By Rosemary O’Hara
Dan Rather is 86, but as spirited as that day in 1976 when he swept into The Alligator offices at the University of Florida for a brief visit. He was at the top of his game at CBS News and visiting Gainesville to see a professor, formerly of Texas, who’d made a big difference in his life. By the time he left the student newspaper, where I was a reporter, Dan Rather had made a similarly big difference in mine.
We had a wall board in the Alligator office, which we asked any visitor of some renown to sign. I remember handing Dan Rather the Magic Marker and asking him to autograph the board. When he was done, he handed the pen back to me and said I should sign it, too.
I couldn’t possibly sign the board. But in that moment, Dan Rather made me believe he saw something in me. So when I heard he was a featured speaker April 18 in the Broward College Speakers Series, and would be speaking to today’s students, I jumped at the chance to interview him.
Dan Rather — he jokes that his name once seemed to be “Dan Rather, CBS News” — was one of the big three news anchors of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, along with Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw. He hadn’t yet succeeded Walter Cronkite as anchor of the evening news when I met him, but he’d famously covered the assassination of President Kennedy, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, the Nixon White House, Watergate and all sorts of disasters caused by man or Mother Nature.
But his legendary reputation took a hit following a report on President George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard, which included memos that couldn’t be authenticated. At the time, Rather said, “If I knew then what I know now — I would not have gone ahead with the story as it was aired.” But he continues to stick by the story’s two key points, that Bush gained entry to the Guard (and avoided going to Vietnam) because of his family’s influence and that during that time, Bush was unaccounted for for about a year.
We didn’t talk history during our hour on the phone, though. For as journalists, we write the first rough draft of history. So we talked about President Trump, the NRA, the media, our divided country and more.
First, Rather asked how things were since the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
“It’s an emotional earthquake,” he said, of my recounting. “It takes a long time to recover, even partially. A community of people never fully recovers from it. Many, many years from now, the metaphoric equivalent will be: “When it rains, it hurts.”
He’d heard about the new Florida law that says to purchase a rifle, buyers must be at least 21 and wait three days before taking possession. The law also outlaws bump-stocks and lets police officers confiscate guns from people considered dangerous. It also provides money for hardening schools and mental health screenings. But as someone who believes high-velocity semi-automatic assault rifles don’t belong in civilian hands, I told him I was disappointed by the outcome.
“I wouldn’t underestimate the accomplishment of the few steps that have been taken because they’re difficult to accomplish — even those few — and they aren’t accomplished very often in very many places,” he replied. “I know a great deal more needs to be done and could be done if we just had some leadership. But frankly, if we could do on a widespread national basis just the bits you mentioned … these are at least steps in the right direction.”
We would return to the subject of guns and the NRA, but since he’s written another book, interviews interesting people on cable television and engages with more than 2.5 million followers on Facebook, I wanted to know: What does he plan to talk about here?
“To be honest with you, I’m not quite sure. I try very hard to tailor every talk to the community where I am. I like to be timely. And the news moves so swiftly and so confusingly today. But I do want to talk some about where we are in the arc of history. I believe there’s a great — and possibly decisive —battle for the country’s soul at this moment. I want to talk about that, and what the signs of hope are. I’m an optimist by nature and by experience. It’s not a kind of fuzzy-headed, everything-is-going-to-be-alright optimism. It’s an optimism that if we apply ourselves, and everybody does their duty as a citizen, there’s a reason for, based on experience.”
How do you stay so optimistic in the face of so much tumult?
“I wouldn’t kid anybody. I can’t stay optimistic every moment of every day. What I try to do is take lessons from history, to look at the times when we’ve had very discouraging periods, our great Civil War being one example, the years of the Great Depression being another. We’ve been through very tough times before, and sometimes it takes a long while to come through. The other thing to remember is that generally speaking, history moves in the direction of progress, of things getting better. It’s awfully hard to see that on a moment-by-moment basis, but if you pull back from what we in television call the wide shot, or some people call the view from 30,000 feet, the story of humankind is generally in the direction of progress.
“I also try to remember: When a small ember of hope glows, even a small ember, it’s important metaphorically to blow on that ember, to try to encourage and expand the ember, and the next thing you know, you have a little light of hope.”
