DAN RATHER HAS ALWAYS BEEN STRANGE. But as the veteran CBS Evening News anchor approaches his 73rd birthday this Halloween and the sunset of his career, the lengthening shadows cast by his latest controversy have begun to expose how eccentric, megalomaniacal and devoid of ethics and judgment he for decades has been.
Daniel Irvin Rather was born October 31, 1931, near Houston in Wharton, Texas. Less than two years later his grandfather John Daniel “Dan” Rather, namesake of both baby Dan and his pipeline supervisor father, died of a “self-inflicted gunshot wound.”
In 1953, Rather graduated with a degree in journalism from Sam Houston State Teachers College. He had already been working for Associated Press and then United Press International and a few radio stations as a “stringer” reporting stories that happened in Huntsville north of Houston. But being in college gave Rather a semester-by-semester student deferment from being drafted into the Korean War.
After Rather graduated, “the way he got around being eligible for the draft was he joined a reserve unit – Army reserve,” wrote B.G. Burkett, co-author of the book Stolen Valor. Rather dropped out of the reserves as soon as the Korean War ended in armistice. Whether Rather used journalist or related politician connections to get into the Army reserves, as he would later accuse President George W. Bush of doing in the Texas Air National Guard, is unknown.
Former CBS reporter Bernard Goldberg in his 2002 best-seller Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News described a confrontation with the anchorman: “Rather’s voice started quivering, and he told me how in his young days, he had signed up with the Marines – not once, but twice!”
This was inaccurate. Rather signed up once with the Army reserves and once with the U.S. Marines. Rather, wrote Burkett after studying his military record, “was discharged less than four months later on May 11, 1954 for being medically unfit… He couldn’t do the physical activity.” As a boy, Rather “had suffered from rheumatic fever,” reported veteran UPI journalist Wes Vernon.
Ever since Dan Rather has described himself as a former U.S. Marine, after spending roughly the same amount of time in Marine Corps training before being rejected that now-Senator John F. Kerry spent in Vietnam. “This,” wrote Burkett, “is like a guy who flunks out of Harvard running around saying he went to Harvard.”
Returning to journalism, Rather worked at the Houston Chronicle 1954-55. In 1959 he became a television reporter for KTRK-TV in Houston, then moved to rival KHOU-TV, where by 1962 he had worked his way up to station news director. CBS network executives saw Rather’s dynamic work as a reporter covering Hurricane Carla from Galveston in 1961, and in 1962 he was hired as a correspondent for CBS News. He would, quite by accident as his autobiography described, be the first journalist to report that President John F. Kennedy had died. In 1964 Rather was promoted to cover the White House for CBS.
The loose journalistic ethics that have characterized Rather’s entire career were soon evident. “Rather would go with an item even if he didn’t have it completely nailed down with verifiable facts,” wrote Timothy Crouse in his best-seller about presidential campaign coverage in the Nixon era The Boys on the Bus. “If a rumor sounded solid to him, if he believed in his gut or had gotten it from a man who struck him as honest, he would let it rip. The other White House reporters hated Rather for this. They knew exactly why he got away with it: being handsome as a cowboy, Rather was a star at CBS News, and that gave him the clout he needed. They could quote all his lapses from fact….”
During a 1974 press conference with President Richard Nixon, the president indicated that the next question belonged to an ABC reporter, but Rather butted in: “Thank you, Mr. President. Dan Rather of CBS News. Mr. President…” By now other reporters were jeering Rather’s brazen, unethical behavior, prompting President Nixon to joke: “Are you running for something?” “No, sir, Mr. President,” Rather replied arrogantly, “Are you?”
CBS executives debated whether to fire Rather over the White House incident. But veteran anchorman Walter Cronkite was nearing retirement, and CBS’s attempt to hire NBC’s Tom Brokaw was scrapped after it became public. Rather was the brightest star the “Tiffany network” had to succeed the avuncular Cronkite.
