Heralded and harassed when he was honored by the Museum of Television & Radio, CBS newsman Dan Rather took it all in stride at a fast-paced gala Monday night.
"Rather has always been one of my heroes," comedian Jay Leno said as he welcomed guests to the dinner at the Beverly Hills Hotel that also recognized "Friends" producers Kevin Bright, David Crane and Marta Kauffman. "I remember him doing one of the first 'sweeps' stories, a strip search at a Catholic girls' school."
Razzing Rather's network, Leno, an NBC-er, joked that would-be presidential assassin John Hinckley Jr. was hoping to catch one of its programs. "One of the first things he wants to do when he gets out of jail is see the CBS Reagan miniseries, because he heard he came off better in it than Reagan did ... now you know what the 'BS' stands for in 'CBS.' "
Showcasing what it does best -- collecting and preserving programming -- the museum used film clips to tell the story of Rather's 40-year career in broadcast journalism. More than 500 guests watched as he waded in waist-deep water to interview a hurricane victim, reported live from a Vietnam battlefield and conducted a one-on-one interview with Saddam Hussein. (Ironically, the museum banned news photographers from the hotel ballroom. "We only allow our staff photographers to shoot inside," a spokeswoman said. So much for journalism.)
Museum Chairman Frank A. Bennack Jr. reminded the crowd that Rather was known as "one of the hardest-working men in broadcast journalism." And CNN talk show host Larry King dubbed his good friend a "consummate reporter."
But "Friends" star Matthew Perry, who was on hand with fellow cast members Lisa Kudrow, Courteney Cox Arquette, Matt LeBlanc and David Schwimmer, used his moment in the spotlight to playfully knock the 72-year old newsman while explaining Jennifer Aniston's absence. "She couldn't be here tonight. She said she refused to be in the same room with a no-talent hack like Dan Rather," he deadpanned. "Actually, she's not feeling well," Perry added.
Rather got a standing ovation when he came onstage to thank the museum for the tribute. "On a personal level, I'm more humbled than honored, because I know how many mistakes I've made, how many times I've failed to be the best I can be," he said. During the cocktail reception, Rather said he could be as "dumb as a fencepost about a lot of things, but at least I'm smart enough to know that this event is not really about me, it's about supporting the museum and about supporting the idea and the ideal of a free and independent press in this country."
In a "movie town," the annual museum gala has begun to make an impact by recognizing the contributions made by television and radio, Bennack said. "L.A. is still a movie town, but more than ever, it's a TV town too. This event celebrates that art and culture."
In his salute to Bright, Crane and Kauffman, Perry praised their "ability to depict the human condition so brilliantly." Working with the team has been "a challenge and an experience I wish upon everyone," he said. "My personal goal is to squeeze them all into one beautiful woman and marry her."