One late morning on a recent rainy Saturday in Austin, Texas, Dan Rather, dressed in a pressed dark suit and a crisp blue shirt, climbed a short flight of stairs up onto a stage. The venue was a hip space called the Belmont, the event was a discussion about the importance of rigorous reporting in the time of President Donald Trump, and the packed-in crowd was stylish, educated and conspicuously young. The introduction of Rather, who is 85, old enough to be a grandfather to most of the people who were present, elicited long, loud applause—noticeably longer and louder than it was for his two accomplished and much younger fellow panelists. Rather adjusted his hearing aids and spoke into a handheld microphone. His answers to questions landed not like the musings of a name from the past but as fire from a battle-tested combatant. He called for laser focus on “what the hell has gone on with the Russians in the election.” He denounced Trump’s dismissals of facts: “Any argument that 2 and 2 equals 5 is not an ‘alternate fact.’ It’s untrue. Water does not run uphill. Gravity exists. It’s a truth.” Rather was met with roars of approval.
The last time people were paying this much attention to Rather, he was at the center of his own blowup over fake news. More than a decade ago, Rather was ousted from CBS in the wake of a flawed investigation into President George W. Bush’s National Guard duty during the Vietnam War. Rather’s downfall after 24 years as the face of the network was a cause for celebration on the right and quiet discomfort on the left. Instead of retiring, though, the man who was the heir to Walter Cronkite and was watched at his peak by 18 million people every night took a job with HDNet, a low-profile cable outlet owned by Mark Cuban now called AXS TV, toiling in relative obscurity hosting a news show and interviewing musicians.
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Now, though, in an unexpected, career-redefining resurrection aided by Trump’s shocking ascent, Rather has clawed back a piece of the spotlight. Last fall, he debuted a weekly SiriusXM radio hour called “Dan Rather’s America,” and he’s a regular with hits on mainstream cable—a bigger platform than he has with AXS TV, for which he did “Dan Rather Reports” from 2006 to 2013 and now hosts “The Big Interview.” But the improbable, white-hot hub of his comeback is Facebook. Rather’s personal page has more than 2 million likes, his “News and Guts” page has another million-plus, and his posts are seen, shared and read by millions more. On average, News and Guts gets more likes, comments and shares per post than BuzzFeed, USA Today or CNN. For decades, Rather was fodder for critics who considered him too emotional, too liberal, too ambitious, too self-serious. He didn’t smile a lot; his folksy sayings could come off as downright weird. But the exact eccentricities that made at times for an awkward fit for network television, and his talent for thoughtful but unambiguous pronouncements of outrage, have been pitch-perfect for this new medium and moment. One of the leading voices of the Trump resistance is not some black-masked radical or a marching young woman with a pink knit hat but a man with gray hair, a name you know and a neatly knotted tie.
“He is the Energizer Bunny. He keeps going and going, and the country is better for it,” Cuban told me. His order to Rather after he hired him: “Go piss people off.”
In his Facebook essays, Rather has called Trump unsettling and unstable and incompetent and erratic and gloating and swaggering and petulant and ill-informed. His tone has grown increasingly alarmed. In January, he wrote of “potential peril.” “This is an emergency,” he warned in February. In March, in the wake of more news concerning Russian interference in the election, he suggested people start praying for the future of the country.
One of the leading voices of the Trump resistance is not some black-masked radical or a marching young woman with a pink knit hat but a man with gray hair, a name you know and a neatly knotted tie.
Rather has wanted this for just about forever—not necessarily the fraught historical juncture itself, but the chance to rise to such an occasion. For nearly his entire life, Rather has patterned himself after Edward R. Murrow, the legendary CBS broadcaster whose television shows in the 1950s stood up to the red-baiting demagoguery of Senator Joe McCarthy. Rather has been chasing his own Murrow moment virtually from the day Murrow retired. He broke the news of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas, showed America at war with itself during the civil rights struggle, spent the better part of a year in Vietnam, chronicled the criminal ruin of President Richard Nixon and has tangled with other occupants of the Oval Office as well, Republicans and Democrats alike.