Dan Rather’s first broadcast as the new Anchorman and Managing Editor of the CBS Evening News took place March 9, 1981, weeks after Ronald Reagan had been sworn in as President. The anti-Republican bias in Rather’s own reporting was already widely recognized, but the Texan as Managing Editor of the news now imposed his slant on all newscast reporting, not just his own. Every bad economic story mentioned “Reaganomics,” a label Rather ceased using after economic news turned good. In one surreal report by correspondent Ray Brady, Reagan’s success in ending predecessor President Jimmy Carter’s double-digit inflation was reported as bad news – bad, said Brady and Rather, because with no rise in the cost of living, welfare recipients would get no cost of living increases in their welfare checks.
During the 1988 presidential race Rather, after making much of the alleged Iran-Contra affair, confronted then-Vice President George H.W. Bush. Bush hit back, asking Rather if he wanted viewers to judge his entire journalistic career by a 1987 incident in which, in a fit of pique that a tennis broadcast had delayed his newscast, Rather walked off the set, leaving affiliate stations with six minutes of dead air. “I would have fired him,” said Walter Cronkite of Rather’s petulant, hotheaded, egotistical and unprofessional behavior. “There’s no excuse for it.” Rather has evidenced a personal animus for President Bush and Bush’s son George W. Bush since that confrontation.
As CBS News ratings slid downward, CBS has frantically tried to improve Rather’s image with everything from putting him in sweaters, to teaming him 1993-95 with co-anchor Connie Chung. CBS’s handlers have had the Texan use “folksy” sayings that have come to be known as “Ratherisms,” e.g., “This race is shakier than cafeteria Jello,” or “Governor Bush would probably be as mad as a rained-on rooster.” For a time they had Rather end each broadcast with the word “Courage.” None of these gimmicks have halted the Rather ratings slide, which continues.
Rather is now viewed by many not as a serious journalist but as an American eccentric and pop-culture icon. Since trekking into Afghanistan to report live on the Soviet invasion dressed as a Mujahadeen, Rather has been widely referred to as “Gunga Dan.” After he was assaulted on the street by a man who kept saying “Kenneth, what is the frequency?” this phrase inspired a hit song by the pop group R.E.M. Rather has become a figure for satire and ridicule on Saturday Night Live and elsewhere.
Rather’s leftward bias, as Bernard Goldberg warned, is one reason for the rising average age and declining number of CBS viewers. If it returned to fair and even-handed reporting CBS might win back the trust of viewers, but Rather is apparently unwilling to employ non-liberal producers or reporters.
Dan Rather has almost always deflected questions about his bias and lapses in journalistic ethics by dismissing all who question him as partisans. Sigmund Freud coined a term for this psychological condition – projection – the innate tendency to project one’s own traits onto others, e.g., of a thief to assume that everybody else is a thief. Those who call me a partisan, says Rather, are obviously partisans.
"You have to understand that Dan Rather is Richard Nixon," Goldberg in Bias recounted a colleague telling him. "If he sees you as an enemy even for a second, you're an enemy for life. And like Nixon, Rather must destroy his enemies…[and] has become what he detested."
“Who among us have not lied about somebody?” said Rather to Fox News Channel host Bill O’Reilly regarding the veracity of President Bill Clinton. “I think you can be an honest person and lie about any number of things.”
Rather apparently believes that his longstanding pattern described by Crouse of presenting rumors as fact, or apparently even outright lying and rule-breaking, are entirely acceptable so long as they advance a liberal agenda. One example of this, dubbed “The First Rathergate” by National Review reporter Anne Morse, was a 1988 documentary in which Dan Rather purported to interview Vietnam veterans about atrocities they had committed. It resembled an hour of John Kerry’s 1971 testimony before Congress describing U.S. soldiers as war criminals that instantly became anti-American propaganda for the Soviet Union. But as Morse documented, everything in Dan Rather’s documentary was a lie.
