On Election Night, Rather anchored the network’s coverage, staying on-air until 6:30 a.m. Four hours later, Rather says, he got a call from his agent telling him Moonves wanted him out of the anchor chair right away. He and Moonves had been discussing his retirement, and Rather knew his boss was angling for him to leave in the spring or fall of 2005. But the timing of the decision was suspicious. “This has to do with their relationship with Washington,” he recalls thinking. “If the election had gone another way, it might not have happened at that time.”
Rather’s shock turned to quiet fury. He stalked the offices, barely acknowledging staffers in the hallways. People referred to this mode as “Defcon 4.” “He got progressively, visually angry,” says a former colleague. “You don’t want to be in his eyesight when he’s like that.” His only release was commiserating on the phone late at night with Mary Mapes; he would announce himself as “Dan Rather, plus three”—meaning he’d had three glasses of bourbon.
A few weeks after the election, Rather and his agent met with Moonves to ask that Rather be allowed to stay on at the anchor desk until his 24th anniversary, three months away. Moonves reluctantly agreed, says Rather, and assured him CBS would stick by him. Afterward, Rather asked his agent to leave the room so he could have a private conversation with Moonves. Rather tried to appeal to his sense of justice. “I’m not sure there’s yet an understanding of what’s happening here,” he recalls telling Moonves. “We’ve done a true story, and they’re not denying it because they can’t deny it. And it’s very typical in American politics, whether Republicans or Democrats, what they look for is any place where they think you might be vulnerable and they try to make the conversation about that rather than the truth of the story. So I want to make sure, Mr. Moonves, that you understand.”
Rather describes the meeting as intense. “He listened very carefully,” he recalls. “‘I understand what you’re saying. We’ll get through this, and we’ll get through this together.’”
When his retirement from the anchor chair was announced, Rather went to the press with honeyed words for Moonves. “He actually watches news,” he told me in an interview at the time. “And he’s so sensitive to the CBS News traditions and history.”
When I read that quote back to Rather now, he darkens. “This is the way my mind works, small as it is,” he says. “I settle on something and say, ‘That’s where I stand.’”
Now, of course, he’s settled on something different. “Where I fault myself—and I fault myself on a lot of things—is that for the longest time I just refused to believe what my eyes saw and my ears were hearing.”
The atmosphere at 60 Minutes was poisonous for Rather. Deeply depressed, he was often heard to say, “I used to be Dan Rather.”
When the Thornburgh-Boccardi report landed in January 2005, Rather was spared: The panel concluded that he was not responsible for the failures of the Bush Guard segment (he was off covering a hurricane just before it aired) and that he wasn’t politically motivated; it even acknowledged that Rather “did not fully agree with this decision” to apologize on the air “and still believes that the content of the documents is accurate.” It wasn’t Rather’s proudest moment. All he had done was manage to avoid being the fall guy.
That honor would go to Mary Mapes, of course. Despite the fact that the panel could not determine whether the documents were authentic, Mapes was fired and three others—CBS News senior vice-president Betsy West, 60 Minutes Wednesday executive producer Josh Howard, and Mary Murphy, Howard’s senior producer—were dismissed. Rather blamed Heyward for not saving their colleagues. “I thought we were going to stick together through all this,” he told Heyward. According to Rather, Heyward said, “Dan, we’re so far beyond that it’s not even worth discussing.”