Rather said he regularly runs across people who tell him they’re scared, “really frightened,” about what’s happening in our country.
“They even question whether we are at the end of democracy and freedom as we’ve known it. … I do what I can to discourage that kind of thinking because being afraid, being scared, is not in the American character. We have a lot of faults as a people, as a country, but in the main, we have been a very steady and courageous people. … My own father was fond of the word `steady.’ Just, steady. No matter how bad things get, it’s very important to stay steady and try our best to move forward.”
How does he see people’s shaken trust in the media? Polls show people trust the media less than Congress.
“First of all, I prefer the word `press’ to the word `media,’ partly because the First Amendment doesn’t guarantee freedom of the media, it guarantees freedom of the press. But I know the words are used interchangeably these days.
“The first thing to do is do our job. Just do the work. There needs to be a rededication to high quality journalism of integrity. So that’s number one. Do our work.
“Second, those of us in the media, and I certainly include myself in this, be humble. We’re bound to make mistakes because journalism is not an exact science. It’s a crude art on its best days, and it’s inevitable we’re going to make mistakes. We need to concentrate on making as few mistakes as we can, but when we make them, we need to own up to them.
“Another thing we can do is try to remind people — in a gentle, even humble way — that part of the reason, not the entire reason, but part of the reason that public trust has gone down is that we have been under relentless attack, relentless partisan political and ideological attack for many, many years. Never to the extent that we have it now. We have a president who attacks the media with words such as they’re `enemies of the people.’ And those words echo. It’s the kind of thing that authoritarian regimes and dictators have used over the years.
“He’s personally attacked individual journalists … He’s mocked reporters. He’s attacked individual press institutions, as well. And this is not normal. We’ve certainly had presidents before who didn’t like the press for one reason or another. President Nixon comes to mind. But we’ve never had one who has so steadfastly and relentlessly attacked the media, both individually and personally, and the institution of the press as a whole.
“What President Trump wants people to believe, and has convinced some people, is that when it comes to the problems of the country, the problems aren’t the problems, it’s the people who call attention to the problems who are the problems, which is to say, journalists … There’s no question it’s corroded and undermined trust in the media.”
Why do people — evangelical Christians, for example — stick with President Trump no matter his behavior? What explains that?
“Part of it is that for his own narcissistic reasons and also for partisan political and ideological reasons, President Trump and the forces around him are trying very hard to move us into a post-truth political era — an era in which facts don’t matter, where there’s no such thing as truth. And they’re making some headway on that. In the end, I think the good, common sense of the American people will reject it. But when I say there’s a battle for the soul of country, part of that battle is whether we will accept being moved into a post-truth political era, in which there’s no such thing as facts, but so-called alternative facts.
“You mention evangelicals. Keep in mind, I grew up and was raised a Southern Baptist in Texas and I am of these people. So I do understand, to a certain degree. But so often, they don’t stop and think when what has been revealed about President Trump, like, what’s her name? [Stormy Daniels] … This is not consistent with what evangelicals say they believe. And if President Obama or any previous president had been shown to have these kind of character flaws, it would be a whole different reaction. I don’t want to pick on evangelicals. I still have many relatives and consider myself one of them in many ways. But it’s not consistent with the core beliefs of evangelicals.”
On consistency, he noted a parallel with the Republican Party.
“For the whole length of their existence, Republicans have stood as the party of fiscal responsibility. Then you look at the new tax law, which runs the national debt into the stratosphere. You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say you’re for fiscal responsibility and then pass laws that run the national debt to the highest it’s ever been by a great amount. You can’t have a leadership that says `We’re for working people. We’re for middle socio-economic class people and the poor,’ and at the same time pass a tax law that enormously benefits not even 1 percent of the population. I would say the same thing about any Democrat close to these things.
“If we can just get people to stop and think. Then, in what I call this great battle for the soul of the country, we’re going to be alright. But if we don’t, we’re going to pay a very heavy price for it.”
The conversation came back to guns, and the outsized influence of the NRA.
“Keep in mind, I grew up in Texas, and Texas has a deep gun culture. But nobody is talking about taking guns away from everybody, everywhere. What we’re talking about is some good common-sense things. What we have to recognize is an overwhelming number of our political leaders in both parties have been bought and paid for by the NRA. And the reason we don’t get more progress on these common-sense steps is purely and simply that these politicians have been, as I say, bought and paid for.
