Reed Irvine - Editor
|July B, 1984|
DAN RATHER: THE MAN AND HIS MYTHS by Victor Lasky
When Leonid Brezhnev died in late 1982, Dan Rather sought a reaction from Richard Nixon. After all, the former President had met the Soviet ruler at several summit meetings. Rather and Nixon got along fatuously. It was a far cry from the emotional days of Watergate when the CBS correspondent had tangled publicly with a politically-wounded President. This time Nixon greeted Rather with a quip, "You must be slumming."
It had been eight years since Nixon had left the Oval Office. Now he was located in a modest suite of offices in downtown Manhattan. And Rather had become the managing editor and anchorman of the CBS Evening News, having succeeded none other than Walter Cronkite. He had also become the nation's highest paid newsman. According to one source, his contract called for $20 million stretched over ten years, plus various deferred tax benefits which bring the value of the pact closer to $25 million.
But probably more important is the enormous influence Rather wields as the guiding light of the nation's number one news show. It b an influence which, more often than not, has been tilted against the Reagan Administration. In recent months, for example, great emphasis has been placed on-the "image-making" aspects of President Reagan"' trips abroad--as if very little else has been accomplished. Thus, on the eve of a recent primary day, CBS complained that no matter who won, the winner was bound to be eclipsed by Reagan. CBS noted that the President would be photographed in an Irish pub, driving into Buckingham Palace, dining with Prime Minister Thatcher, attending an economic summit, and visiting Normandy.
"The White House insisted there was no conscious attempt by the President to plan his trip so as to pre-empt public attention away from the Democratic primaries," insisted a CBS correspondent. As Bill Buckley noted, the inference was that on June 6, 1944, General Eisenhower "launched an invasion of France knowing that 40 years later it would be commemorated on that same day the Democratic primary results came through in California, wiping them off the television screen. A prescient general. Not many people would have thought that far ahead."
Howard Stringer, Rather's executive producer has noted the criticism. "I think," he said, "the President and the White House would rather have a straight-forward record of the President's activities. We don't do that. We don't do a presidential diary. We're closer to analysis."
At times, CBS analyses can be malicious. Take the time President Reason disclosed that the Soviet freighter Alexander Ulyanov was carrying military equipment to Nicarasoa. A few nights later, the CBS Evening News showed a videotape supposedly taken aboard the Ulyanov. No military cargo could be seen. In other words, CBS was saying, Reagan had not been telling the truth. But in introducing the segment, Rather concealed some vital information. The videotape had bean made by a Cuban camera crew--a superb example of Communist disinformation. Yet Rather knowingly need it in order to impeach the veracity of the chief executive, saying only that the footage had been obtained from a source "friendly to Nicaragua."
Then, of course, there was Rather's decision to show a long-range shot of Reagan riding a horse on his Santa Barbara ranch the day the Korean airliner was shot down by a Soviet interceptor. Thus, the President was made to appear not overly troubled by the tragedy. Rather makes no apologies for the cheap shot. "I think it was an important part of the overall picture--what was happening and what the President was doing that day," he said. "Far from being something derogatory to the President. I'd be very surprised if the President himself didn't say to himself. 'I kind of like that.'"
No one but the President himself knows what he said to himself. But at least one man close to Reagan believes that Rather's performance was "despicable." "The fact ifs the President was shaken by the Soviet atrocity," says this source. "When he got on that horse, he wanted to think things through. He had some major decisions to make. That's the way the man operates--whether Rather likes it or not."
Even after the President's detailed presentation of the incident--including the dramatic tapes of the Soviet pilot actually shooting down the airliner--this exchange took place between Rather and CBS correspondent Bill Plante:
Rather: Bill, there remain a number of unanswered questions about all of this.
