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Rather Revealing By: Lloyd Billingsley
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, November 09, 2006

Lone Star: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Dan Rather
By Alan Weisman.
Wiley Publishers, 272 pages, $25.95.

In the movie Network, broadcaster Howard Beal hears a voice telling him that he has been chosen to preach. "Why me?" Beal asks. Responds the voice: "Because you are on television, dummy." A similar logic drives Alan Weisman's recent book, Lone Star: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Dan Rather.

"If he [Dan Rather] mattered enough to be watched by untold millions of people for fifty years, then his story matters enough to be told as fully as possible," writes the author. A longtime producer and writer at CBS, Weisman is concerned that Memogate, the use of a bogus document to question the military service of George W. Bush, will leave Rather known as a dupe, dishonest and unethical, and perhaps deserving of his number 12 ranking in former colleague Bernard Goldberg's 100 People Who Are Screwing Up America.

Dan Rather saw himself quite differently -- as the heir to Edward R. Murrow, CBS's eternally invoked house saint, and "a speaker of truth to power." Rather came up at a time when the lumbering three-legged race of CBS, NBC and ABC was the only game in the media village. Though known as the "Tiffany Network," CBS supposedly held the moral high ground for taking on Joseph McCarthy and the "anticommunist witch hunts."

Rather had a tough act to follow in his pursuit of Murrow’s ghost, but he seems to have been well prepared. In his early days at Texas’ KSAM radio, Rather felt that he had "a kind of television of the mind," and no difficulty "making up an entire game, play by play, all out of my head." Rather's "ability to invent fantasy games" proved a professional asset and he has not been criticized for it. Lone Star confirms, perhaps unintentionally, that television icons also operate in a division of show business. Call it celebrity journalism.

Weisman's narrative confirms Rather’s power struggles for "face time," the film-star salaries (more than Murrow made in a lifetime), and outlandish perks, such as flying an anchorman's favorite shoeshine man from coast to coast. In one vignette, Rather orders a producer to fly across the country for the sole purpose of browbeating him over a late feed. This from the man, as Weisman shows, who was once responsible for six minutes of dead air time.

Here, too, are the jousts with Nixon that helped establish Rather's hard-nosed reputation, not entirely deserved but self-enhanced through The Camera Never Blinks (1977) and The Camera Never Blinks Twice (1994), a pair of doorstops he wrote with the help of Mickey Herskovitz. Rather tried to repeat the Nixon performance with then Vice President George H.W. Bush around the time of Iran-Contra.  After a hostile interview, Bush said "the bastard didn't lay a glove on me" and that Rather was "more of a pussy than Leslie Stahl."

Lone Star also details Rather's adventure in Afghanistan, which got him tagged Gunga Dan. And it includes his bizarre sign-off, with Connie Chung, after an interview with Bill Clinton: "If we could be one-hundredth as great as you and Hillary Rodham Clinton have been in the White House, we'd take it right now and walk away winners." So much for journalistic detachment and speaking the truth to power.

No matter. The Washington bureau of CBS, including Dan Rather, was "the finest collection of broadcast journalists ever assembled," according to Weisman. As for Memogate, Weisman cites correspondent Richard Wagner that Rather believed in producer Mary Mapes and that "he wanted the story to be true." Which didn't make it true, as Rather found out. Three CBS executives were forced to resign, and the story's producer was fired. Many thought Rather should have been fired, too. He was eventually forced to give up his anchorman's chair. But his credibility didn’t suffer.

Cut to the September 2005 Emmy Awards, a tribute to the Big Three of Rather, Tom Brokaw, and Peter Jennings. Alan Alda takes the podium. "They were solid," Alda said. "They illuminated our darkest hours with insight, and they reflected the warm light of our sunniest days. .  . They were a kind of electronic Mount Rushmore on our journalistic landscape. . . the standard of excellence they have left us with – the will to get it right – those things will never go away."

Given the record, that collector's item surpassed anything Paddy Chayevsky put in Network or even Eric Idle's Monty Python award speech praising "a man who has done only more than not anyone." In the end, however, one member of the electronic Mount Rushmore might have gotten it right. "When we don't speak truth to our power," Dan Rather later said at the National Press Club, "that's when the public says 'I don't think much about these guys anymore.'"

So what is Rather's legacy? Weisman points to Rather's many awards, his vast travels, interviews with world leaders and "a body of work that was distinguished by any measure." But he cites others with a different take. "I don't think Dan has a legacy," former producer Richard Cohen told Weisman. "What's Cronkite's legacy? The Most Trusted Man in America? That's a legacy? You sit there and read the prompter for years and you have a legacy? I think we should go to the BBC system of newsreaders and stop all this bullshit about how these people are speaking with authority."

Anchormen, like film stars, will always have their fans. In Lone Star, they will find fascinating information about the 1986 attack on Rather by two men who pummeled the broadcaster, while asking, "Kenneth, what is the frequency?"  They, and we, never got an answer.

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Lloyd Billingsley is the author of From Mainline to Sideline, the Social Witness of the National Council of Churches, and Hollywood Party: How Communism Seduced the American Film Industry in the 1930s and 1940s.

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