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Catching a Glimpse of the Real Dan Rather

<i> The Hartford Courant</i>

The real Dan Rather is in there somewhere. If you work at it, you can catch an occasional glimpse of him.

On this recent summer morning, as Rather sits down for an interview in his office overlooking the set of “The CBS Evening News,” all outward appearances suggest he is relaxed, open, unguarded. His jacket is off, and suspenders stretch easily over the 57-year-old anchor’s square frame.

But the casual attitude does not seem to fit the man whose intense gaze suggests quite the opposite.

While the room around him is warm with the tones of rich wood, Rather is crisp and cool in a blue shirt and tie, not a crease out of line. He speaks earnestly but always in deliberate, for-your-ears-only tones. His gestures are few and simple--close to the vest.

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Many of Rather’s pronouncements are filled with polite qualifiers, punctuated by a sometimes disarming sense of justice and fairness.

Not long after a two-hour interview has begun, Rather says, “I do not think you can fool people for very long on television about the essence of yourself.”

Yet few people know him well enough to understand, as one friend and former CBS colleague says, that “Dan Rather is infinitely more comfortable in a pickup truck on an unpaved highway than he is in a taxicab going down Fifth Avenue.”

And although Rather, unlike many people of position, is visibly uncomfortable talking about notions of power, he is unquestionably, terminally serious about being front and center at CBS News. “If you want to know who’s responsible for this broadcast,” says Rather, managing editor of “The CBS Evening News,” “you’re looking at him.”

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These days he should be happy, even euphoric, on a newsman’s high. He received a mountain of praise following his on-the-spot coverage of the student protests in China. (Though he says the network news competition is stiffer than ever, “The CBS Evening News” was still No. 1 in the ratings for the 1988-89 season.) And, as if to genuflect to his latest coup, TV Guide recently declared in a list of this year’s TV ins and outs that “Dan Rather-bashing” is out.

This year has been a reaffirmation of what, in fact, Rather does best: reporting. It defines Dan Rather. It also has focused attention on the Dan Rather whom Rather likes to talk about: the “honest broker of information,” the proud standard-bearer of CBS News.

He will put it in the most basic, Joe Friday kind of terms again and again.

“I’m a reporter,” he says simply.

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“I don’t consider myself a particularly philosophical person,” Rather explains, “but nearly every person at some stage asks what one would consider to be ‘the big questions: Who am I? What am I? What do I want to do with my life?”

Born in Wharton, Tex., “a remote place apart,” Rather, whose father was a ditch digger and mother a waitress, realized early on what he wanted to do with his life.

“I wanted to be a reporter,” he says. “I never considered doing anything else, being anything else.”

And in his more than 25 years with CBS, Rather tenaciously has pursued that craft. He covered the civil-rights movement in the South, the assassination of President Kennedy, and, after he already had signed a multimillion-dollar contract to succeed Walter Cronkite, he went behind the lines in the war in Afghanistan. So it is no accident that each evening he begins his national news broadcast with the words, “Dan Rather reporting.”

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But then there is the other Dan Rather, the one so many people write about; the one who sometimes gets into trouble. He is the Dan Rather who was slugged by a security guard on the floor of the 1968 Democratic Convention in front of a national audience.

He is the newsman who went toe-to-toe with Richard Nixon during Watergate; the one who prompted right-wingers to dream of buying CBS so they could become “Dan Rather’s boss.” He is the guy who, some believe, George Bush duped into an on-air confrontation so Bush could rid himself of a wimp image; the one who found himself on the wrong end of an angry cabbie’s ride; and the one who was confronted by a Park Avenue attacker.

Why, one wonders, does Rather, who once called himself “the most hated White House correspondent,” find himself on the receiving end of so much ill will and bad press?

“From the public-person aspect of it,” Rather says, his job “has all the dangers that it does for any craft or profession. It means, among other things, that you are constantly inhaling very powerful ego fuel. This is injurious to your health.”

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Sometimes that fuel sets off an explosion, such as in September 1987, when he walked off the CBS set in Miami and left the network in precedent-setting darkness for seven minutes.

Many of his difficulties with the press undoubtedly started March 9, 1981, when he dared to follow Cronkite, the “most trusted man in America,” as anchor of “The CBS Evening News.” Rather’s life has been further complicated by turmoil, cutbacks and strikes at CBS and a string of tell-all books from insiders and outsiders about the institution and his own enigmatic personality. In interviews, friends and colleagues offered what insights they could about Rather.

CBS News President David Burke has a fairly simple theory about Rather:

“Some people are lightning rods for attention, and people tend to polarize around them. It’s either ‘I like him a lot, or I don’t like him a lot.’ The common denominator of all of that usually is the person’s success.”

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Andy Rooney, resident curmudgeon and commentator on CBS News’ “60 Minutes,” says: “One rule of life is that the same things happen to the same people over and over again, and it’s because of the way we are. We can’t get away from the way we are.”

So who is Dan Rather?

Don’t ask Rooney, who admits: “I don’t know him very well at all. I have seen him a thousand times, talked to him, done all sorts of things with him but don’t think I know him.”

Yet, Rooney adds, “He’s very friendly. He’s one of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. At first you think it’s a pose and that he’s faking it. But the fact of the matter is he is a naturally gracious, polite person.”

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Once in a great while, however, Rather will relinquish his grip on his privacy. In a rare, unexpected moment during the interview, for example, Rather--who has just picked up a phone call from his daughter, Robin (he has a son, Danjack, as well)--starts to talk about his family. He speaks uncharacteristically without hesitation, explanation, qualifications.

He tenderly recalls the year he spent away from his children and his wife of 32 years, Jean, when he covered the war in Vietnam and how, in retrospect, he has the hope that it brought his children closer because “they were in it together.” He remembers, too, in warm, vivid detail, a brief trip the family took to Scotland that year and what it meant to them as a family.

Rather chalks up some of his problems to “the nature of being at or near the top. There are always going to be those things that people don’t understand . . . . Sometimes I think people get misconceptions of who I am, what I am, some misunderstanding from the things they read.”

That is OK with him.

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“I don’t see myself as having anything to prove to myself, to anybody else, not anymore,” he says. “I’ve got to be myself. And I said coming in here, my job is to be a good Dan Rather. Now, on that, I’m still working.”


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