Dan Rather immediately stands up and comes around to my side of the table in a downtown Toronto café to pull out the chair for me to sit down. He is courtly, an old-school gentleman from Texas, and as he takes his own seat again, he settles into conversation, comfortable as a man in his favourite armchair.
The celebrated, veteran newsman, who has reported for 60 years on all the big stories, from the civil rights movement in the 1960s to the present-day violence in Syria, is here to talk about his new memoir, Rather Outspoken, My Life in News. The most detailed reporting in the book focuses on how he was “pushed out” of CBS News in 2006 and the subsequent lawsuit he filed against the corporation.
I ask what his new book means to him. The retrospective on the stories he covered over his career feels incidental, and in the context of how his CBS career ended, could be taken as an exercise in sentimental self-regard. In the fall of 2004, during an election year, Mr. Rather had reported a story about incumbent President George W. Bush’s military service record during Vietnam when he was accepted into the Texas Air National Guard. He was forced to later apologize when questions arose about the authenticity of some of the papers used in the investigation, which suggested President Bush, who never saw active duty, had been given preferential treatment.
But Mr. Rather simply smiles and gives a cozy answer about wanting to be a good storyteller. Dressed in a dark, tailored suit, he speaks as though he’s fireside, wearing a grandpa cardigan. “People often say, ‘Dan, what was it like to be there at the Kennedy assassination?’ And I wanted to write about what I have seen and done.”
It’s an evasive answer. There’s a clear sense in the book that he wants vindication. Did he?
“Well, I understand why people might think that,” he says. “It’s quite natural,” he adds with a paternal empathy. He pins me with his blue, trust-me anchorman eyes. “But it isn’t true. I didn’t see it as catharsis or as a need for vindication. I didn’t do it for that. Frankly, I would have preferred not to write about it. ... It’s well behind me now.
It’s hard not to wonder if he is turning the table on the old media trick of spinning the truth; taking control of the story as he wants it told.
His reputation was severely tarnished in what became known as “Rathergate.” Mr. Rather and his award-winning producer at CBS, Mary Mapes, collected evidence that suggested what he called the President’s “dereliction of duty” – including a year in the early seventies during which he went missing from service – and supported the report, in part, with documents purported to be from files from the young Lieutenant Bush’s commanding officer at the time, the late Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Killiam.
The story caused a furor from the right-wing intelligentsia. The legitimacy of the Killiam papers, of which CBS had only faxed copies, were questioned. Some suggested they had been forged. In an investigation, headed up by Richard Thornburgh, a Republican lawyer with close ties to the Bush family, Mr. Rather’s report was faulted for “myopic zeal.” There were forced resignations and firings. Mr. Rather was asked to make an on-air apology, which he did. By 2006, after 44 years at CBS News, 24 of them as anchor and managing editor of the CBS Evening News, he felt that he had been made the scapegoat. Promised he could continue at 60 Minutes, most of his story proposals were rejected.
He launched a lawsuit against CBS, suing for compensatory damages of $20 million (U.S.) and punitive damages in the amount of $50 million. He lost after spending “well in excess of $5 million,” of his own money, he confesses.
“It was never about the money,” Mr. Rather says. “I had already said that whatever money we win we would give to an investigative journalism foundation or to a charity. ...What it was about is that unless you get people in deposition with their hand up to swear the truth and nothing but the truth, unless you get discovery, e-mails and correspondence, I knew there was no way I would find out what really happened.” One discovery in CBS documents showed that a government lobbyist for the parent company, Viacom, was pressuring the head of the news division to retract the story.
The case was dismissed, but if it had gone to court, Mr. Rather says he is confident they would have won. (The story about President Bush has never been proved, but Mr. Rather still maintains its accuracy.)
Did he start the book after he lost the lawsuit? “Interesting question,” he says smoothly. “And here’s the answer. As soon as I lost my job at CBS I was confused, yes, hurt, but it wasn’t so much anger as puzzlement. … Among the things suggested to me was to write a book so I started it, but I didn’t like what I had written, so I set it aside.” Soon after, Mark Cuban, owner of HDNet, approached him to work for the cable program.
His demeanour in person, all calm and benevolent, is in sharp contrast to the aggressive tone of his writing. His anger is palpable, and he never pulls his punches, especially in his treatment of CBS executives.
Mr. Rather is a combination of conflicting parts. On the one hand, he’s an old softie. About Jean, his wife of 55 years, he says, “I can be dumb as a brick wall about a lot of things, but I’m smart enough to know that practically every good and decent thing that I’ve done as an adult is because of her.”
But it’s also clear that he’s not about to go quietly into the night wearing slippers and drinking cocoa. There’s a polished Saturday-night vibe beneath the cozy Sunday-afternoon one he uses as cover. “If I had retired five years ago, I’d be dead by now, and if I retired tomorrow, I wouldn’t be alive for long,” he says at one point. At 80, he is working harder than ever. He’s on a multicity book tour, which is an extracurricular activity to his full-time job, heading up a staff of 22 people, churning out award-winning investigative programs for Dan Rather Reports on HDNet.
He casts himself as a throwback to a more valiant time, as a man of greater nobility, who looks for something greater than himself – truth – and who is willing to spend his own millions in pursuit of it. “You can’t do the kind of work that I have done and come out unscathed,” he says. “You’re going to have scars. The goal is to make as many of those scars as possible from the front, not running from something and taking it in the back.”
Mr. Rather is not about to fall on his sword. He’s holding it high, shining, in his dark suit, with his impeccable manners and anchorman eyes. Whether you believe him is up to you. You’re the audience, and he knows that his worth is all a matter of trust in the news he decides to deliver, even if it’s across a plate of tuna carpaccio.