Plante: Indeed, there do, Dan. There's no question but what the Administration would like us to believe, because they keep insisting in all the briefings.., that there's no other conclusion that can be drawn but that the Soviets shot that airliner out of the air deliberately, and a number of us keep asking if that is necessarily the case. We think it still may be possible that a mistake was made, and this is a question which the Administration simply hasn't answered, Dan.
Rather: I agree.
In other words, always give the Soviets the benefit of the doubt, and be skeptical of the word of your president.
The pronounced anti-Reagan animus of the Rather newscasts was confirmed in a study conducted by John Weisman for TV Guide. Weisman had analyzed the nightly newscasts of all three networks for the week beginning May 1, 1983. His findings: there was a very significant difference between the CBS Evening News and those of the rival networks. As far as the Reagan Administration was concerned, CBS could be described as "the negative network" according to Weisman..
Following the liberation of Grenada, Rather disparaged the battle footage provided by the U.S. government as "edited" and "censored." This, apparently, was Rather's way of complaining about the exclusion of the media from the first few days of battle action. He said on CBS radio, "The people of Grenada--why weren't the American people allowed to see their reaction?"
To find the answer, CBS hired Grenadians to poll 304 residents of the island for their reactions. Over 90 percent said they were pleased U.S. troops had come; and 85 percent said they felt the U.S. pal had been to "free the people of Grenado from the Cubans.' Dan Rather did not make use of the poll on the CBS Evening News. Instead, CBS summarized the findings at 11:30 p.m. on November 4. Unmentioned, however, was the feeling or relief most Grenadians felt about being liberated from the Cubans.
Even more than his network rivals, Rather and the CBS Evening News concentrated heavily on the failures of "Reaganomics." Six months into the Reagan Administration, when the economy began to contract, Rather began featuring stories about how Reagan's policies were hurting the poor. There was graphic film showing the destitute on soup lines or huddling in flophouses. And there were almost regular interviews with the unemployed professing their total lack of faith in Reagan. So depressing was Rather's nightly half-hour that columnist Patrick Buchanan began referring to it as "the CBS Evening Blues." Even when the economic recovery was well under way. Rather appeared not to believe it.
The Administration came under savage attack on the so-called "hunger issue." The president decided to appoint a task force to look into it. Meanwhile, Agriculture Secretary John Block announced that he and his family would try to live for a week on food stamps, the multi-billion dollar program for which he is responsible. Paul Weaver noted in Commentary magazine that Rather wasted no time in derogating the gesture as public relations. In introducing the story, he said, "Agriculture Secretary John Block is a millionaire farmer who owns a $300,000 house in the Washington suburbs."
Which, according to Weaver, raised the question as to whether remarks about Rather should be prefaced with a comparable observation: "Dan Rather is a multi- millionaire TV star and national celebrity who lives in a half-a-million-dollar cooperative on Manhattan's posh Park Avenue and who often presents himself as caring about the poor."
Responding to such criticism, Rather declared, "Part of our job--whether it's a Democratic or Republican administration--is to say to our audience, 'All right, this is what the president says is happening. Now, we're going to go out and see whether in fact, this is what is happening.' When it is, we say so. When it isn't, we say so."
Which can only recall the words of Shakespeare.
Upon what meat doth this our Caesar feed That he is grown so great?
Our electronic Caesar was born in 1931, in Wharton, Texas. His father dug ditches for oil pipelines and his mother was a waitress. Eventually the family settled in Houston, in what Rather describes as a "tough neighborhood." Graduating from high school, Rather enrolled at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. In 1953 he completed his B.A. degree in journalism. This was during the Korean war which Rather managed to avoid. But that didn't stop him from trashing the ROTC unit on campus. In fact, in his 1977 autobiography, The Camera Never Blinks, he boasts about having written pieces for the strident paper "poking fun at the ROTC's ragtag army." What particularly amused him was that the student-soldiers "drilled in makeshift uniforms, in shirts that didn't match their pants."
