Booted from a chair that never really fit

Special to The Times

I'VE never quite understood all the fuss over Dan Rather, who was always a solid reporter but an embarrassing anchorman who never should have been. After almost 25 years in the anchor chair at CBS News, he still looked every night as though he had just taken over the job the day before -- or had been forced into it, staring into the camera like a terrified weekend news rookie. He never seemed at ease, unlike his silky rivals Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw.

Very much at home in a hurricane or in the trenches (where his tendency to showboat had its own problems), as anchorman Rather always had that slightly dazed "What am I doing here?" look, despite all his efforts to appear in command. He was never convincing; his rugged reporter's demeanor failed to transfer to a desk job.

For all those years, Rather was just the wrong man for the post, almost as if he'd been stuffed into a suit and tie when he really longed to be wrapped in a burqa or lashed to a lamppost, as he was in clips rerun yet again during CBS' farewell on the evening newscast this spring -- a macho legacy, much spoofed, that at the end was all he had left of his battered reputation.

And Rather was spoiling for a fight even in his noisy departure. He went out the door kicking and screaming, much as he'd entered, blasting CBS for not giving him more assignments on "60 Minutes" than the eight stories he'd had since leaving the anchor desk. It would've been plenty of work for most TV reporters, but Rather's swaggering ego refused to go quietly. He whined that the right stories had not been prominently enough promoted and were fewer than other "60 Minutes" correspondents had been given. That was Rather's feisty last word, not that far removed from his famous wisecrack to President Nixon at a press conference when Nixon kidded Rather after a tough question, "Are you running for something?" and Rather shot back, "No, Mr. President, are you?"

That was definitive Rather, but his two-fisted Texas manner made him ill-suited for anchorman duties, where viewers like a cool father figure behind the desk, not a guy who was always bucking to be the next Mike Wallace but somehow never got the needed traction. Instead, he was forever chafing in his anchorman seat, as miscast in the role as Wallace himself might have been, or Geraldo Rivera, whom he more closely resembled than his unruffled, genteel predecessor, Walter Cronkite.

"CBS Evening News' " respectful, even tender, goodbye compared Rather to Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow, another infighter but a much cooler, more suave one. Rather was no Cronkite or Murrow. He was/is a cocky frontline reporter who reveled in getting tossed out of conventions and asserting his cowboy credentials.

To his credit, Rather always came off as more likable -- and credible -- in interviews on talk shows or in speeches that criticized TV news' worst showbiz impulses. But then, ironically, Rather was as theatrical as anything the networks might cook up to grab viewers' attention.

During his long tenure, for reasons I never understood, he was attacked by conservatives as an example of CBS News' presumed liberal bias. He may have been liberal, but I never detected it in his reports. He was surely anti-Nixon (few were not), but conservatives seemed to assume that his tart retort to Nixon revealed his liberal slant. Actually, though, it was just Dan popping off as usual.

Something about Rather seemed to attract weird, negative vibes -- the "Courage" tagline he used for a while, the "Kenneth, what is the frequency?" twilight-zone episode that was never explained, those funky Texas homilies he used on election nights to describe the results coming in, and that time he walked off the set when a tennis match had preempted the newscast, like the temperamental diva he could be.

SHORT of being shoved out of a window, it's hard to conceive of a nastier exit than Rather's departure from CBS News, and it's sad that his career there ended on such a messy note.

Yes, he was partly responsible for that, but he didn't deserve to be hustled out the door after such devoted service at a network he truly loved. That's what must have hurt him most -- being "marginalized" at "60 Minutes." He could have fought his way back to prominence if he had wished. Alas, he helped bring on the end himself.

The fumbled story that finally did him in -- about President George W. Bush's National Guard career, or lack of same -- was horribly handled all the way, from its hurried preparation to Rather's stubborn, Bush-like decision to stick by it despite its obvious problems, to his begrudging apology, to CBS' decision to fire a producer and ask for resignations from several senior staffers, all of whom should have vetted such an obviously explosive story with hazmat gloves. The program's hunger to rush it on the air made everyone look inept; they needed another month to check it out further.

The sloppy handling of the story also pointed out the built-in flaws in "60 Minutes' " system of bringing in the star correspondent after a piece has been prepared rather than keeping him involved from the start, when Rather might have noticed the soft spots in the story -- the disputed documents and those so-called handwriting experts (always a red flag to anyone who recalls the famed faked Hitler diaries; handwriting experts are but a notch above palm readers, or so they should be seen in the news business).

Network news has a habit of humiliating its stars -- witness CBS' cold shoulder to Cronkite when he left (too early, as he now concedes) after the network's promise to let him anchor special stories was quickly forgotten. Cronkite complained loudly that he too had been nudged aside. Wallace seems to have (so far) negotiated a clean getaway with his dignity intact, as did Brokaw, who had the good news sense to get offstage before NBC could escort him out of town; Peter Jennings left a hero but, as someone once said, a premature death is always a good career move.

One senses that we haven't heard nearly the last of Rather, even at 74, when he should be entertaining offers from journalism schools and think tanks. He has too much gas left in the tank (as he might put it) and needs to recover his reputation somehow, and he clearly refuses to be sidelined. He loves the news and loves being in the middle of it, even if lately the news hasn't always loved him.

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Nachman wrote "Seriously Funny: The Rebel Comedians of the 1950s and 1960s" and "Raised on Radio."

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