Old Dog Does Hunt

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.

You cannot spend more than a few minutes with Dan Rather without hearing what some who know him call Ratherisms. If he needs research, he says “Homework time here in the village!” When thirsty, he drawls, “Cold buttermilk, please!” and waits for a Diet Coke. Should he find himself too busy to talk, he explains that he is “trying to fit a quart into a pint jar.”

During a lull, Rather tries to discuss other topics. He speaks fondly of Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy, and the Iliad, which he says he is rereading. He starts to talk about a Depression-era boxer named Kid Chocolate. The topic seems to be leading to something; several interruptions fail to break his stride.

See, this Kid Chocolate won 142 fights standing up, Rather says. The man owned Harlem. At this point in the discourse, Rather gets a call from the bureau and, for the next few minutes, carries on a surreal monologue about boxing and Clinton news leaks without segues, talking at me and into the phone at the same time. “Boxing in the Depression was an enormous sport,” he says, using one ear for me and the other for his producer. “Kid Chocolate … Is this someone who has spoken directly to Starr? You consider that double-plated solid? He was an angry fighter but rarely a smart one. We live or die on the information we get, but we have to keep it coming!”

The call ends; at last, Rather can tell his tale. “Fighters always have hangers-on,” he says, “but once the bell rings, they’re all alone. It ain’t boxing. It’s a fight.”

All at once it becomes clear that Rather, with his own boxer’s frame, is talking about himself, offering up a ready-made metaphor for the rough-and-tumble world of TV news. Rather is deft but never subtle. “Great boxers are great illusionists,” he adds, pausing to make his point nice and clear. “It ain’t boxing; it’s a fight. I don’t mean to suggest there are parallels to anchoring.”

The pop icon Dan Rather – the cathode-ray incarnation, not the man – flickered to life in 1961, when he covered Hurricane Carla for a Houston TV station. This was no run-of-the-mill storm piece. Rather stunned his audience by broadcasting, for the first time, live pictures of a vast hurricane on radar. (Tame as that sounds now, the storm covered much of the Gulf of Mexico, and viewers were shocked to watch its progress.) Rather and his crew spent days reporting out of a building where the water level eventually reached the second floor; the fact that every living creature raced for high ground led Walter Cronkite to remark that Rather had ended his coverage “up to his ass in water moccasins,” which was not a complete exaggeration.

To this day, Rather – the son of a ditchdigger nicknamed Rags who was himself a news junkie – owes a debt to that storm, and he has by all evidence retained his fealty to storms in general. The spectacle of Carla drew the attention of CBS brass up in New York and made him a player.

Since 1962, when Rather joined the network as a correspondent, he has left indelible marks on TV-news reporting. Many of these still exist, are still floating around out there, on archived tape. There is the lanky Rather who announced the death of JFK but felt physically sick two days later when CBS missed Oswald’s murder by a matter of seconds; the wide-eyed Rather, white as a lamb, reporting on segregation from the middle of a crowd of angry blacks in the Deep South; the helmeted Rather who flinched under mortar fire in Da Nang. No corner of the world has failed to draw him. From Beijing to Bosnian trenches, Dan Rather has accumulated such a lengthy list of exploits that, whether his motives are grandstanding or Murrow-style reportage (some of which, too, included an element of stage-managed drama), it has ceased to matter.

“Dan is the last of a breed,” says Eric Ober, a former president of CBS News. “He’s a tough, no-bullshit journalist. I’m always astonished to hear people say he’s grandstanding. In Somalia? Nobody takes that sort of risk if they’re acting.”

True, for a man who claims to revile celebrity, Rather has always turned his face to the light – in good times and bad. By the mid-eighties, it seemed, the icon of CBS’s Rushmore had descended into a TV fugue state. A good number of viewers tuned in to see when Rather would finally snap and be led from the anchor chair gibbering about “the terrible spiders.” There was the time in 1987 when, as TV legend has it, he allowed CBS to suffer six minutes of dead air to protest the U.S. Open’s encroachment on his newscast. The year before, he’d been mugged by a man who called him Kenneth and demanded to know “the frequency.” (Despite the widespread notion that the anchorman was lying to cover up some sordid personal problem, he was vindicated eight years later, when the true attacker was apprehended after killing a Today Show employee.)