Never, though, has Rather had a foil like Trump. They’ve known each other for decades, and have been publicly at odds before, dating back to 2000, when Trump bristled at the way Rather portrayed him in a breezy, almost throwaway piece for “60 Minutes II”—at a point in time when Rather was approaching the twilight of his career and Trump was four years from rebooting himself as a reality TV business whiz. The squabble was one-sided. Trump didn’t like Rather, and Rather didn’t care, because Trump didn’t matter.
Now he matters. The accumulated wisdom from a life that stretches back to the Depression and a career that started in the ’50s tells Rather that he matters a lot. And so half an hour after the panel at the Belmont, Rather settled into a seat at a tiny two-top in the corner of Shoal Creek Saloon, his pick of an unfussy place. The wood-paneled room smelled like Old Bay and boiled red crawfish. Rather had changed into a ball cap and a Barbour button-down shirt. He adjusted the small black “gadget” that controls his hearing aids, and his pint of Dos Equis remained mostly untouched as he talked for an hour and a half.
“I’ve been a few miles, and I’ve seen a few things,” he told me. “What I’m trying to do is just say, ‘Look, I don’t know everything, but I know some things—let me level with you. Based on my experience … this is what’s happening.’”
What’s happening, in the estimation of Rather, is something that’s menacing, something that’s never been experienced in the two and a half centuries of the history of this nation, and something he sees as a potentially mortal threat to its democracy.
He then told me he’s been thinking a lot of late about Adolf Hitler. “And I’m not comparing Trump to Hitler,” he added, “but … ” Rather remembers listening to reports on the radio in the 1930s about the rise of Hitler, he said, and he remembers his parents buying Mein Kampf. He remembers hearing them talking about it. What would Hitler mean for the world? For Europe? For them? He remembers how Hitler used radio, and thinks of how Trump uses Twitter. And he remembers his parents wondering out loud whether Hitler really meant the worst of what he was saying.
“However you feel about Trump personally,” Rather said in the saloon, “to have this kind of chaos, bordering on havoc, with a new president coming in—that’s something new, and very, very dangerous.”
Dan Rather came by his down-home Americanisms honestly enough, growing up on a rock road in a blue-collar neighborhood in Houston called the Heights Annex. Due northwest from the sprawling city’s sleek skyline, the area today is a mishmash of pawnshops and auto lots, and the small, still-standing home at 1432 Prince Street is where Rather’s dream of being at the center of the news began. Rather’s father was a ditch-digger and an oil-company pipe-liner, and his mother was a seamstress, a waitress and an odd-jobber when needed. And they marveled when Ed Murrow came on the radio. He was, they thought, “scholarly” and “erudite,” Rather said last month. They liked how he didn’t just read the news but gave it a shape one could understand. From his “This is London” broadcasts of air raids from rooftops in England to his vivid accounts out of the bellies of bombers above Berlin, Murrow’s voice, Rather once wrote, “was as present” in the house of his youth “as our saying grace.”
This was especially important for Rather himself, because he was stricken with rheumatic fever as a boy, stuck in bed for two separate year-and-a-half-long bouts of the disease. Rather was vulnerable and often alone—and after his immediate family, his most consistent, important companion was Murrow. “I’m prepared to say I listened to Edward R. Murrow more than any other child in America,” he told me—“mostly because I was bedridden.” When he heard Murrow, beamed in from Europe through the speakers on his nightstand—“incendiaries … going down like a fistful of white rice thrown on a piece of black velvet … thrown to the other side of the cockpit … explosives … bursting below like great sunflowers gone mad”—Rather, sick, scared and stuck in the Annex, could see past the oaks and the chinaberry trees out his windows into a version of what he wanted his future to be.
