency.
Americans have historically given former presidents a certain reverence. It’s the way Americans think of former presidents—the good ones, the bad ones, the in-between ones—so I’m not surprised by the way former President George W. Bush has been handled with the media questions, and as you’ve pointed out, he hasn’t been asked by what many historians consider a strategic mistake of historic proportions in going into Iraq. I don’t think that’s going to change. I think a former president on a book tour isn’t likely to get tough questions and is allowed to go on and on.
But don’t you feel that tradition is bad for journalism? Our job isn’t supposed to be giving a former president PR for his book of paintings, it’s to hold him accountable and challenge him. And when you have someone like Bush, who’s one of the worst presidents we’ve ever had, to have him sit down at places like CBS News and just talk about his paintings and Trump seems like it runs contra to what journalism should represent.
I’m chuffing a bit because, what can I say? I try to subscribe to the idea that there are no bad questions and only bad answers, and yes, if someone is going to submit themselves to an interview for a book and it’s a journalist doing the questioning, you would hope that substantial questions would be asked. Is it bad for journalism when it doesn’t happen? I’ll put it this way: I don’t think it helps our reputation. But if you suspect anyone to ask George W. Bush about the strategic disaster of historic proportions that going into Iraq was, I think you’ll be waiting a long time. I have my own tough, unpleasant history with George W. Bush, so maybe I’m not the person to ask about this.
Do you have any regrets over the way you handled the Killian documents, and do you still believe that George W. Bush avoided the Vietnam War?
It’s not a matter of “believing.” What the story was about was true. It was a fact that George W. Bush got into the National Guard during the Vietnam War because of the influence of his father in order to avoid going to Vietnam. That’s a fact, and that was one major thrust of the story. Then, after he got into the Air National Guard, he did pretty well for a while, and then after that he disappeared. Nobody just disappears from the Armed Forces of the United States, but George W. Bush was allowed to do so. Those were the two points of the story. Now, in support of those two points, among the things that we had in the story were documents. Now, we could spend the rest of the day talking about the documents. To anyone who says, “Well, the documents didn’t prove to be true,” nobody has proved that the documents were not what they purported to be. You asked me if I had regrets, and certainly, every time you don’t do a story perfectly, you always think there’s something you could have done better. Could we have done better on this story? Sure. Were we correct in what the story basically said? We were absolutely correct. An effort by the White House to cloud the situation left it as a controversial story.
There have been theories that those documents were planted by a Karl Rove or other Republican operative and that you all were taken for a ride.
I believed at the time that the documents were what they purported to be, and I’ve continued to believe it since. There are people who believe that the documents were some sort of plant, and I don’t believe that. It’s been many years, and nobody has come forward with even the slightest indication that it’s true.
I wanted to ask you about Fox News. The most popular host on Fox News right now is Tucker Carlson, a frozen food heir who used to wear a bowtie everywhere but is now cosplaying as a populist “man of the people.” He’s been pushing the white nationalist “replacement theory” on his show that immigration is polluting the makeup of America.
Tucker Carlson is now the most popular of the hosts in Fox News primetime, and I remember meeting him at CNN many, many years ago when he was first breaking into big-time television. He’s smart, he’s clever, and what he has done is he’s developed a widespread following by preaching division in the country. Tucker Carlson is following the playbook of Donald Trump by developing an audience through saying that what’s wrong with the country is we’re not divided enough. That’s what he’s doing. There’s no denying that he has a large audience, and he thinks this formula is very successful. Is that good for the country? I don’t think it is. But other people are entitled to their opinion.
I grew up with news anchors like you, Jennings, Brokaw. It seems today like many news anchors are more of the op-ed variety. I’m not saying Tucker Carlson and Rachel Maddow are equivalent by any stretch, but they both host partisan programs on opposite sides of the political spectrum that are laced with sarcasm. That’s very different from your day.
We have to be careful of false equivalence. Maddow is an avowed supporter of the Democratic Party, but I think it’s unfair to equate Maddow with Tucker. Maddow is partisan but makes an effort to deal in facts. Tucker Carlson is openly partisan but far less factual than Maddow. But your overall point, I don’t put any of the cable news anchors in the same category as those doing the evening news on ABC, CBS. You say news anchors have become more op-ed than they were in my day, and I think there’s something to that, but they have been under more sustained attack by the powerful, led by the president himself, and frankly, I think it was inevitable that under that sustained, relentless attack, what kind of journalists would they have been if they just folded and said, “Attack me all you want.” It’s President Trump and much of the Republican Party who have sought to stoke division by continually attacking the press. Should we be surprised when the press decides to defend itself? I do think we have to defend ourselves.
When we talk about your day with you, Jennings, and Brokaw, you did constantly get crap for being third in the ratings among the three, but the other two have since been accused of sexual misconduct. And you’re still out there reporting the news. It seems like you’ve both outlasted them and emerged as the only decent one among them.
I have nothing but deep respect, both personally and professionally, for my friend Tom Brokaw, who is a friend of mine, and for the late Peter Jennings, who was a friend of mine. Both in terms of personal character and professional high standards, I always considered myself very, very lucky that they were my competitors. And we were fiercely competitive—particularly in the early days. But as we competed, we had mutual admiration for one another. And each of them, Tom and Peter, deserve a lot of credit for what they did journalistically, how they did it, and how they conducted themselves.
To be clear though, I think there have been some issues with they way they’ve conducted themselves, given the allegations. And some of the allegations of misconduct regarding these men involve work colleagues, so I don’t think they were conducting themselves in the most professional manner.
OK, so let’s talk about Substack. You just launched one, so how do you feel about the place it’ll occupy in the media? Do you feel it will be competing with traditional media?
First of all, I’m still new to Substack. We’ve been doing it three to four months. I don’t know a great deal about the history or how it came to be, but it was suggested to me by my longtime producer, Elliot Kirschner, as a new platform for independent journalism that reaches a wide audience. I was not aware that there were a lot of big names attached to it. Frankly, I did it as an experiment. I’ve been surprised at how well it has done for us. Whether it’s something that can compete with traditional media or not, I just don’t know.
Have you thought about your legacy? And I know you touched on this briefly earlier, but you’re still plugging away, so do you even see an end in sight to you covering the news?
Well, I like this work and tend to keep on working, so as long as I have my health, and as long as people show any interest, I’ll stay at it. I do like to take each day as it comes. My saying in life is, “Every day is a gift, and you’ve got to make the most of every day.” Truth is, I don’t think too much about legacy. Legacies are going to be what they’re going to be. In the end, you are what your record is, and I hope my record will demonstrate that I gave journalism everything I had. I worked hard. I was passionate about it. Did I make mistakes? Of course I made mistakes, but I gave it everything I had. And sure, I’d like it if somebody said, “He was one of—if not the greatest—television correspondent of his time.” I’m sure I’d like it if somebody said that, but what’s on my mind every day is doing the best work I can do. I hope it’ll keep going for a while.
You’ll always have a hit R.E.M. song about you being attacked on the streets of New York City, which I think is a distinction no one else will ever have.
[Laughs] That’s good that you remembered that! Those guys were really good to me.