It’s fitting that Dan Rather is best known for bringing to the world a piece of fake news about George W. Bush’s Air National Guard service in Texas, because that’s where he began his career in shoddy journalism. The bungling goes all the way back to 1963 Dallas. His presence there on the day President Kennedy was assassinated helped create the legend of Dan, but he actually blew the story that made his name.
Rather had heard from a priest that the president was dead, but knew that wasn’t a strong enough source to back up such a huge story, so he didn’t pass along the tip to his superiors while he tried to shore up the rumor. According to Alan Weisman’s biography Lone Star: The Extraordinary Life and Times of Dan Rather, Rather became confused about who he was talking to on the phone. Thinking he was speaking to a fellow reporter on the ground, Eddie Barker, who was elsewhere in Dallas, he was actually on the line with the CBS News control room in New York: “Did you say, ‘dead’? Are you sure, Dan?” said the voice in New York. “Right, dead,” Rather said, still thinking he was talking to Barker. So, to Rather’s horror, CBS radio blasted the news out to the world. “Rather said he began shouting into the phone that he had not authorized any such bulletin,” Weisman wrote. “Accurately or not, Rather was credited with being the first to report the death of the president.”
Dan Rather was never much of a journalist. What he excelled at was playing one on TV. His latest performance has the hacks thrilled: In recent days he’s gotten the People magazine treatment from People, and again from Politico, which heralded, two weeks after Easter, “Dan Rather’s Second Coming.” So Rather is much like Jesus Christ, except instead of being crucified for our sins he was crucified for his own, albeit with said crucifixion amounting to being separated from his position as the Ron Burgundy of CBS and forced to seek refuge in low-rated cable. Behold, he is risen . . . on something called “The Big Interview” on AXS TV, which is one step up from Wayne’s World on public-access TV. Dan’s next episode features a chat with Sheryl Crow. Recent guests include Billy Gibbons (of ZZ Top), Crystal Gayle, and Kid Rock.
If Rather is barely a working broadcaster anymore, Rather’s fans at Peoplitico cite his popularity on Facebook, where he has 2 million Likes. His feed News and Guts has over a million of its own. His personal posts are the usual leftist porridge of overreaction, anger, and hysteria about President Trump: “This is an emergency . . . it is gut check time,” Rather wrote on February 24, referring to (remember when this was a thing?) “the barring of respected journalistic outfits from the White House.” (Politico itself now acknowledges that the alleged conflict with the media is a “fake war.”) After Wall Street Journal editor Gerard Baker calmly explained that he was reluctant to label a misstatement by Trump or anyone else a “lie” if he couldn’t show intent to deceive, Daily Kos and other field reps for the perpetually agitated Left thrilled to Rather’s angry Facebook response, “A lie is a lie is a lie.” He ought to know.
The appeal to younger progs seems to work like this: Donald Trump’s presidency is so outrageous that even staid, studiously neutral octogenarian anchorman Dan Rather agrees with us and is publicly losing his spit. It’s cathartic and awesome to witness so much venom spewing out of such a geezer. Rather is the journalistic Bernie Sanders, just as Sanders is the political Larry David. Watching cranky old men go nuts is fun.
This is nothing really new for Rather. Entertaining his audience has always come first and if (as in Dallas) he sometimes mangled a story so badly that he would have been fired if he had been working on a small-market city desk, he always kept his newsman face on. “Rather would go with an item even if he didn’t have it completely nailed down,” wrote Timothy Crouse in his chronicle of campaign reporters, The Boys on the Bus. “If a rumor sounded solid to him . . . he would let it rip. The other White House reporters hated Rather for this. They knew exactly why he got away with it: Being as handsome as a cowboy, Rather was a star at CBS News, and that gave him the clout he needed.” Rather’s big Watergate moment, typically, was simply about Rather: At a press conference, the president asked him, “Are you running for something?” and Rather cheekily if nonsensically replied, “No, Sir, Mr. President, are you?” We’ve grown so used to showboating news blowhards making themselves the center of attention that it’s easy to forget where it began. In Rather’s era, other TV newsmen strove to be self-effacing and bloodless — John Chancellors and Roger Mudds.
Did Rather ever break any news? Sure. He reported, in 1969, that President Nixon was about to fire J. Edgar Hoover. Except Nixon never did fire Hoover, who was still FBI director at his death in 1972. Rather also bungled a story that Nixon was about to fire a top Vietnam official. “Dan had an overwhelming drive and ambition, and at times his ambition overcame his journalistic caution,” Rather’s longtime CBS colleague Bob Pierpoint told Weisman, adding, “He had a more dramatic persona than the others.” (Pierpoint praised Rather’s “mannerism and his delivery.”)
The “dramatic persona” gradually grew ridiculous, as during the 1980 60 Minutes segment that Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales memorably dubbed “Gunga Dan.” Rather, dressed ludicrously in mujahideen-wear, breathlessly told the cameras that he was disregarding his own safety and sneaking into Afghanistan for a segment Shales called “punchy, crunchy, highly dramatic, and essentially uninformative. . . . We knew something about the war against the invading Soviet troops before 60 Minutes, but, and this is important, did we know how the war was affecting Dan Rather?” Shales noted that Rather is seen nervously asking about distant bombing. His interpreter replies, “Nothing to bother us. Don’t worry.” Shales concluded, “It’s hard to decide whether [Edward] Murrow is smiling down approvingly or spinning in his grave.”
Rather’s ‘dramatic persona’ gradually grew ridiculous.
There was always a fine line between Gunga Dan and Diva Dan. When Rather stormed off the CBS Evening News set in a hissy fit in 1987 because he learned that U.S. Open tennis coverage was going to bleed into the news and cost him precious face time, the network was forced into the unprecedented situation of going black for six minutes. Even being fired by CBS after the 2004 debacle in which Rather’s team, in collusion with John Kerry’s campaign, aired unverified documents about George W. Bush’s National Guard service that were almost certainly fake, didn’t teach Rather anything: He still stands by the story.
Vamping for the Politico photo shoot, Rather brought out a costume and props: He wears a trenchcoat and carries a reporter’s notebook, as though he’s ready to pump Kid Rock for sources. The picture brings to mind the 2005 New Yorker profile by Ken Auletta, in which a pathetic Rather, desperate to prove he’s something more than a performer reading scripts, is seen lunging for phones and asking about meetings that took place as usual without him. He’s a daffy, irrelevant figure who, when an outsider came to profile him, “pretended to be more involved in shaping the daily broadcast — barking orders, assigning stories, writing copy — than he actually was.” That’s Dan Rather: fake newsman.
— Kyle Smith is National Review’s critic-at-large.