“If we could be one-hundredth as great as you and Hillary Rodham Clinton have been in the White House,” said Rather during an interview with President Clinton, “we’d take it right now and walk away winners.” Such are Dan Rather’s morals and ideals, but note that as a monarch of media he speaks in the royal “we.”
But while he has done nearly-sycophantic interviews with Hillary Clinton, Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein, Rather over the years has demonstrated almost-unrelenting hostility and negative statements regarding Republicans and conservatives. His outright confrontations with Presidents Nixon and George H.W. Bush are examples of this.
Goldberg in his 2003 book Arrogance: Rescuing America from the Media Elite quotes a typical Dan Rather news story: “The new Republican majority in Congress took a big step today on its legislative agenda to demolish or damage government aid programs, many of them designed to help children and the poor.”
“I think Dan is transparently liberal,” Rather’s CBS colleague Andy Rooney told CNN’s Larry King during a 2002 interview. “I always agree with him, too. But I think he should be more careful.”
The current controversy over forged memos and Rather’s attack on the son of his longtime nemesis President George H.W. Bush continues several old Dan Rather patterns of behavior. To understand its context, we should examine some key details.
In 2001 Dan Rather helped the Travis County Democratic Party raise $20,000. “Please join us for an evening with DAN RATHER” read the invitations that, as Brent Bozell of Media Research Center reported at the time, arrived with “an RSVP envelope asking for $1,000 for the Democratic Party.” Rather later claimed he did not know the event, created by and for his activist, politically-ambitious daughter, was a fundraiser. When asked about it by Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post, Rather said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if “critics” used the incident to call him a closet Democrat. “I’m going to get that criticism,” said Rather, “whether I deserve it or not.”
Rather, according to columnist Liz Smith, also took part in a 1988 fundraiser for Democrat Ann Richards in New York City that “gathered up money in buckets” used in 1990 to elect Richards Governor of Texas. Rather’s comrade Governor Richards lost her bid for re-election to George W. Bush.
Travis County, Texas includes the liberal capital city Austin. The county party for which Rather appeared at that 2001 fundraiser is heavily connected with local Democratic money man and lobbyist Ben Barnes, the third biggest fundraiser for Democrats in the United States. Barnes appeared on the same “60 Minutes II” feature in which Rather first displayed his apparently-forged documents. Barnes claimed in that interview to have used political influence to get a young George W. Bush into the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War, a claim Barnes’ own daughter has said her father told her was a lie. Rather, in introducing Barnes, told the CBS audience nothing about the shipwreck of Barnes’ political career amid a bribery and stock fraud scandal, nor that Barnes stood to become very wealthy as a toll-collecting “gatekeeper” for White House favors if John F. Kerry were elected President. This column on September 8 did, documenting Barnes’ sordid and sticky-fingered past. Barnes has raised at least $500,000 in campaign contributions for Kerry.
These apparently-forged memos were sent to CBS, according to the Washington Post, from Abilene, Texas. The suspected faxer Bill Burkett is represented by lawyer David Van Os, former chairman of the Travis County Democratic Party. Burkett has been a Democratic Party activist in Travis County, and has said that he gave his information to John Kerry’s presidential campaign via Kerry spokesman former Georgia Senator Max Cleland.
It seems likely that Barnes and Van Os both attended the Dan Rather fundraiser for this county party in which both remain major players and spoke with Rather there.
Dan Rather’s story, based on apparently-forged documents, could have caused the defeat of President George W. Bush in November’s election. Because Mr. Rather seems always to have regarded himself as having the moral right to topple elected presidents and thereby put others more to his liberal liking in power, he as an un-elected ruler of the national media ought to face the same kind of scrutiny he applies to others.
What if a document from Dan Rather’s past revealed information that suggests he engaged in criminal behavior, violated the ethical standards of journalism, and engaged in activities so reckless, irresponsible and self-destructive that they could be impairing his judgment today? Is Dan Rather man enough to answer the hard questions about this genuine document that he has demanded President Bush answer about Rather’s fake documents?