After a year as a journalism instructor at his alma mater, Rather did join the U.S. Marines for six months. The Korean war was over and he was permitted to leave because he had suffered from rheumatic fever as a child. Then in the mid-fifties Rather joined the staff of KTRH. the CBS radio affiliate in Houston.
After four years at the radio station, Rather moved to CBS's television outlet, KHOU, as news and public affairs director. During this period curiosity led him to experiment with drugs. In an interview in the Ladies Home Journal (July 1980), Rather claimed he "had someone in the Houston police station shoot me with heroin so I could do a story about it. The experience was a special kind of hell I came out understanding full well how one could he addicted to 'smack', end quickly." The Houston Police Department said Rather's statement was next to impossible to hear out, as Rather surely knew.
In September 1961, he came to the attention of CBS in New York with his coverage of Hurricane Carla. For years afterward, though, he was given credit even by top network executive for having freed a terrified horse in danger of drowning in a flooded pen. A horse indeed was saved, but ironically it was saved by a cameraman working with Roger Mudd, covering the hurricane for the network. Because of his hurricane coverage, Rather was promoted to head the CBS bureau in Dallas.
These were the early sixties, and Rather concentrated on the civil rights movement. It was in his coverage of Martin Luther King's activities that Rather apparently first developed a profound disrespect for the FBI. Rather discovered that FBI agents were "crawling all over Birmingham, and they were taking copious notes" about King's activities. In his autobiography, he tells how, while having breakfast, he spotted an agent posing as a magazine writer.
When the agent began making conversation, Rather cut him off. "I don't intend to give you any information," Rather said. "None at all. No offense. I understand what you're doing, but I know it's better for me and probably better for you if I just tell you that I'm a reporter. I don't pass on information about Dr. King and what his people are doing to the law, and I don't pass on to Dr. King what the law is doing,"
In his book, Rather says that in 1964 he was made aware of J. Edgar Hoover's alleged vendetta against King when he listened to a tape recording containing what appeared to be the voices of the reverend and an unidentified young lady. Rather found the tape "completely repulsive." And he adds. "I don't know that the tape was a fake. But it would have been easy enough to do; certainly if you wanted to discredit someone as badly as Hoover did Dr. King. The sad fact is that, although J. Edgar Hoover was a religious and moral man, he had a racist strain in his character."
However, Hoover's concern over King had nothing to do with race. The FBI Director was alarmed about the role the Communists were playing in King's movement, a concern shared by Jack and Bobby Kennedy. They authorized the electronic surveillance of King by the FBI. This was continued during the Johnson administration. Lyndon Johnson delighted in playing tapes provided by the FBI of Dr. Kings extracurricular activities. A secret FBI report, which included material obtained from bugging King's hotel rooms, was circulated within the Executive Branch with the express approval of Bill Moyers who is now a commentator on Rather's program. Moyers, an aide to LBJ at the time, said he saw nothing improper in this.
Although Rather knew about the tapes in 1964, he failed to follow through on what he now concedes was a "valid story." Moreover, in his autobiography, he completely ignored the roles of Kennedy and Johnson in his discussion of the King surveillance. One wonders how Rather would have handled the story had it occurred during the Nixon or Reagan eras.
In his self-applauding autobiography, Rather recounts various stories about his courage under fire. None was more dramatic than the one he told about that terrible night in 1962 when federal marshals were seeking to permit the enrollment of James Meredith, a 29-year-old black, in the all-white University of Mississippi. The center of the drama was the Lyceum building surrounded by marshals carrying riot guns. According to Rather, he crawled on his stomach through an angry, armed mob of klansmen to "slip inside" the besieged building.
"There were no telephones available in the Lyceum," Rather continued, "but if a cameramen had been with me be would have at least shot film of people being wounded and bullets bee-stinging the windows. But I didn't bring one, again, because at one point he would have had to make a naked dash of about 35 yards."
Rather's memory may have been faulty, according to Johann Rush, who had been assigned by Rather to film Meredith's arrival at Ole Miss. Rush, a freelance cameraman, is currently news director of WDAM-TV in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.