Rather was the target of special ridicule when, out of the blue, he began signing off his broadcasts with the admonition “Courage.” On an especially peculiar night, after a Bill Moyers report involving Mexicans, he closed with the Spanish translation, “Coraje!” His explanation, that courage was one of his favorite words, didn’t play well even at CBS. “I think my two favorite words are haircut and shoes,” Bob Schieffer was overheard saying. “Which should I sign off my broadcast with? ‘This is Bob Schieffer. Haircut.’ “

But there have been more stinging charges against Rather, bullets fired straight into his credibility as a journalist, and those he cannot abide. During his exclusive coverage of the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, an NBC News executive was quoted in the Washington Post as saying that the only action Rather had seen was a fight between housekeeping and room service in the Inter-Continental Hotel. “He’s just watching Jordanian TV,” said the executive, “and we can do that from here.”

Rather exploded, and accused NBC News executive producer Steve Friedman of resorting to desperate lies, taking the unusual step of publicly naming him. These days, as fate would have it, Friedman runs the CBS-affiliate newscast here in New York and must rely on Rather for promos and goodwill. Friedman has always denied the offending quote.

“If I’d been the source of that comment, I would have admitted it,” Friedman says. “It was clever. I will say this about Rather, and it’s the ultimate compliment: You hate him when he’s on the other team, and you love him when he’s on yours. When I came to Channel 2, he was the first to embrace me. He could have said, ‘Fuck that asshole,’ but he was the first person who sought me out. It’s all a part of TV news. It’s a brawling, ugly business, and you always want to beat the other guy silly. Somebody at NBC did say that – and it was a good line. But it wasn’t me.”

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.

Back in pocket, Rather stares down at the White House. With the Evening News minutes away, standing still in the chaos of the shivering tent, Rather is handed hard copy of his script. Immediately, he begins to shout-edit the copy to the man operating his TelePrompTer.

In rapid-fire revisions, Rather manages to punch up the text while simultaneously making it more cautious. He issues more caveats than any reporter in America. The word if is nearly always explicitly accompanied by “and italicize the word, please!” When he is one millimeter short of certainty, he qualifies a verb or plainly says that he is one millimeter short of certainty.

“Page 15,” he barks to the harried man at the computer. “I don’t like the word sleazy. ‘Illegal.’ No – ‘to look into allegedly illegal fund-raising.’ No – ’accusations of illegal fund-raising.’ “

Don Baer, a wry man who once served as White House director of communications and is now a CBS consultant, has appeared on the roof without being noticed. He has been showing up like this – with mystifying stealth and suddenness – all day, feeding Rather what he knows in general about Clinton and what he has just heard. “Expect to hear words like regret,” he told Rather earlier. “But don’t expect to hear the word sorry.

At nine o’clock, Rather waves a piece of paper triumphantly and walks quickly to his spokeswoman. “This is a clean kill,” he says. “NBC didn’t get it, and ABC is into football, so it’s an absolute clean kill.” Such is Rather’s obsession with factuality – with the nailing-down of a fact, for certain, first. Never mind that the “kill” is something everyone already expects. The paper reads: “The president will offer some sort of apology and explanation to the American people about the true nature of his relationship with Monica Lewinsky.” This scrap wouldn’t surprise a 6-year-old child, but Rather sees it as something only CBS really owns. The other networks have traded in assumption, and that is not an item on Rather’s shelves.

There are plenty of clean kills on Dan Rather’s slate, and if pressed, he recalls several in the present tense, as if a part of his mind is still reading them into a mike. “We’re twenty minutes ahead on the death of JFK,” he says. “Other kills: Nixon has phlebitis; Kissinger will be secretary of State; Saddam Hussein is rounding up foreigners to be human shields; Medgar Evers has been assassinated.”

On monitors atop the roof, Clinton’s apology address – the jaundiced granddaddy of all the rest – looks just as you remember it: a jumble of spooky lighting, tension, and political miscalculation. Rather alone declines to watch it live. He glances up occasionally while consulting notes. It’s his belief that viewers, too, will listen to it first, then pick it apart visually upon a second viewing. That’s why CBS has decided to air it on the half-hour – to give viewers the same Ratheresque approach.

Night wraps up the big show. Rather is completely wired by now; though the creases in his brow are a bit deeper, he seems tempted to broadcast another few hours with or without cameras. Don Baer has a case of the darks, and is buoyed only by the fact that Rather has lost a bet to him. The anchor has wagered that no Clinton speech, about anything on God’s green earth, would ever run shorter than ten minutes. “Yep,” Rather admits, “I owe you a steak.”

Two ugly weeks have passed. By sheer coincidence, it’s another newsworthy night: the night Mark McGwire will break Roger Maris’s home-run record. Rather is for once sitting down in his West 57th Street office. If McGwire hits the homer, the anchorman will be poised to do a special report and, with luck, register another clean kill.

