Dan Rather’s Metaphors Anchored in Folksy Truisms

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In high-stress, high-drama situations such as live election coverage, CBS anchor Dan Rather can be counted on to come up with some metaphors that are as unusual as a Bush family Scrabble game or an Al Gore understatement.

So-called “Ratherisms” are a national tradition by now--one that, archaically but winningly, puts the emphasis back on spoken words and takes it away from all of TV’s instant graphics and maps cluttered by blinking lights and spinning text.

Tracking Ratherisms is great sport, partly because for every couple that are as right as Pat Buchanan, there is another that falls flatter than a mountain flapjack.


But these utterances are treated mostly as entertainment. What is never offered is an exploration of the deeper meanings of Rather’s seemingly endless supply of similes, metaphors and barnyard behavioral science, which often summons up an almost forgotten America. People have not recognized a Dan Rather live broadcast for the teaching moment it is.

Here, then--using quotes culled from my own election-night channel surfing and from subsequent news accounts--I present the first, and possibly last, Annotated Dan Rather.

Rather said: “Shakier than cafeteria Jell-O.”

The reference: To the less-than-solid qualities of the now-dated American dessert treat. In specifying “cafeteria Jell-O,” Rather, presumably, suggests that cafeterias might add a little extra water to their Jell-O, making it even shakier than it would be in a home, prepared according to a strict interpretation of package directions. Jell-O, incidentally, is endorsed by Bill Cosby, in recent years a fixture on Rather’s network, CBS.

Rather said: “[Iowa is] tick-tight here.”

The reference: To the blood-sucking habits of the common arachnid known as the tick, an external parasite of birds and mammals. The tick will gorge itself until it becomes so full and taut with its host’s blood that it is in danger of exploding. Rather may also have been referring to the tightness of a tick’s grip on its host, once established. Ticks, incidentally, spread many diseases, including ones associated with a George W. Bush state, Colorado (Rocky Mountain spotted fever), and an Al Gore state, Connecticut (Lyme disease.)

Rather said: A New Jersey Senate candidate “spent money like he had shorted Microsoft.”

The reference: A rather, no pun intended, sophisticated one, to the process of buying a stock “short,” essentially betting that its price will go down. Because Microsoft stock has, historically speaking, gone up, and rapidly so, to try to short Microsoft might require the kind of massive cash outlay that the candidate, Jon Corzine, made (up to $80 million).

Rather said: “If a frog had side pockets, he’d carry a handgun.”

The reference: To the pointlessness of “if” formulations. Where many of Rather’s animal husbandry references are rooted in actual critter behaviors, this one uses the absurd to make its point. Everybody knows that the handgun industry has not yet made a weapon small enough for a frog to carry. This may be the most useful Ratherism of all, worth repeating any time you find yourself stuck in the endless tape-loop of hollow speculation that is the modern all-news channel.


Rather said: “Hotter than a Laredo parking lot”/”It was as hot and squalid as a New York elevator in August.”

The reference: Made separately, to extreme forms of heat he may have encountered in both his native Texas and his longtime home of New York City. Like the Microsoft reference, it’s smarter than it seems. Laredo, according to an Associated Press story, was, in fact, the nation’s hottest city in 1998, with 34 days in the top spot, besting Lake Havasu City, Ariz. And the blacktop of a parking lot, of course, is even hotter still because it absorbs and radiates heat. Most elevators, even in New York, are by now air-conditioned, of course, but Rather is attempting to summon up collective memories of days when they were not. See also: human elevator operators.

Rather said: “When it comes to reporting a race like this, I’m a long-distance runner and an all-day hunter.”

The reference: To two forms of human endeavor that require stamina. Many hunters lose patience with their pursuit of game after several quiet hours in the woods. Many runners can do a great five miles, but quickly fade thereafter. Not me, Rather is boasting, in the R&B; tradition of braggadocio songs such as “Sixty-Minute Man.” The subtext may be that, at age 69, he is signaling he is no more ready to retire than a political partisan on an all-news channel is ready to allow for shades of gray.

A rival anchor said: “If we don’t pay attention to the lessons of the past, we’re condemned to repeat the mistakes of the future.”

The reference: This is an example of what can happen when others try to compete with the master on his own turf. The brand-new and rather vexing aphorism was uttered last Tuesday by NBC’s Tom Brokaw, who seemed to be trying to summon up philosopher George Santayana’s admonition, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Santayana, alas, was mum on “mistakes of the future.”


Rather said: “Are your fingernails starting to sweat?”

The reference: To a biological impossibility. Fingernails do not contain sweat glands. To suggest the impossible is a rhetorical technique known as “hyperbole,” emphasizing the extreme nature of a situation. Another example might be: Is your news anchor melting down? Or: Is your metaphor in flames?

Rather said: “You can’t get a cigarette paper between ‘em.”

The reference: To the popular old practice of rolling one’s own cigarettes, accomplished with loose-leaf tobacco and cigarette papers, gummed on one edge. The papers are, of course, very thin: 393 microns, according to one Web document, and 1.3 mils according to another, which I consider authoritative because its heading is (don’t ask) “Vacuum Pump Repair.” Luckily for CBS Standards & Practices and Rather’s reputation, he did not say, “a rolling paper.”

Rather said: “Cross as a snapping turtle.”

The reference: To the large (reaching 70-plus pounds), greatly feared turtle species Chelydra serpentina, believed to be ill-tempered because of the fierceness of its attacks. In truth, careful psychological profiles of the snapper, as it is colloquially known, have not been successfully completed. But behavioral observation suggests that, provoked, especially when out of the water, it will behave in a manner reminiscent of the pique of an election-night television viewer twice given inaccurate forecasts of a key state’s presidential preference.

Rather said: “This will have the people in Austin standing up like they got stuck with hatpins.”

The reference: Not to any common practice I know of. But it is certainly true that being stuck with a hatpin would make one jump up. Perhaps this is an incident from Rather’s rapscallion Texas youth.

Rather said: “This race is as tight as a too-small bathing suit on a too-hot car ride back from the beach.”


The reference: The anchor, apparently, wears a Speedo.

Rather said: “If we say somebody’s carried a state, you can take it to the bank.”

The reference: To hard currency and the process of depositing money. He is boasting of the prowess of CBS’ polling unit, which he claimed at the outset of Tuesday evening had a track record of being the most accurate. CBS, as it turned out, joined the news-outlet pack in playing push-me, pull-you twice with Florida.

Rather said: “If you’re disgusted with us, frankly, I don’t blame you.”

The reference: No colorful language necessary for this naked apology, although he did try to pass the buck later by saying, “To err is human, but to really foul up requires a computer.”

Rather said: “The Good Book says the race is not always to the swift nor the battle to the strong.”

The reference: To, just as he said, the Bible. In the King James version, Ecclesiastes says, “I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.” Not a bad coda for this election.