“As one example — I’m both disappointed and infuriated about it — the president, after talking about common sense things on gun control … His proposal, among other things, is astoundingly to sell more guns and ammunition by arming some teachers. What he’s saying is, more guns in more places, not fewer guns in fewer places. It’s really pretty amazing to me that people don’t see through that.”
Many people deal with our country’s divide by not raising the issues with people who think differently than they do. What do you make of that?
“We have to talk to one another. And we have to talk to one another in the spirit of the following: OK, you and I disagree about 50 or 100 things. What are the one or two things we can agree on? Because if we stop talking to one another, that’s not helpful. We’ve got to continue the conversation with one another. It’s very hard in today’s environment to keep the conversation civil, but we have to talk to one another because otherwise, we get fractured into tribalism, and if tribalism ever takes complete hold in the country, we’ll just have tribes of people on issues, and we’ll kind of retreat into our own tribe…We can’t let that happen. As difficult as it is, we have to accept our differences and try to find common ground.
“I have my own dilemmas and challenges in this regard. If you say, `We need a new little league baseball diamond. Can we agree on that?’ If we agree on that, then let’s get together and build that diamond for the kids. When you take on some community service, something as small as that, you begin to talk to one another at a different level.”
What’s television news doing better or not as well since you were there?
“There has been somewhat of a revival of deep-digging investigative reporting. Print journalism has always led on this. For example, The Washington Post and New York Times have done some of the best investigative reporting that I can recall in my whole career over the last couple years. At various newspapers, local and regional, there’s been something of a revival of investigative reporting, and there’s signs of that in television news as well. Some of the cable networks, by no means all, have beefed up their investigative units and show signs of doing some good investigative reporting, which I applaud and think is a good thing.
“The nature of television news now, there’s so many more outlets than there’s ever been, there is a greater tendency to herd journalism, which is to say, to call nearly everything ‘breaking news,’ whether it’s actually news or not, never mind breaking. … International news, what we used to call foreign news, gets very short shrift on television news today. At the very time when we need more, higher-quality international news reporting, we get less and less quality than we’ve ever had. And I’ll admit that.”
CBS used to have a number of foreign bureaus, right?
“It isn’t just CBS, it’s true of ABC and NBC as well. Frankly, there are very few real foreign news bureaus anymore. There was a time at CBS News, not so long ago, and I don’t want to pick on CBS, but I know it well, when the network had 20 or 25 bureaus around the country and overseas. Now, realistically, they probably only have two, basically in London and maybe in Tokyo. Here’s the point. The great news-gathering operations in network news have turned into news packagers. I’m not sure the public understands the difference between actual news gathering, as opposed to news packaging. You know the quality of your newspaper depends on having feet on the street, having reporters calling people, going places. Feet on the street. That’s the essence of news gathering. Now almost every television news organization has far fewer feet on the street, whether domestic or international. It’s basically just packaging news and that’s not a trend that’s good for us.”
What keeps you going? How’s your health? Why do you not slow down?
“I have many flaws and have certainly made my mistakes, but I have a passion for covering and reporting the news. I have had it since I was a child. I can truthfully say my passion is at least as great now as it’s ever been … When my feet hit the floor in the morning, I still think, first thing is, where’s the story? I have a passion for doing it. I also happen to think that it’s important. I don’t mean that I’m important, but most of us get into journalism because we want to be part of something bigger than ourselves, we want to do something that counts, something that matters. And quality journalism matters. So as long as I have my health, and I have an opportunity in some meaty microscopic way to contribute, and I can find an outlet, I hope to continue doing it.”
Tell me why you ended your broadcast with the word “courage.”
“It was my father’s favorite word. That, and steady. So that’s why I adopted it for a short time as a sign off, which I have to say didn’t go down very well with my bosses. What I was taught at a fairly early age, and I didn’t understand it for a long time, but of all the virtues, courage is really the most important, because all the other virtues begin with courage. You have to have courage to be empathetic. You have to have courage to be inclusive … Courage isn’t a case of being unafraid. Courage is being afraid and going ahead anyway … It’s not that I think I have much courage, I don’t. But I aspire to. I use it as a kind of navigation star that I set my compass on.”