Rather’s office, with its ancient gray Royal typewriter and photo of Ed Murrow, still bears the dust of a three-network world. On a coatrack near the door of the office, there’s an Army jacket he wore in Vietnam, adjacent to the “Gunga Dan” garb he used as a disguise in Afghanistan. A collection of essays by E. B. White is casually tossed on a table; above the desk is Guizot’s six-volume History of France and a well-abused New Fisherman’s Encyclopedia.

The most out-of-place item in the room is an abstract black-and-white painting done by Rather’s wife, Jean. The newsman insists that it represents “fishing,” as if he aspires one day to pick it apart and assign a factual value to every line and curve. As a reassuring counterpoint to this difficult piece, Rather has a Steven Skollar painting called Airplane, which does indeed depict a big green airplane.

Hearing that he is “hip” (more accurately, that his numbers are up) is pleasing to Rather. “I have no good explanation for it,” he says. “What I suspect – and hope is father to suspicion – is this: The hard-news mantra has attracted some of those new viewers to give our broadcast a look, then a second look.

“I’ve been hot and I’ve been cold,” he adds. “We want to stand out in the marketplace, and one of the ways we can do that is by being good reporters – by separating the brass tacks from the bullshit. To pull no punches, play no favorites. Some newspeople want to stand out with smart-aleck remarks or a constant line of chatter. That’s not us.”

Despite the fact that we’re on the brink of Mark McGwire’s moment, the Clinton story is impossible to avoid. I ask him, with all he knows of this century, what this story means. Rather closes an eye – I am keenly assessing your question and measuring my response – and begins to answer. “As of this day,” he confides, “it’s big. It’s big. There can be no doubt he’s fighting to remain in office, which makes it the best story in the world.”

Few journos admit to liking this story. Broadcasters in particular have been fulsome in their protestations of regret, have shaken their heads in disgust at how their ratings have skyrocketed over the past eight months. “The dynamic changed,” he continues at length, “when Lewinsky changed attorneys… . August 17 was Clinton’s clear chance to confess… . You and I agreed that the apology was too brief and that the tone wasn’t right… . My opinion – clearly labeled – is that January may be the decisive month… .”

But I have not asked for a recap of famous details. What I’m asking is this: In a historical context, what does this story mean, to the culture? After all, Rather has worked at CBS through eight presidents; Lyndon Johnson used to call him and ask, “Rather, are you trying to fuck me?” He has extensive knowledge of Bill Clinton, of both Bill Clintons. He can remember the lengthy interview he did with the president in 1993 that covered Iran, health care, and – with feigned embarrassment on Rather’s part, as if he were putting the president on the spot – the Academy Awards. Surely he knows how quaint that seems today. I try to appeal to his reading of the Greeks: What is the essence of this Clinton saga?

Scattered all over the room, there are barometers and chronometers and other truthometers. Rather blinks through a long and awkward pause; a look of naked despondency crosses his features. His mouth opens, but he stops short. “I’m just not very good at cultural pronouncements,” he says finally. “I’m not a … I’m not a philosophical fellow in that way.”

He is not. Dan Rather is an intensely literal man. That’s his genius and, possibly, the secret of his endurance. He is no man’s fool; in the viper’s nest of CBS, he has always known whose ass to kiss and whose to kick. He can fascinate on nearly any topic you can raise and has season tickets to the Met. But abstraction is of little use to him. It would water the pure wine of his reporting. Facts, to use a Ratherism, are the only fish he has to sell.

Besides, as far as ratings go, philosophers are nowhere these days. Letting Rather sit ramrod-straight in a creaseless suit, instead of forcing him to lean easy in some kind of V-neck sweater, is making everyone at CBS very happy.

I try to let the clouds pass – or, perhaps for Rather’s benefit, let them blow back in – by asking how he would like to be regarded. “Professionally,” he says, “I want to be seen as a reporter with a capital R.

With this, the man brightens. The reporter-with-a-big-R phrase, for all I know, has just been coined; something has pulled him back into his rhythm. “When news breaks out, I want to break in,” he says. “Tall tower, full power!”

Word comes that Mark McGwire is stepping up to the plate. As the athlete hits No. 62, Rather is on the air instantaneously. The CBS report comes only seconds before the competition’s – but it’s a kill all the same. Rather’s eyes, with the blend of deadness and intensity that keeps him on terms with the cool medium he has chosen, narrow cordially. He ad-libs the facts, each of which is clear and true. He smiles at the camera until it is through with him, then reaches for the wires on his body and reluctantly pulls himself free.

Old Dog Does Hunt