"I was the only CBS representative to remain on campus once the rioting and shooting broke out," Rush told AIM. "Rather and the others had long since disappeared. There was no way he could have slipped into the Lyceum. Had he slipped in, there would have been no way for him to have gotten out. For the marshals had barred the doors end fortified the windows with desks and chairs."
Rather also mentioned that he had met Paul Guihard a few minutes before the French correspondent was shot. That was possible, says Rush, but Rather wasn't with Guihard when Rush began giving him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Guihard was dead on arrival at the hospital.
That was about 3:00 a.m. Rush walked five or six blocks to the Old Miss Motel where CBS was making its headquarters. "There," Rush recalls, "I found Rather and others from CBS sitting around, sipping soft drinks and telling stories about other dangerous assignments they had covered." Rush handed a roll of film to Neal Strauser, telling the CBS correspondent he had filmed all he could of the riot. There he reported Guihard's death. Strauser called the hospital end confirmed the story.
"Why Rather failed to mention my role that night I'll never know," Rush says. But Rush did get satisfaction when the CBS documentary Eyewitness, which used his film, received an Emmy award.
In his book, Rather also claims that one week after Meredith was enrolled at Ole Miss he disappeared. And New York wanted Meredith to be interviewed for Eyewitness. "I went through a miniature version of The Perils of Pauline just to get through to him," wrote Rather. "I tracked him down to a small apartment in Jackson some distance from the campus."
According Mr. Rush, this is "just another of Rather's fanciful tales." Meredith had not disappeared at all He had been escorted off the campus by a five-car caravan of marshals. His destination was no mystery. He was headed for his home in Jackson, Mississippi. "And Rather knew it," says Rush, because CBS had made arrangements for an exclusive interview with Meredith in Jackson the next day. Rather assigned Rush to follow Meredith to make sure he wasn't interviewed by another network. Along with a college buddy, Rush tailed Meredith all the way to Jackson. The next day, Rather arrived and had his interview with Meredith. So much for The Perils of Pauline!
Rather also suggests that his dedication to ferreting out truth was always matched by his concern for the safety of underlings" For local people the job could be even stickier." he wrote. "Once, a home-grown cameraman covered a story for us and a gang of thugs came after him with sawed-off cue sticks. Believe me, that is a lethal weapon. He fled into a clothing store and hid in a back room, hanging by the arms from inside a rack of men's suits, while the posse hunted for him. He had a heart attack on the spot. It was a while before he recovered. The story wasn't worth that kind of pain and anguish."
The cameraman was none other than Johann Rush and he scoffs at Rather's recollection. The episode took place when Rush, covering a racial confrontation in McComb, Mississippi, found himself being chased. Ducking into a dress store, Rush hid an exposed roll of film on a nearby shelf. "But" Rush continued, "I did not hang by my arms inside a rack of suits. Rather must have gotten that out of an old Marx brothers' movie. And I'm happy to report I did not suffer from a heart attack."
It was the tragic weekend in November 1963 that brought an end to Rather's career as a Southern journalist. As bureau chief in Dallas, Rather got high marks for coordinating CBS's round-the-clock coverage of the Kennedy assassination. But there were some Dallas newsmen who felt that CBS's coverage was decidedly unfair to their city. Dallas was being pilloried as a haven for rightwing "kooks," even though it was quickly established that the assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, was a leftist who had no Big D roots.
One of those newsmen was Eddie Barker, news director of KRLD, from whose studios Rather was operating. Several nights after the assassination, Barker lost his temper when he watched an anti-Dallas segment on the CBS Evening News. Barker ordered Rather and his colleagues to leave the studio. He had had enough of CBS and its anti-Dallas psychosis. Rather packed his gear and got out. But later, under pressure from New York, Rather was permitted to return to the KRLD newsroom.
