Brian Lowry

Dan Rather

Tom Brokaw looks to be enjoying his emeritus status, producing documentaries and occasionally popping up at NBC. Ted Koppel did yeoman work for Discovery Channel and now contributes to the BBC. Peter Jennings became ill and died, in anchorman terms, with his boots on.

Then there's Dan Rather, the other member of that generation of broadcast journalism stalwarts, whose career was always punctuated by strange and mercurial interludes, including the protracted legal battle with CBS that has become an unfortunate epilogue to his career.

Thinking about Rather always brings to mind an observation about the entertainment business by the agent Pat Faulstich, who was fond of saying that the best job you'll ever have is the one that precedes the one you always wanted.

For Rather, his career apex might actually have come when he was a hard-charging network correspondent, the guy who fearlessly braved hurricanes or getting roughed up while an outraged Walter Cronkite looked on during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Granted, one of his higher-profile assignments -- donning Afghan peasant garb to cover the war there -- earned him the derisive nickname "Gunga Dan," but he repeatedly evidenced an "Anything for the story" mentality.

In 1981, Rather's agent shrewdly pushed to land him "The CBS Evening News," parlaying an offer from then-ABC News prez Roone Arledge into a decision to promote Rather and nudge Cronkite toward retirement six months early. As Arledge recounted it in his autobiography, his assumption was that ABC would win no matter the outcome: Either he'd get Rather -- who was clearly bound for bigger things -- or prod CBS into elbowing the most trusted man in America toward the door.

Once ensconced in the anchor role, though, Rather often seemed ill at ease and proved a lightning rod for controversy. Angry about a sports overrun, he walked off the set, leaving the network with dead air. He was reminded of that incident by then-Vice President George H.W. Bush during a testy interview that saw Rather finally cut Bush off -- an exchange that returned to haunt him, at least in the minds of conservatives, when his piece on Bush's son and his National Guard service arose.

Granted, some of Rather's troubles -- like that weird mugging where his assailant asked, "What's the frequency, Kenneth?" -- were beyond his control. But Rather also conveyed the sense of somebody not entirely comfortable in his skin, from his experiments with different news signoffs ("Courage," he said for awhile) to an affiliate meeting where he pointedly introduced himself to print journalists -- "Dan Rather," followed by firm handshake -- as if nobody recognized him. On election nights, he unleashed peculiar "Dan-isms," spouting Texas homilies like "That dog won't hunt" or "This race is hotter than a Times Square Rolex."

"The CBS Evening News" had been languishing ratings-wise for some time in 2004, when the flap over his "60 Minutes II" report about Bush's National Guard experience unleashed a firestorm. Before then, the assumption was the network was already eager to pass the baton to another (presumably younger) anchor, but hoped Rather would segue into a new role of his own volition -- at "60 Minutes," after all, he'd have been a relatively whippersnapper.

Given his third-place status, Cronkite said when Rather left the network, "it surprised quite a few people at CBS and elsewhere ... that they tolerated his being there for so long."

The Bush report's sloppiness fueled the right's long-simmering hostility toward Rather, and he became a public relations liability. Everyone pretended that the decision to leave was his -- timed to the 24th anniversary of his anchoring tenure -- but it was obvious that was a face-saving maneuver. Rather's subsequent lawsuit at least exposed that truth, but otherwise appears to have only prolonged the ordeal.

Upon leaving CBS, Rather told Texas Monthly, "My hope has always been, for all my flaws and weaknesses, that people will say this: 'He wanted to be a reporter and he is.'"

Rather is indeed a reporter, and a good one. It's the anchor chair that never truly suited him -- and his inability to vacate it gracefully that further clouds his legacy.

Although he can cast about for others to blame, ultimately, that dog won't hunt.






Dan Rather's Spacy Broadcasting Odyssey