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Old Dog Does Hunt

Rather seems less than convinced. When reminded of the incident, he glares and, after an age, says, "You're not gonna get anything on that from me." He then asks where I heard about it and resorts to a sly game that politicians (and journalists) play when they don't want to be quoted. It's an old Mayor Daley trick, actually: Use dull language and let your sentence wander aimlessly. "In today's competitive environment," he begins blandly, "it is important to remember that . . ." The upshot is, Friedman's on the home team now. The two have broken bread, and Rather never mentioned the incident. The high road probably wasn't so rocky: Given Rather's work in the Gulf, nobody at NBC laid a glove on him anyway.

Dan Rather shakes hands with everyone. Standing at elevators, moving through doorways -- always politely waiting for everyone else to cross before him -- he takes a moment to intone his name and let his people know how eager he is to meet them. "Hi -- Dan Rather," he confides, as though the entire phrase were a single, Tibetan-sounding greeting. "Hellodanrather." The handshake bears the imprint of a small-town man, or of a man who clings to a small-town ethic: With fingers spread wide, his palm dives down from chest height, as if he's trying to crush a dove. On a single day in the field, this gesture is repeated scores of times. In the Chamber of Commerce alone, he greets janitors, security guards, and mystified junior personnel from other networks who have come to work their own coverage.

But people on TV have to do a bit of acting to appear as they really are. They have to paradoxically adjust their behavior to make it real, just as Rather must campaign to be accepted as a common man. Actually, Rather has made a strange contribution to this truism. Among TV-industry reporters, there is something called "pulling a Rothenberg," or "the full Rothenberg."

In 1982, CBS's new anchor was visited by Associated Press reporter Fred Rothenberg, who was writing a profile. This Rather, the reporter found, was an absolute dynamo -- overseeing every detail of the broadcast, shouting out orders, and in general behaving as though he'd found himself alone on Iwo Jima and was damn well going to plant that flag. The act reportedly became something CBS producers learned to live with: If there's a reporter or a pretty woman on the premises, a sort of Über-Rather appears.

But nobody much uses the term Rothenberg anymore. There comes a time for any celebrity, after decades of seeking anonymous love, when he or she is no longer really acting. The mask grows into the face: Cary Grant, after all those years of feeling like Archie Leach in drag, becomes Cary Grant. Dan Rather, in his rigid way, has at long last become himself -- has learned to wear his anchorman role, if not like a familiar old suit, then like a pleasantly pressed one.

While Clinton is testifying to the federal grand jury, Rather and his officers bolt back to the Washington bureau to plan the long evening's broadcast. The CBS bureau is scattered with personnel who are all in different stages of their day. Some are frantically hunting for a clip that has risen from the grave and become relevant again; others are killing time by trading banter.

The howler of the afternoon is an item in USA Today, where NBC's Stone Phillips has been quoted as saying that his favorite newscast is Rather's, "because it's clean, no-nonsense." Bob Schieffer, one of the network's last remaining old-school pros, is telling everyone his new joke. "What do you get when you combine Ted Kaczynski and Monica Lewinsky?" he asks, already chortling. "The Unablower!"

As on all historic days, the newsroom is by turns frenetic, bored, and loopy. Rather is standing in a corner talking logistics with Al Ortiz, the broadcast's executive producer. Ward Sloane, a sardonic producer in a yellow shirt, is staring into his computer monitor, resigned that the piece he's working on doesn't have the slightest chance of making tonight's show. Schieffer, in his downtime, is a preternaturally jolly man whose laughter fills the room. "Clinton just had a national-security briefing with Sandy Berger," he says, hooting in amazement that the president would have any other focus prior to testifying. "McCurry said he actually asked questions! I'd love to know what he asked." Sloane falls to his knees, doing a Nixon-and-Kissinger act, and bellows, "Pray with me, Sandy!"

Rather sits down, rolling an unlit cigar in his mouth as he concentrates. (The Starr Report's references to White House humidor Monica Lewinsky are still weeks away, so neither Sloane nor Schieffer leaps on the joke.) As it's mid-afternoon, he and a squadron of other producers hop onto a conference call with New York to set tonight's lineup. In Omagh, there's the aftermath of the worst mass killing in Ulster history to deal with; in Russia, the ruble is having yet another convulsion. Wandering like a lost sheep at the bottom of the list, one story seems ripe for slaughter: Wealthy leisure-time balloonist Steve Fossett has crashed into the sea.

Rather squints one eye to exhibit acumen and resolve; it is one of his most effective tics. "Forgive the inelegant language," he says, looking sternly into space, "but fuck Fossett. That's the most overplayed story of the week. Let the competitors have it."

The call wraps up with a dramatic moment, in which the Man shows his Stuff. Speaking loudly into the phone to Ortiz, who is standing less than three feet away, Rather says, "Al, can we have somebody look over every word of copy? We're handling a lot of hot lead here. Let's do it." He then hangs up without further comment.