This Rather-incriminating document, in fact, exists. My column here at FrontPage Magazine laid it out in detail five years ago, and also framed a set of precise questions for Dan Rather to answer. The irony, of course, is that if Dan Rather were interviewing a Republican President named Dan Rather, these are exactly the kinds of questions to which a reporter with his skill and determination would demand answers.
Twenty-four years ago Dan Rather gave a remarkable interview to journalist Cliff Jahr. It appeared in, of all places, the July 1980 issue of that news-breaking national magazine Ladies' Home Journal under the title "Soft Side of a Tough Anchorman." You can find it at any large public library. In it, asked about his children in a era of widespread drug use, Rather is quoted by Jahr: "I told them … if you're hell-bent to try pot, and I suspect you will be, then try it at home around people who care about you."
When Jahr asked if the anchorman himself had smoked marijuana, Dan Rather in part replied: "As a reporter—and I don't want to say that that's the only context—I've tried everything. I can say to you with confidence, I know a fair amount about LSD. I've never been a social user of any of these things, but my curiosity has carried me into a lot of interesting areas."
Jahr quotes Dan Rather as continuing: "As an example, in 1955 or '56, I had someone at the Houston police station shoot me with heroin so I could do a story about it. The experience was a special kind of hell. I came out understanding full well how one could be addicted to 'smack,' and quickly. When the children were fairly young, and there was so much emphasis everywhere on drugs, it was not possible for them to tell me I didn't know what I was talking about."
As the CBS Evening News managing editor, Dan Rather would undoubtedly dispatch investigative reporters to Houston to interview every person who knew, or had heard rumors about, Republican candidate Dan Rather's drug experimentation. And he would report every shred of solid (negative) information – or perhaps even rumor – that could be found.
This confession raises some interesting questions that might be posed Sixty Minutes style thus:
Mr. Rather, were you aware that if you had no proper prescription from a licensed doctor authorizing such heroin use that you were committing a felony punishable by long-term imprisonment in Texas—and that whoever helped you would be an accomplice in this felony?
Mr. Rather, when you reportedly told Cliff Jahr 'I know a fair amount about LSD,' how many times have you taken this mind-altering substance? Where? Have you experienced 'flashbacks,' one of the reported long-term aftereffects of using this drug, while preparing or doing a newscast or driving a car? What exactly happened in your mind on that strange day you disappeared from a newscast for six minutes during a tennis match? What other 'interesting areas' involving drugs has your curiosity carried you into? What was the most recent date or year you used illegal drugs?
Mr. Rather, did you tell CBS of your prior drug experimentation when they offered to hire you? If so, please name the CBS officials you informed of your drug use. If not, do you believe CBS should be entitled to fire you in light of learning that you engaged in such reckless felonious lawbreaking behavior?
Mr. Rather, modern research is finding that even a single use of certain powerful mind-altering drugs such as heroin, LSD or amphetamine can create new circuits, permanent new pathways in the brain, and that this is one of the reasons these drugs can quickly become addictive. Have you had any craving to repeat your heroin experiment? Were your perceptions or feelings about life and the world permanently changed in any way by your drug experiences? How has it affected your political view of the world?
Mr. Rather, do you believe that those who turn to CBS News and rely on you to give them and their children clear-headed, reliable information and a role model of responsible professional behavior should be informed of your experimentation with mind-altering illicit drugs?
A top-notch reporter like Dan Rather would not rest until he'd gotten answers to these questions and dozens more from any Republican Presidential candidate who had apparently boasted in a nationally published interview of using marijuana, LSD and heroin.
But the press rarely scrutinizes itself, and as one of the Olympian gods of news Dan Rather will almost certainly remain above press questions that he would face were he a mere mortal or U.S. president.