In the weeks I spent talking to him, Rather was still hustling like he’d be on the news each night at 6:30 in front of 7 million viewers. His schedule is packed with reporting trips for his current employer, financier Mark Cuban’s tiny cable channel HDNet, taking him to the Arctic Circle one week, California the next. Despite how few viewers can see his program, Dan Rather Reports—only 7 million people subscribe to the entire network—he still carries himself with the hallowed dignity of a Founding Father. His sonorous voice and Yoda-like phrasing (“Widely believed this may not be, but true it is,” he says at one point) now have a spectral force, like the ghost of televised evenings past. At 76, he’s modern enough to use a BlackBerry, but he types the word eye for the first-person pronoun. It’s a strange gesture that makes it difficult not to think of the CBS eye logo, forever embedded in Rather’s identity.
A judge will make a determination about whether to send Rather’s case against his former employer to trial early next year. CBS argues that Rather’s suit was filed after the statute of limitations and is baseless in any case. But Martin Garbus, the lawyer who represented Don Imus in his $30 million suit against CBS (which Rather says was not an inspiration for his suit), believes Rather has a strong-enough case that it will likely get tried. “It’s a good argument,” he says. “This is a bad time to be a corporate defendant and it’s a bad time to be CBS.”
Should Rather win, he says he’ll donate much of the money to the cause of investigative reporting and protecting newsrooms against corporate interference. He’s already written fourteen chapters of a book about the principles at stake, which he hopes to publish in the spring. On the park bench, Rather pulls a notebook from his pocket. “I still carry a reporter’s notebook,” he says. “Old habits die hard.”
He flips through the pages, each filled with longhand script in blue ink. At the top of one page is scrawled: “Why did you do it?” He begins to read. “The court action has at its core the protection of the rights of journalists, not to make them a journalistic private class, but to safeguard the liberties of us all by preserving one of the indispensable elements of responsible government, which is the right to report freely on the conduct of those in authority.”
He pauses and flips the page to a note to self, to “DR”: “I staked on this professionally my all. To some it may be folly, but I believe in it and I believe in its importance.”
He looks up from his pad. He’s inspired now. “Since I believe in it, why can’t I suck it up and speak up for it?” he asks, almost talking to himself. “Look, it may all go to hell in a hack. There are plenty of opportunities for that to happen. I was concerned about having … decider’s remorse. It’s not as if you can make this decision and go back on it.”
But in some ways, the decision was a foregone conclusion. “I’m a story breaker, I’m a storyteller,” he says. He finds several ways to phrase it, each more emphatic than the last. “I was a reporter, not just one who played one on television.”
As the sun lowers in the trees, Rather seems lighter, unburdened. “If I’m about anything at all—and I try to think I am—then it’s getting to the bottom of a story,” says Rather, “and this is, however anybody thinks about it”—he leans forward now, reporter to reporter, conspiratorial, a hint of danger in his eyes—“this is a good story.”