Rather consulted several lawyers about the prospect of suing; they warned him that it was not only risky to face off against a $26 billion corporation like Viacom; it probably wasn’t worth the public scrutiny. “The likelihood is this will be long and it will be really tough—tougher than you imagine,” he recalls of the advice. “They’ll throw everything in the world at you, and don’t forget they have very deep pockets. They probably know your weakness, which is your family. And they have ways of putting pressure on pretty heavily with that.”
By the spring of this year, preparations for the suit were under way, with Martin Gold, the attorney who negotiated Rather’s acrimonious exit from CBS, interviewing potential witnesses in Texas. Still, Rather hadn’t quite decided to pull the trigger. He would spend summer evenings strolling alone along the tree-lined paths in Central Park, mulling it over in his head. He consulted a tight circle of people, and everyone had a different take on the situation. His wife of 50 years, Jean, told a friend she wished Dan wouldn’t fight this battle; she wanted to begin their life of retirement in Texas. Their two grown children, daughter Robin in Texas and son Danjack, an attorney in Robert Morgenthau’s office, urged him on. His agent didn’t support the lawsuit, not least because it would complicate his business with CBS.
Rather was anguished. “For two years he’s agonized about his reputation and finally said the hell with it,” says his close friend David Buksbaum, a former CBS News producer who accompanied Rather on several of his Central Park walks. “He couldn’t believe the company he bled for for 40 years would do it to him. It’s not about money, it’s not even about ego. It’s about vindication.”
Ultimately, says Rather, “I could not find a sufficient answer to the question of, Why not make a stand? If not now, when? If not you, who?”
Rather’s lawsuit has made him radioactive, even among his allies—many of whom would not speak about him on the record. It has also opened him up to criticism that he held on too long—both to his job and to the story—and, as CBS has stated in its legal rebuttal, that suing is his desperate attempt to return to public significance. Several of his former associates from CBS believe Rather should have bowed out gracefully like NBC’s Tom Brokaw. “He should have gotten out of this place a long time ago,” says a 60 Minutes producer. “He seemed to have no ability to make that choice and cross the line. He just moved the line.”
Rather insists he’s not just clinging to his public profile. “I can say truthfully I’ve never thought of it that way,” he says. “Being on television every day can be egocentric and it can develop an almost egomaniacal quality to it. That’s undeniable. And frankly, if you only do the anchoring work, you’re much more susceptible to that.”
People invariably laugh when you ask them to analyze Rather. Even Rather gives a smile and admits that figuring him out “may be full-time work.” Still, everyone has an opinion. Some of his friends think he’s brave to take on CBS; others see it as a little tragic. “It’s kind of sad that he feels like he has to do this,” says one admirer. “It’s going to zap a lot of his energy.” Morley Safer thinks Rather is suing because he “enjoys being a martyr.” For his detractors, there is also the whiff of insanity that clings to such a quixotic cause. In conversation, Rather doesn’t seem particularly crazy. But the “Crazy Dan” theme—“Gunga Dan,” “Courage,” “What’s the frequency, Kenneth?”—still trails him.
“I’ve been a reporter for 58 years,” says Rather, not terribly happy that I’ve brought it up. “That old saying, as you go through life your friends fall away and your enemies accumulate—when you insist on being independent, sometimes with a capital I, people who are highly partisan politically, on all sides of things, when you don’t report things the way they want you to report it, they call you eccentric or wacky or biased or what have you.
“I’m not proud of this, but I fight back,” says Rather. “That’s just in my id.”