On August 17 -- the day of President Clinton's grand-jury testimony and his now-famous demi-apology -- Dan Rather is standing on a roof across from the White House, wondering whether lightning will force him back to the CBS Washington bureau for an indoor newscast. Atop the Chamber of Commerce, his crew has tossed up an unsure fifteen-foot-square clear-plastic tent on an unsure plywood floor. There are 23 people stepping gingerly through a wire-tangled wilderness of bulky cameras, ten-foot-high klieg lights, computers, and audio equipment. Rain is blowing horizontally with such violence that the tent has shown signs of giving way. During commercial breaks, as America is being prodded to buy Tums and Glade and Quaker Oats, serious men are drilling holes in the floor to keep the water level from rising to the level of the electrical sockets.
"We're gonna lose this!" a tech man shouts as one wall of the tent beats in. Rather emits a strange, high-pitched laugh that sounds nothing like his own voice. Inclement weather seems to delight him, as if his toddler has done something cute. Then his features settle back to their natural gravitas as he cauterizes the moment of levity: "Time to order the ark."
Rather is the only man on the plank who is not making any sudden moves. Onscreen, there is no trace of the downpour or of the giant Labatt's-beer umbrella being held shakily over his head. In fact, the half-light of the storm has bestowed the White House trees in the near distance with a rich and inviting hue. But the illusion of control is never attempted without backup; CBS anchor John Roberts is standing by in New York on the chance that our water level hits flash point. "Guys, I need your word there'll be no electrocution up here," Rather says pleasantly. "Just tell me this is how Murrow started."
Of course, Dan Rather is miles from the start of anything. Now 66, he's been the CBS anchor since 1981. Next year, he will have sat in the chair for as long as Walter Cronkite did. What defies logic is that he's still in the post at all. The CBS Evening News With Dan Rather has been declared dead so many times, and has gone through such punishing years of decline, that his current renaissance is all but unique to television. After an epoch of failing to produce a single top-rated broadcast, Rather has come up aces four times recently. As the other two networks have lost viewers, Rather has gained 1.7 million over the past year -- 650,000 this summer alone. In the prized 25-to-54 demographic, he has increased his audience by a solid 10 percent and moved to within four tenths of a rating point of being on top again. Within a few weeks, CBS will announce that Rather, in addition to continuing his duties as managing editor of the Evening News and the force behind 48 Hours, will take on a central role on 60 Minutes II, which is to be aimed at younger viewers. So it has come to pass: Dan Rather, a man whose apparent folksiness is surpassed only by his apparent lack of irony, is hip. Like swing music and bowling, Dan Rather, it may be demonstrated empirically, is hot.
"All this momentum is, in no small part, due to the fact that they've let Dan be Dan," says Josef Adalian, who covers network television for Variety. "Instead of sweaters and fancy sign-offs, or more serious versions of NBC News Lite, CBS does hard news. Bringing Rather on to 60 Minutes II would be a good move. Gen X doesn't want crap; they want the real thing. Where do you see Tabitha Soren these days?"
Even those who do not like Rather -- those who view him as a craggy ant farm of neuroses -- acknowledge that he is a solid reporter right down to his socks. He is the last of the Murrow tribe: broadcasters who never got by on surface appeal alone, since they started in radio. It's a happy coincidence that Rather has the ruggedness and asteroidproof hair that TV demands. In a world of jumped-up weatherboys and sportscasters who won the cable-news Lotto, Rather carries the weight of the old CBS, where reporters cut their teeth overseas. Correspondents worked on film in those days, and accordingly had 45 minutes to reflect on the script that would accompany their footage. Back then, the story began in the word, not the quip. Rather's high-profile squareness says it all. He is a journalistic pedant, a two-source man in a one-source world.
"Dan Rather, really, is the symbol of CBS," says Leslie Moonves, the network's president and CEO. "His trust factor is remarkable. What's even more amazing is that, in this business, to come out of a decline is practically unheard of. Around here, we say 'Murrow to Cronkite to Rather' like 'Tinker to Evers to Chance.' Those are the icons on our Rushmore."
Perhaps Rather was born too late. He'll never quite be forgiven for not being Walter Cronkite. Even Les Moonves gets downright giddy when Cronkite's name comes up, and Rather falls off the edge of the world. "To this day, when I get a call from Cronkite, I get goose bumps," says Moonves. "He still has an office here!"
Of course, that's all a sign of the times, and no fault of Rather's. Those who experience orgasmic nostalgia at Cronkite's coverage of John Glenn's shuttle flight next month might overlook Rather's longevity simply because he still has the cut and energy of a man twenty years younger. In a sense, Rather took up his reign in a country that was in the process of abolishing its monarchy. Cronkite presided over a unified world of television, handing the mantle to Rather in the very months of CNN's infancy. "Nowadays, with everything from Drudge to MSNBC, no one will ever dominate again," says Variety's Adalian, "but Rather can cut through the clutter by being real."
Out on the roof, the weather's symbolism in this pivotal moment of the Clinton presidency has become ludicrously heavy-handed. It turns brightly sunny, then eerily still, then suddenly there is sun shining through the rain. When Rather at long last confirms that Clinton will give a speech tonight, lightning actually strikes.
During this fifteen-hour day, and after a weekend of cross-country travel for 48 Hours, Rather almost never sits down. When he does remotes, it is his practice to stand with one leg propped on a metal suitcase for balance. Downstairs, in the makeshift CBS News greenroom, he cradles a phone on his shoulder and paces, speaking in low tones to Sources Who Know.