Two months later, CBS named Rather its White House correspondent. He supplanted Bob Pierpoint, who was understandably bitter. As Gary Paul Gates put it in his book Air Time: the Inside Story of CBS News. "Pierpoint portrayed Rather as an undeserving upstart who had been given the assignment only because he was from Texas... That aggravated what, even under the best of circumstances, would have been a difficult transition. and Rather floundered about a great deal during his first few months as a White House correspondent."
When the 1964 campaign ended with LBJs landslide victory, CBS proposed that Rather move to London. According to Gates, Rather was "stunned and dismayed," having thought he "was making steady if undramatic progress" at the White House.
After an undistinguished year in London, Rather wangled an assignment to Vietnam. The war had become a rite of passage for young correspondents, some of whom became nationally known for their coverage. In Rather's case, however, there was no sudden catapulting to fame. In the first place, he did not remain there that long. Secondly, his coverage was not the most memorable.
Nevertheless, when he was reassigned to the White House in November 1966, he fancied himself an expert on a war he had come to oppose. At the suggestion of Bill Moyers, then a White House aide, Rather met with LBJ's national security adviser, Walt Rostow.
The session had been a "disaster," according to Rather. "Either the President's principal adviser on the war was shockingly misinformed, or I had just been through a blizzard of snow. Probably, I decided, some of both." Reached in Austin recently, Rostow said he had absolutely no memory of the meeting. At least, Rather's observations on Vietnam had made no deep impression on him. As for Rather's comment, Rostow recalled an ancient saying: "If you don't like what the king is doing. blame his advisers."
That Rather did not like what the "king" was doing in Vietnam became increasingly clear. This was nothing unusual in a press corps infected by anti-war sentiment. But LBJ just couldn't understand why a "boy from Texas" would try to "screw" him. Once, he phoned Rather to complain that he was "reading The New York Times too much."
With Nixon's election, Rather claims he found the new staff out to "get" him. For example, he claims that soon after he met H.R. Haldeman in January 1969, the President's chief of staff snapped at him, "You are a Lyndon Johnson, Texas liberal Democrat and we are going to be watching you." Then, according to Rather Haldeman added, "You won't get anything out of us. And you had best watch your step." Haldeman denies that this conversation ever took place. In fact, he has no recollection of ever talking privately to Rather in those early days. He says that the remarks attributed to him by Rather ere "absolutely made up out of whole cloth."
Haldeman did have one "frank" talk with Rather. But that came some years later. In April 1971, John Ehrlichman, another top Nixon aide, breakfasted with John Hart, a CBS correspondent. Richard Salant, president of CBS News, unexpectedly joined them. Salant asked how Rather was doing. Ehrlichman responded by saying the correspondent was either "biased or lazy." He claimed that Rather rarely checked with him before running with a story. As a result, he said, Rather frequently was off target.
Before long, this conversation found its way into the Nixon folklore as an incident in which the White House staff sought to set Rather fired. Or, as Rather claimed, Ehrlichman had proposed that assign Rather be assigned to a bureau in Austin, or better yet, be given a year's vacation. That none of this was true was confirmed at the time by top CBS executives including Salant.
Returning to Washington, Ehrlichman learned Rather had called for an appointment. With Haldeman present, they met. Ehrlichman explained how he had happened to talk to Salant, the question Salant had asked and how Ehrlichman had replied. Haldeman told Rather he had been careless and unfair. "You have perfected the technique of saying something as absolute fact, when it isn't. People think you know what you're talking about, when you don't. And you get away with it, because people rarely remember what you said."
In his book, Rather said he replied. "Of course it must be easy for you, being on the inside to spot things that are off in terms of tone. Outright mistakes. And I accept my share of the responsibility. But you have to accept yours, because you don't tell us a great deal about what goes on in here." Ehrlichman then said his door was always open.
