If he weren’t famous, he’d be mistaken for a veteran of a long-ago war: khaki safari shirt on his back, scuffed combat boots on his feet, that wiry crest of a brow, rheumy eyes under heavy lids, lower lip jutting out like an ornery fish resisting a hook.
When Dan Rather sits on a bench in Central Park to tell how his 44-year career at CBS News ended in ignominy and humiliation, he is in fact still waging a war, a bitter and personal one. And the memories of the battles that undid him are still fresh on his mind. “Monday morning, about 8:49—and I think that is the time precisely,” he says. He’s recalling January 10, 2005, when he first received the 224-page report commissioned by CBS that excoriated his infamous 60 Minutes Wednesday segment on President Bush’s National Guard service. Of that report, Rather says, “When I read through it, all I could say to myself, on each page, is, ‘What bullshit. What pure, unadulterated bullshit this whole thing is. What a setup. What a fix.’ ” He nearly spits the word fix.
Three years later, Rather cannot forget. He’s suing CBS and its former parent company Viacom—along with Viacom’s chairman, Sumner Redstone; CBS chief Leslie Moonves; and former CBS News president Andrew Heyward—for $70 million. The core of Rather’s lawsuit is a mundane contract dispute over whether he received the airtime he was promised in his final year on CBS. But like Rather himself, it’s charged with hurricane-force drama, draped in a larger tale of conspiracy and corruption. He hopes that depositions and subpoenas can complete the unfinished business of “Rathergate,” proving not only that he was right all along, that his National Guard story was accurate, but also that CBS buried him so Sumner Redstone could shield Viacom’s corporate interests in Washington from White House blowback. “My opinion,” says Rather, “is that Redstone is the heavy in this.”
This is Dan Rather’s last big story, his crusade to save his reputation as one of the late-twentieth century’s great TV newsmen. “Look, I don’t want to be some Don Quixote out here tilting at windmills, without even a Sancho,” says Rather. “I think when people hear what I was told and what I was not told by CBS executives concerning the Guard story, that they’ll understand.”
But with much unproved, Rather’s claims have left him standing alone. CBS has already fired back, motioning to dismiss his case and calling his allegations “bizarre” and “far-fetched,” his motives purely ego-driven. In launching his attack, Rather risks what’s left of his credibility: If the case makes it to trial, it could uncap the biggest media scandal ever told—or reveal Rather to be the crumpled icon of a fading era, courting madness in the twilight of public life.
It was only three years ago that Rather reported the story that would cost him his career, but the world was a very different place back then. It’s easy to forget now, when prosecuting Bush in the press has become commonplace, that in the lead-up to the 2004 election, much of the mainstream media was in a defensive crouch. “This administration was hammering people for much less controversial stuff,” says a veteran TV news producer. “When they were at the height of their power, post-9/11, they would call about anything, yell about anything, pressure people about anything.” And it seemed to be working. Rather claims CBS dragged its feet on his scoop on Abu Ghraib prison abuse, which ran only after the network learned it was about to be beaten by The New Yorker. (CBS says it held the story because it wasn’t ready.)
With conservative groups attacking Senator John Kerry’s record as a Vietnam War veteran, Bush’s own service was vulnerable, and Rather and his producer Mary Mapes went after it. In the summer of 2004, Mapes obtained four memos purportedly written by Bush’s former commanding officer in the National Guard, the late Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Killian, expressing discomfort at having to “sugarcoat” Bush’s record. There had been questions about whether Bush had completed his required Guard duty as early as 2000, but no one had come up with definitive proof that he hadn’t. The Killian documents appeared to be the smoking gun. With USA Today on its heels, CBS felt it had to rush the story on the air—some say the heaviest pressure came directly from Rather. Rather says he repeatedly asked Mapes if the memos were authentic, telling everyone the story was “thermonuclear.” When Mapes said they were real, that was good enough for him. The afternoon before the broadcast, CBS News showed the documents to White House spokesman Dan Bartlett, who didn’t deny their veracity but instead argued that they actually supported elements of Bush’s own version of events.