As he recovered and readied for his own career, Rather ramped up his study of his hero, the man he saw as his “navigational star.” Murrow was a chain-smoking trailblazer who revolutionized reporting in not one but two media—radio in the ’40s, TV in the ’50s. In 1954, Murrow did what few in America dared at the time, and took on the populist demagogue McCarthy and his anticommunist witch hunts. “We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home,” Murrow intoned, and while Rather didn’t watch it live—he was in San Diego for a brief stint in the Marines before they learned of his rheumatic fever—he read ravenously about one of the seminal episodes of early commercial TV and network news. In a speech in 1958, Murrow bit the hand that fed him, warning that TV’s increasing prioritization of profits and entertainment over public service could lead to a dumbed-down populace. If TV, Murrow said, was going to be used mainly to “distract, delude, amuse and insulate,” it was “nothing but wires and lights in a box.” It was the beginning of the end for Murrow at CBS, which finally came in 1961. The following year, Rather started.
He would spend his entire, 44-year career at Murrow’s network looking for his own London rooftops, his own bellies of bombers, his own Joe McCarthy to take down. In the ’60s, he covered the civil rights movement in the South in towns where reporter-loathing locals carried sawed-off shotguns, and he lobbied to go to Vietnam, where he clambered onto helicopters with soldiers instead of staying in the press tents of Saigon. In the ’70s, he engaged in contentious exchanges with Nixon in news conferences in the run-up to Watergate. In the ’80s, he sneaked into Afghanistan disguised as a local peasant to report for “60 Minutes” on the rebels fighting the Soviet Union and questioned Vice President George H.W. Bush about the Iran-Contra affair so aggressively that the interaction turned voices-raised argumentative. Critics kicked him for what they considered look-at-me theatrics; conservatives denigrated CBS as the “Colored Broadcasting System” or the “Communist Broadcasting System,” and pegged the ubiquitous Rather as its chief liberal antagonist. “What would Murrow do?” Rather said he often asked himself.
Both were serious in purpose and mien, but Murrow came across as stylish and cool, while Rather had a tendency to come off as stilted and cold. Murrow exuded an effortlessness; one of the biggest knocks on Rather was that he often appeared to be trying too hard. Both cared a lot; only Rather’s strain showed. Even when Rather was the anchor of the CBS “Evening News,” at the apex of his industry, he seldom seemed at ease. Cronkite, Rather’s predecessor, was “the most trusted man in America,” who concluded his newscasts with a comforting “That’s the way it is.” Rather tried his own tagline in 1986, capping a week of newscasts with a single-word sign-off—“Courage.” It was meaningful to Rather, as it was one of his father’s favorite words, as well as a quality he openly admired about Murrow. But viewers found it peculiar, so he scrapped it. His list of what some took to calling “Ratherisms”—“shakier than cafeteria Jell-O,” “so nasty it would gag a buzzard”—struck many as corny and forced. Staked to a ratings lead by Cronkite, Rather clung to the top spot among the three networks for most of the ’80s, but eventually he and CBS slipped to last.
Rather persisted in pushing for the primacy of news over what he judged to be softer, more frivolous fare, regardless of ratings. Some of his stances bordered on self-righteous, to the point of self-destructive. In 1987, for example, he objected to a company decision to let coverage of a U.S. Open tennis match run into his scheduled slot. He disappeared from the set, and when the match ended, he was still not back in his chair, leading to six excruciating minutes of dead air.
In 1993, Rather even took it upon himself to attempt a reprise of Murrow’s speech from 1958. In the ensuing 35 years, Murrow’s warning had gone unheeded: “Infotainment” was overwhelming information, and titillation was beating investigation. And Rather said so—to the same organization.
“How goes the battle for quality, for truth and justice, for programs worthy of the best within ourselves and the audience?” Rather said in an address in Miami Beach to the Radio-Television News Directors Association. “How goes the battle against ‘ignorance, intolerance, and indifference’? The battle not to be merely ‘wires and lights in a box,’ the battle to make television not just entertaining but also, at least some of the time, useful for higher, better things?”
Rather answered the questions.
“Not very well,” he said.
“In too many important ways, we have allowed this great instrument, this resource, this weapon for good, to be squandered and cheapened,” he continued. “About this, the best among us hang their heads in embarrassment, even shame.”