"For the next two or three weeks," Ehrlichman wrote in Witness to Power. "Rather did call or come in a couple of times a week. But in those contacts I could not help contrasting his professional ability with that of the real reporters among the White House regulars .... In a few weeks Rather stopped calling, and be went back to his old way of doing things."
Then came Watergate. Ehrlichman went to prison. After he served his time, he held a press conference to announce a series of radio commentaries. When asked about the get-Rather-fired rumor. Ehrlichman went over the whole story.
When Ehrlichman returned home, he was called on the carpet by his parole officer. It turned out that Rather had called the Parole Commission to complain that Ehrlichman had made false charges against him while on "permitted travel." Which, as William Safire noted in The New York Times, "was not only a late hit. but an attack on Parolee's right to free speech."
Rather conceded he had made the call. The reason was that he wanted to find out just what Ehrlichman had been saying about him. Ehrlichman's remarks had been carried widely by the wire services. Which was how Rather learned about them in the first place. How he expected the parole people to know any more is a puzzlement. Still, the episode demonstrated the same willingness on Rather's part to abuse power as he so often charged against Nixon's "palace guard."
Rather's occasional outlandish leaps to judgment were never better illustrated than in a story he began telling about how, shotgun in hand, he sent burglars in his Georgetown home scurrying for cover. The episode took place one midnight in April 1972. Rather heard noises coming from downstairs. Stepping out of his bedroom. he shouted into the darkness, "I don't know who you are or what you want, but if you don't get the hell out of here I'm going to blow your ass off."
With that, he rammed a shell into the chamber of his shotgun. The intruders fled. Though he does not say so flatly, he makes it quite clear that the "third-rate burglary" may have been the work of the White House plumbers.
What makes the story important is that Rather keeps telling it, as in his autobiography, despite the fact that Senate Watergate Committee investigators could come up with no evidence that the White House had anything to do with the break-in.
In his five years of Nixon-watching, Rather's "biggest coup"--as a friendly writer noted in the April 1974 Esquire--was his announcement of the impending retirement of Gen. Lewis B. Hershey as Selective Service Director.
Numerous, though, were the stories he got wrong. Thus when Justice John Harlan resigned from the Supreme Court in 1971. Rather claimed Nixon had previously known about it. "The letter has been written for weeks." Rather announced. But, as Ehrlichman has noted, there had been no advance notice. The timing of Harlan's resignation had taken the White House by surprise.
Generally, Rather's technique was to "wing" his stories. He would go with an item even if he didn't have it nailed down. And he usually got away with it, most viewers rarely recalling his gaffes. What they remembered was this handsome, earnest-sounding cowboy-type deliver. ins "news" in exciting fashion. NBC's Richard Valeriani was told by a superior he should remodel himself after Rather. "Start shaking them up at the White House," the executive suggested. Valeriani, no particular Nixon admirer, was horrified at the suggestion. Half of what Rather broadcasts is "bull ....," he told the NBC executive.
One of Rather's stories, lifted from the Wall Street Journal, alleged that Nixon had "soundly slapped" a serviceman in Orlando, Florida. Rather emphasized the fine professional reputation of the reporter who wrote the story. But he failed to report the follow-up story. namely that the man who purportedly had been slapped, now said, "I wasn't slapped. I was affectionately tapped on the cheek. It's the greatest thing that ever happened to me."
What "made" Rather, in the final analysis, was Watergate. And the irony was that he had little to do with uncovering the story. In fact, Rather concedes he would only follow up on what the print media were reporting. What did set Rather apart was that he could vent his unremitting hostility to Nixon over a major television network.
Rather's hostility was demonstrated in his coverage of the White House reception for returning prisoners of war from Vietnam in May 1973. In welcoming the POW's. Nixon said that the nation should "quit making national heroes out of those who steal papers and publish them in newspapers."
But that's not how Rather reported the event. Rather said the Nixon speech was an attempt "to win public support for covering up some criminal cases now under investigation."