Rosemary O’Hara is the editorial page editor of the South Florida Sun Sentinel, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Editor’s note: Dan Rather shared many stories from his career before a sold-out audience Wednesday (April 18) in the finale of the 2018 Broward College Speaker Series, sponsored by City & Shore magazine. Among them were vivid recollections of famous people he’d interviewed – including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela. He also shared lessons he’d learned from interviewing such great leaders, which he calls “The Great Eight.”
“They are not easy to learn, to remember and to apply in real-world daily practice, that’s true,” he said. “But if you strive constantly for them, not just today and tomorrow, but for a lifetime, you will make of yourself a better person.”
“1. To lead a noble life is to lead a life of service to others. And whoever you are, whatever your station, wherever you are in life, [that] should be your polar star.
“2. Six words are key: Humility, gratitude, modesty, forgiveness, mercy and, yes, love.
“3. There will be plenty of occasions when playing [with a] team, working collaboratively, don’t work, for one reason [or another]. What I’ve learned traveling around, and this is particularly true of leaders, but not confined to these, [that you have to be] prepared to invoke the 10 magic words, when the big chips are on the table, when everything’s at stake, when nothing seems to work, the 10 magic words are: ‘If it is to be, it is up to me.’ There are times in life, when it’s necessary to suck it up and say, ‘If it is to be, it’s up to me.’
“4. Learn by heart and take to heart this: hearts can inspire other hearts with their fire. The fire can be in the open for all to see or it can be deep within, not easily known to anyone but yourself.
“5. The most successful people I’ve met, the people who are most satisfied with their lives, the best leaders, all tend to be excellent listeners. They don’t just hear. They listen. And I would suggest, gently, that if you want to make of yourself a life-time learner, and an even better person and even better worker, improve your listening habits and skills.
“6. The best learners and workers, and certainly the best leaders, are generally strong communicators. They tend to be accomplished at public speaking, as well as small groups, person-to-person groups, as well as large groups. [He recommended reading How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie.]
“7. Successful people, good learners, workers and especially leaders, generally know how to write well. Short form as well as long, everything from personal notes and letters to policy papers. (He recommended reading Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style).
“8. [Successful people] have trained themselves to think critically and analytically. It’s been my experience over the years that it is the mark of the most successful people, the people who get the most out of life, and particularly good leaders.”
* * *
Editor’s note II: Before taking questions from the audience, Dan Rather had a small confession to make about the state of his hearing – which led to the following recollection of Betsy Cronkite, wife of broadcast legend Walter Cronkite, who Rather succeeded on the CBS Evening News in 1981 – which brought the house down.
“My hearing is not nearly what it once was. I lost about 40 percent of my hearing in Vietnam, and age has taken care of the rest. So if I’m not able to make out the questions very clearly, I may have to ask you to repeat it.
“And it reminds me of a quick story. I would not tell this story, except for the fact that Mrs. Walter Cronkite really loved to tell it. You know, Walter lived well into his 90s, and in his later years, he had a lot of hearing problems.
“They loved to sail, and they were sailing off Martha’s Vineyard and they were having some guests one Saturday afternoon. And Mrs. Cronkite said to Walter, ‘we need to go into the store to resupply.’ So they took the dinghy over [to Martha’s Vineyard], but it was Saturday afternoon and the store was completely busy, and of course everybody wanted to shake hands with Walter Cronkite. You know, people saying, ‘I’ve watched you all my life and I admire you,’ and ‘do you remember so-and-so?’ and ‘do you know so-and-so?’
“Anyway, it took a very long time to get up to the cashier. They finally get up to the cashier and Mrs. Cronkite thinks – whew! – we’re finally through all of that. When one last gentleman came out of the crowd and came to Walter and said, ‘Walter, do you know so-and-so-and-so?’ And Walter took himself up to his full almost-six feet and said, ‘well, I can’t say that I know him, but I have met him and he’s a very fine fellow. Thank you very much.’
“And they get outside, and Mrs. Cronkite says, ‘Walter, we have to do something about your hearing. That man asked you, do you know Jesus?’”
- Mark Gauert