This is something Rather has continued to worry about. Journalism always has been a high-low mix—Rather remembers, fondly, an editor at the old Houston Press saying that what sold newspapers was “tits and tots, pets and vets”—but he also believes that balance has been getting progressively more out of whack since the ’80s. “What happened with journalism,” he told me in Austin, “journalism as a whole, but particularly with television journalism, is what I call the politicalization, corporatization and the trivialization of the news. Trivialization is where the Trump wing of this comes in.”
Sitting in the saloon, I pointed out that the ’80s, perhaps not coincidentally, was when Trump’s fame first spiked—when the success of The Art of the Deal, Trump’s undeniable publicity-seeking skills and this shifting media environment made him a person people paid attention to. That’s when Trump started talking about running for president—but that’s all it was: talk. I ventured to Rather that it’s inconceivable that Trump would have been considered as a potential president 30 years ago.
“No,” Rather agreed. “It would have been an absolute joke.”
I’ve been a few miles, and I’ve seen a few things,” Rather says. “What I’m trying to do is just say, ‘Look, I don’t know everything, but I know some things—let me level with you. Based on my experience … this is what’s happening.’”
In 1999, that’s what it was—at least in the minds of Rather and others at CBS. A decade and a half before CBS’ CEO Les Moonves said Trump running for president “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS,” Rather was assigned to do for “60 Minutes II” the sort of piece he had decried in his speech in 1993 as the “showbizification” of news—a story about Trump, and about how the New York real estate developer and owner of Atlantic City casinos yet again was discussing a presidential bid.
Rather and Trump would run into each other on occasion on the social circuit of New York somebodies. “I would see him at, you know, somebody’s dinner party, or some big affair,” Rather said. His recollections of their interactions: “Always very friendly. Very complimentary.”
Rather was on TV all the time. Trump wanted to be.
“You are the best!” Trump wrote to Rather on gold-lettered stationery on April 7, 1989, according to Rather’s records, which are kept at Boston University.
“I watched you on Larry King the other night,” Trump wrote to Rather on December 19, 1997, “and you were absolutely terrific—better than ever.”
But the nature of the relationship was about to change. In December 1999, Rather received a memo from producers Steve Glauber and Dana Roberson, who were working on the piece about Trump and his “exploratory look” at entering the 2000 race.
“It’s all kind of ‘Theater Of The Absurd,’” they advised, in an unwitting preview of what was to transpire a decade and a half later. “Here you have a very wealthy and self-promoting celebrity with a ‘super model’ girlfriend on his arm and quips on his tongue followed by hordes of cameras and reporters who are not quite sure whether to treat him and his quest for a possible presidential run as a joke or seriously. For Trump, it makes no difference: He is being followed by the media! The theater is synergistic—we help him and he helps us.”
They told Rather in the memo that Trump had registered a 67 percent unfavorable rating in a CBS poll the previous month—the highest the network had ever recorded—and that “foreign investors are his primary backers and they are mightily impressed that Trump is not only a big builder but, by golly, possibly a Presidential candidate.” They called Trump a “bigger bull-shitter than Barnum.” They said he was “promoting an upcoming book”—The America We Deserve.
Rather jotted on scrap paper some handwritten notes, preserved in the BU archives: “outrageous public behavior,” “willing butt of tabloid jokes.” Some of his typed-up thoughts: “Businessmen do not make good politicians.” “Look at your life: Two marriages, two divorces, countless romances … ” “Do you really think America will be a better place if you—a man who proudly reads the headline from one of your lovers that you gave her the best sex she ever had—a man who currently shows off not his inner values but another beautiful model—is really what America needs?”
The resulting segment aired in prime time on January 11, 2000, and treated Trump as an unserious candidate. It was fluff, delivered with a sniff, depicting Trump as a mean-spirited showoff. It was a portrayal that prefigured much of the criticism of Trump—from his opponents and the media—during the 2016 campaign.
“Basically,” Rather told me recently, “it said this is not really a presidential campaign. This is about selling condos.”
CBS rolled tape of Trump at a speaking engagement being asked by a woman how to “go about creating the capital that I need to start my business when all I have is my knowledge and my dream.” Trump’s response: “Meet a wealthy guy.”