Before long, Rather was being touted as "the reporter the President hates." And there could be little doubt that Nixon was getting annoyed with the zingers he was getting from the CBS correspondent. During a press conference in August 1973, for example, Rather prefaced his query by saying. "I want to state this question with due respect to your office."
"That would be unusual," Nixon snapped.
Not all correspondents cottoned to the display. As one of his colleagues told Newsweek, "Who gives a damn what Rather thinks? It's not the job of the press to give its views."
The most celebrated Rather-Nixon run-in took place in March 1974 at the Houston convention of the National Association of Broadcasters. When Rather got up at a press conference, he was greeted with a chorus of applause mixed with boos. Nixon smiled and asked, "Are you running for something?" Glaring at the President, Rather responded, "No sir, Mr. President, are you?"
Again dismay was voiced in media circles over Rather's approach. Phil Geyelin, then editorial page editor of the Washington Post, declared that Rather's response was "gratuitous" and tended "to confirm in the public mind what the President says about TV newscasters." And John Chancellor agreed. "If the President wants to poke fun at a reporter, that's okay," the NBC anchorman said. "But a reporter shouldn't poke fun at a President."
That Rather at times was going off half-cocked could be seen in a documentary he narrated on "The Mysterious Alert," an hour-long probe of the worldwide military alert Nixon ordered during the October 1973 Arab- Israeli war. True, Rather conceded that 50,000 Soviet paratroopers had been placed on combat-ready status. and that a brutally frank note had been sent to Nixon by Brezhnev in which he threatened unilateral action in the Mid-East conflict.
But Rather's bottom line was that Nixon had probably called the alert to divert the nation's attention from Watergate. Needless to say, Rather was absolutely wrong. History now demonstrates that the alert, which led Brezhnev to pull back from the brink, may well have been one of Nixon's finest hours.
On August 8, 1974, Nixon resigned as President. A week later, CBS transferred Rather to New York. He was named anchorman-correspondent for "CBS Reports," thus inheriting a job unfilled since the days of Edward R. Murrow. Still, Rather did not like it. For it gave credence to rumors he was being moved to a less sensitive spot as a result of pressure from network affiliates.
Rather's maiden effort for "CBS Reports" was entitled "Castro, Cuba and the U.S. A." Along with other U.S. newsmen, he spent several days in Cuba. Unlike the others, however, he returned with a generally optimistic account of life in the Communist-controlled island. So much so, that Venceremos, propaganda organ for the Havana regime, called the Rather program "one of U.S. television's finest hours."
That's understandable. CBS had bought a filmed interview with Castro in which he had acknowledged that he was helping revolutionaries subvert other governments "as long as they are fighting." The Organization of American States was debating lifting the trade embargo imposed on Cuba years earlier as punishment for this practice. If Rather had aired what Castro had actually said, it would have been hard to lift the embargo. Castro's actual statement was omitted and Rather summed up Castro's attitude as almost the opposite. According to Rather, Che Guevara "went to Bolivia in 1967, was killed there trying to carry out a Castro-style war. Che's way failed. Now, Castro talks more of conciliation and trade." A few months later, Castro ordered his troops into Angola.
In opening the program, Rather promised that "we also will show you some of what everyday life is like today in Cuba." But about the only "everyday life" shown was of Cubans singing everywhere.
Jim Jensen, of New York's WCBS-TV however, reported that his "first reaction on seeing the people was that they looked kind of sad."
"I can only tell you what a skeptical reporter saw and heard and felt .... "Rather went on. "We were allowed to move freely, with and without guides."
But Jensen saw it differently: "From the moment we arrived in Cuba, American newsmen were escorted by a group of government guides... They would tell the drivers which route to take, and.., tell us what we could and could not film." So much for Rather as a Cuban expert.
In the end, "CBS Reports" did not work out too well. Rather's ratings were low and he appeared to be going nowhere.
Then, out of the blue, Rather was asked to join Mike Wallace and Morley Safer as a correspondent on "60 Minutes." The show was about to move into prime time. Once it did, it began to make huge profits for CBS.
