The plan seemed obvious to everyone except Rather: Mapes would be blamed, Rather would spend his remaining days doddering around the hallways at CBS (though certainly not producing news stories), and CBS would finally put this mess behind it.
At the time, Rather seemed determined to move on. He refused to cut off his relationship with Mapes, as CBS had requested (“I thought then and I think now that Mary shouldn’t have been fired,” he says), but he agreed to stop discussing the Guard story in public. He didn’t even seem interested in the news, which broke that spring, that a research assistant for Mapes had secretly recorded phone calls with CBS’ private eye, who on tape said he believed the Bush Guard story was “likely true” and speculated that CBS only hired him to prevent Mapes from suing. The day before his last Evening News broadcast, I shared that information with Rather, but the outgoing anchor was reluctant to fan the flames. Now those tapes are part of Rather’s lawsuit, but at the time he said it looked to him like “dots with no lines”—evidence that didn’t prove anything.
But the anger was seething just below the surface. The next night, Rather’s last as anchor of the CBS Evening News, he wore a T-shirt under his suit and tie that read F.E.A.—“Fuck ’em all.”
Rather still had a contract with CBS through November 2006, and as soon as he left the anchor chair, he began looking for stories to do at 60 Minutes. The trouble was that 60 Minutes didn’t want him. At a staff meeting around the time Rather was making the switch, the other correspondents told executive producer Jeff Fager that they didn’t think he was good for the program, that he had damaged the franchise. Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, and 60 Minutes founder Don Hewitt all slagged Rather in the press. “These guys came up behind me to deliver one big blow to the head while I was down,” he says.
The atmosphere at 60 Minutes was poisonous for Rather. Friends say he was deeply depressed. He was often heard to say, “I used to be Dan Rather.”
His main complaint was that he wasn’t getting any airtime. He recalls the big blackboard that listed the correspondents and their assignments: “Over in one little corner, it was in chalk—just about six inches in length and maybe four and a half inches in width—was ‘DR.’ And there was nothing under it.” And when the time came to shoot the group portrait of the primary 60 Minutes correspondents for the fall, Rather says he was left out. “Someone on the outside would say, ‘This is piddling stuff,’ but when you work there, it’s not piddling at all.”
Rather managed to get only three segments on 60 Minutes in 2005, and two of them ran on Christmas and New Year’s—clear attempts, Rather claims, to make him invisible. Lawyers for CBS argue that they were not contractually obligated to put Rather on the air, only to pay him.
But Fager says Rather was actually given an enormous budget and three producers and offered ten segments for the next season. He says Rather simply didn’t produce high-quality material, though he did produce one of the most expensive segments, flying his crew to North Korea. “It’s a meritocracy,” says Fager. “We don’t air stories because you did them,” referring to Rather.
Rather felt betrayed by Fager, who was a longtime friend and a former executive producer on the Evening News. Fager wore a Rolex Rather gave him featuring the anchorman’s signature hurricane logo on the back of the dial. “I took Jeff out of obscurity,” Rather says. (Fager denies that Rather was responsible for his rise in the company: “I did as much for him as he did for me.”)
The next summer, Rather was told his career at CBS News was effectively over. He was offered an office and a secretary but no airtime. Though he was still owed one documentary on his contract, CBS turned it into a one-hour program called Dan Rather: A Reporter Remembers.
Two years into Bush’s second term, the discredited National Guard documents were little more than a footnote in the story of the 2004 election—never proved real, never proved fake. But getting squeezed out at CBS had made Rather realize that they were going to follow him to his obituary. The only way out of the predicament, the only way to redeem his reputation, was to finish the story he and Mapes had started. And so, within a month of leaving CBS, Rather set out on a quest to find out what really happened, hiring three investigators to help him prove, once and for all, that the documents were authentic.