Rather, meanwhile, asked Trump about other potential presidential aspirants, including John McCain, and Trump said exactly what he would say a decade and a half later, when he was running for real: “He was captured.”
“He flew combat missions with distinction,” Rather corrected.
“Does being captured make you a hero?” asked Trump, who received five Vietnam draft deferments. “I don’t know. I’m not sure.”
Part of what Donald Trump is about is selling the name,” Rather posited to Trump on “60 Minutes II.” “And how better to sell the name than to run for president? Am I wrong about that?”
Rather made sure to tell viewers that Trump had “inherited a small fortune from his father” and yet had managed to get himself into nearly a billion dollars of personally guaranteed debt. CBS used a clip of Trump at what Rather described as “a press conference with very little press.”
“Part of what Donald Trump is about is selling the name,” Rather posited to Trump in the piece. “And how better to sell the name than to run for president? Am I wrong about that?”
“I can understand it, Dan, and I’m not holding you—I haven’t changed my opinion of you at all by you saying that,” Trump responded. “But the fact is that I’m very serious about it. I’m looking at it very seriously. And I wouldn’t be surprised if I said yes.” He added: “And if I run, and if I won, I think I’d be a really good president.”
Trump told Rather he was prepared to spend $100 million of his own money on a campaign. CBS put on the air a skeptical marketing expert. “He would never spend the money,” Jack Trout said. “He would not spend that kind of money to lose, and he knows he would lose. He’s getting what he really wants, which is to be treated at a higher level.”
After the show aired, Rather got a call. He told me he held the phone away from his ear. “He was furious,” he said of Trump. “He considered it a betrayal. His basic thing was, ‘I thought you were a friend.’”
If Rather has any regrets about the piece, he said, it’s that it wasn’t harder on Trump. “It could have been,” he said. “Probably should have been.”
In 2004, in his book called How to Get Rich, Trump took a break from offering his pat tips on business and life and made it clear he hadn’t forgotten about “60 Minutes II.” “Dan Rather is not one of my favorite people,” Trump wrote. “He’s got absolutely no talent or charisma or personality, yet year after year, CBS apologizes for his terrible ratings. I could take the average guy on the street and have him read the news on CBS and that guy would draw bigger ratings than Dan Rather.”
This was, it turned out, a pivotal, life-changing period for both Rather and Trump. In the fall of 2004, Trump was up and Rather was down.
On September 8, Rather was the face and the voice of the ill-fated report on George W. Bush and his record in the Texas Air National Guard. It was based on on-camera interviews—but also on photocopied documents that came under immediate scrutiny, spearheaded by proprietors of conservative websites questioning their authenticity and saying they were fakes.
The night after Rather aired his report, over on NBC, Trump starred in the first installment of the second season of “The Apprentice,” the scripted reality program that launched to great fanfare and ratings. In New Jersey, unmentioned on the show, Trump’s casinos in fact were going through their fourth Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding. On NBC, though, Trump was reviving his reputation with millions of Americans as the country’s most successful entrepreneur and CEO.
For the rest of the month, as Trump downplayed reports of his casino company’s losses and basked in the glow of lengthy newspaper and magazine profiles, Rather stood by the reporting on Bush that he and his colleagues had done—until he couldn’t anymore.
On the air at the time, Rather was contrite. “I’m sorry,” he said. In reality, Rather was angry and unrepentant. “The right wing has been on relentless attack for some years now, painting the media as liberal,” he wrote in his notes, in the archives at BU, “which is a load of crap.”
The basic premise of the report was true—Bush had failed to meet his obligations to the National Guard and gotten away with it—but the authenticity of the documents could not be verified. A CBS-commissioned independent review panel made no “definitive conclusion” about whether they were actually “fake.” Even so, four of Rather’s co-workers were let go, and Rather got everything but. He got pushed out of the anchor chair at least a year before he wanted to go. He was then iced out at “60 Minutes.”
After more than four decades, Rather left CBS, “reluctantly and downheartedly,” he told me, chalking it up to unrelenting pressure from those right-wing agitators on the internet and a lack of backing from executives. Producer Mary Mapes, one of the four who were let go, likened Rather in her subsequent book to “a dignified old lion trying to defend himself all alone as he was pulled apart by a pack of shrieking hyenas.”
“The process of getting to the truth is an inexact science,” Rather said in a recent call. “And nobody has ever proven the documents were not what we reported them to be. We reported a true story.”
He received scores of nice notes from friends and competitors. “As a great man once said: ‘Courage,’” NBC’s Brian Williams said in a letter. But Rather’s critics on the right got to dance publicly on what they thought was his corpse.
Trump, too. He had not forgotten about 2000.
“He did a report on me that was very dishonest,” Trump told Chris Wallace on Fox News in March 2005, three days before Rather’s final newscast as anchor. “So I’m not a big fan of Dan Rather. I don’t want to be a fan of Dan Rather. I don’t think he’s good at the news. I don’t think a lot of people think he’s good at the news. He was always highly overrated.”
Asking about “Bush memo-gate,” Wallace sensed an obvious opportunity to have Trump tee up his new catchphrase that had whipped into a tizzy a portion of the population.
“What would you do?”
“I would have fired him a long time ago,” Trump said.
“How would you have done it?”
“I would have said, ‘Dan, you’re fired.’”
Looking back, the irony is that it’s a near certainty that few people would be talking about Rather right now, and he wouldn’t be talking the way he is about Trump, if the Bush report hadn’t led to his undoing at CBS. If Rather had had his way, he would have stayed at the network and slowly receded. “There was already a plan, a glide path, if you will, to leave the ‘Evening News,” he told me. “I would go to ‘60 Minutes,’ and have a nice, comfortable—and, yes, well-paid—easing into later years. But I would not have made the transition into the digital era of journalism.” He would not have signed on with HDNet, which had launched only in 2001. And he probably wouldn’t have joined Facebook, which wasn’t founded until 2004, some seven months before his career at CBS started to unspool—let alone started using it as the principal forum to write what he’s been writing about President Trump. “No way,” he said.
Here, then, is Rather’s last chance at his own Murrow moment. Never has there been a president like Trump, and never has Rather had such freedom, unfettered as he is by any corporate or political pressure—the twin tugs that contributed to the end of the decorated CBS career of his journalistic hero, and then, more than 40 years later, his own. Rather can say whatever he wants now. The Rather on Facebook, say those who know him the best, is Rather unalloyed, Rather unleashed.
“This is exactly who Dan Rather is,” Tom Flynn, a longtime CBS colleague, told me. “He has the freedom to say and do what he wants.”
When I talked to Mapes, I asked if she thought Rather would be having this kind of impact if he were sitting in the anchor chair at CBS. “No,” she said. “I don’t think so at all. There are real limits to that chair.”
“He has no boss on Facebook,” said Robin Rather, his daughter, “and my dad with no boss is a beautiful thing.”
“I have never done anything like this before in my life,” Rather wrote last summer on Facebook about his stiffening stance on Trump. But democracy in this country, he said, “is a lot more fragile than we would like to believe,” ticking off some of what he has seen over the course of his life: “the internment of Japanese-Americans,” “state-sponsored segregation on the basis of race,” “young men dying in” Vietnam in “a war that contradicted our values and was fueled by lies” and “a vast criminal conspiracy … run out of the Oval Office” by Nixon and his aides. “I have peered into the abyss of dysfunction,” he concluded, “and it is terrifying. And more than anything that is what is driving me to not be silent.”
Rather has a blue-flame reverence for democracy. And he believes, and has since his childhood on Prince Street, that checks on power are not troublesome but necessary, even obligatory, acts of patriotism. His Facebook posts aren’t just blowtorch umbrage. Read through them, and they show a love of America and a faith in its resilience—which is what gives his more pointed thoughts on Trump such heat. And throughout these first few dizzying months of 2017, his posts have grown more and more red-alert, alarm-siren dire.
Of those not standing up to Trump, he wrote in January: “History will mark their names.”
“The time for normalizing, dissembling and explaining away Donald Trump has long since passed,” he wrote in February.
“We are a weakened nation,” he wrote in March. “We have no choice but to confront that disorienting truth.”
A week after that, in Austin at the saloon, I asked whether he thinks he’s contributing more to the national conversation from his current platform on Facebook than he could if he were still the anchor at CBS. “I think that’s true,” he said. “If I have even a sliver to contribute, well, now’s the time to do it. Don’t hold back. … This is a particularly dangerous time, between now and maybe Labor Day.”
His most imminent concern: “Somebody’s really going to put him to the test … a real threat,” Rather explained. “With all this chaos, and frankly bullshit, swirling around, there’s some question that he can appear on television and rally the national consensus to meet that threat. Now, I hope it doesn’t happen, but history teaches us that something along that vein will happen … and if the president appeared on television and said, you know, ‘My fellow Americans, we’re in peril, and I have to mount, have to put the country in war,’ I think it would be very difficult for him to persuade people. Because wait a minute. This is an old technique. This is what authoritarian regimes always do. Solidify their domestic base. They conjure up a cause and—see where this is going?”
That’s when we started talking about Hitler. And this gets to the question of whether this is indeed that Murrow moment Rather has sought for so long.
“Maybe it’s as close as I’m ever going to get,” Rather told me.
The biggest difference between Edward R. Murrow and Rather, after all, is not a question of who but when.
“It’s the moment where he can speak the way Murrow did,” Flynn, his former CBS colleague, said. During World War II, Flynn added, “there weren’t two sides to that story as far as the reporter was concerned. Nazi Germany wasn’t going to get an ‘on the other hand,’ you know?”
But the bigger question may be whether speaking with that moral authority can make a difference in a world that does not acknowledge a consensus mainstream voice. The biggest difference between Murrow and Rather, after all, is not a question of who but when. Murrow came to prominence in a concentrated period of cultural bipartisanship and national unity unmatched since, with the possible exception of the aftermath of the attacks on September 11, 2001. Back in the early ’40s, Murrow helped motivate an isolationist America to lead the global fight for freedom. As far as American citizens were concerned, he spoke to them—and for them. He wasn’t one of the enemies. He was one of the allies. That goodwill is a big part of what enabled him to become such a key contributor in fighting the scourge of McCarthyism, an instance in retrospect in which TV fanned no flames but helped extinguish an internal threat.
That goodwill, of course, dissipated quickly. Politicians pushed back. Advertisers. Executives. And the fights for freedom, for the sustenance of democracy, now were being waged not only in foreign lands but increasingly on the home front, too. This is when Rather got hired. He was introduced to much of America through a long episode not of national unity but of discord, not from London or Berlin but from Georgia and Alabama. From the start, Rather has been seen as a liberal lightning rod, and in the past half-century this divisiveness has done nothing but get worse. So it’s yet to be determined, to say the least, whether Rather can not only energize the many Americans who have “liked” him on Facebook but influence the many who have not.
But people do what they can, when they can, and Rather’s been around plenty long enough to know that.
“I like to think he would approve,” he told me in March, when I called him to talk more about Murrow.
A few days later, I saw him in New York, in a studio at SiriusXM’s headquarters at Rockefeller Center, not 10 blocks from Trump Tower. Rather wore a suit with suspenders and sat at a desk, his tie tied tight. He quietly reviewed some notes. He spat out his gum into a plastic trash bin.
“Three and a half minutes,” a producer told him.
“Two minutes … one minute … 30 seconds.”
He took a deep breath.
The show opened to the tune of “You’re a Grand Old Flag.”
“We’re in a period that we’ve never been in before, as a country,” he said into the microphone in the opening segment, borrowing on the air from a recent Facebook post. “If you’re a praying person, today is a pretty good day to pray for the future of your country. Look, I’ve seen a lot in my decades working in the press, but I’ve never seen a time like this, and neither has anybody else. This is, and again, for context and perspective”—from Houston’s Heights Annex to Bull Connor’s Birmingham to Vietnam to the West Wing to midtown Manhattan—“this is a stress-test for our democratic institutions. And one can only hope that the system of checks and balances that we hold so dear in this country can indeed hold.”