An early "60 Minutes" story on which Rather worked had to do with a small town in Wyoming which he described as "a Western sin city." Reviewing the telecast for the New Yorker, Michael J. Arlen scoffed at Rather for assuming "a trial lawyer's manner, with an emphasis on courtroom tactics and judgmental righteousness."
"A recent example," Arlen went on, "of this growing tendency to let prosecutorial indignation do the work of investigative reporting... occurred when one of the program's sternest musketeers, Dan Rather, galloped into Wyoming to uncover low- and high-level corruption in the state... But, unfortunately, the accusations that Rather made he hardly ever proved."
With his penchant for melodramatics, Rather in 1980 donned an Afghan robe and turban to cross the Pakistan border into Soviet-controlled Afghanistan. There, he breathlessly informed his audience he was under fire. "That round hit the ridge just below me," he gasped
"Gunga Dan," as one TV critic dubbed him, was also shown interviewing an Afghan freedom fighter:
Rather: The war here is really lost, isn't it? The Soviets have won.
Afghan: We will never submit. We fight for our homes and families. We need weapons.
Rather (to interpreter): But he knows it already is too late, doesn't he? The Soviets are in control now.
Afghan: We need weapons. We continue to fight. We have not seen any American weapons. We need them.
Rather: Well, no American mother is going to send her son to Afghanistan.
Afghan: We do not need your soldiers... We need weapons--only weapons and supplies.
Rather: Well, you know we got our fingers burned in Vietnam.
Afghan: If you do not help us with weapons now, you will be next and you will not only burn your fingers but you will be burned all over.
Rather: But it really is too late. The war here is lost.
Once again, Rather proved a miserable prophet. Four years later, Afghan freedom fighters are still holding the Soviets at bay.
One of Rather's more controversial pieces was entitled "The Shah-Kissinger Connection." Rather's thesis was that Kissinger, as Secretary of State in 1973, had encouraged the Shah of Iran to lead the OPEC nations into raising oil prices. The idea was to give Iran 'enough financial reserves to become a first-rate military power. Bill Buckley dubbed the Rather program "a lynching." And for good reason.
True, Kissinger had been invited to state his cm. At first, he accepted, giving Rather the names of ten expert witnesses who would verify his lack of complicity in the OPEC price rise. But CBS refused to invite any of them. So Kissinger declined to appear, sending Rather a five* page letter. But in his broadcast, Rather failed to refer to the letter. Instead, Rather quoted the former Secretary's off-the-record comments concerning two of his detractors--James Akins, Ambassador to Saudi Arabia when oil prices went up; and former Undersecretary of state George Ball.
"Akins is lying," Rather quoted Kissinger, "and (has) engaged in a personal vendetta against me... (Ball) is a partisan political opponent.., jealous of me, end long engaged in a personal campaign to destroy me." On "60 Minutes," Rather asked Ball, "Do you have any indication, have you ever seen any evidence that Dr. Kissinger did try to use his influence with the Shah to keep the prices down?" "No," Ball replied.
Kissinger's letter, however, had this to say: "Immediately after the OPEC decision (to raise the price of oil) on December 28 I wrote a strong letter of protest to the Foreign Minister of Saudi Arabia and to President Sadat. President Nixon, on the basis of my recommendation and draft, sent a strong letter of protest to the King of Saudi Arabia. On December 29, I sent an even stronger protest to the Shah. The cable to the Shah included the following sentences: "The President is greatly concerned over the destabilizing impact the price increases ... will have on the world's economy and the catastrophic problems it could pose to the international monetary system. We believe this drastic price increase is particularly unreasonable coming as it does when supplies are being artificially restrained.'"
This letter, as noted, was in Dan Rather's hands prior to his broadcast. Yet, none of it was alluded to in the program. As in other instances, Rather's attitude clearly was: Why spoil a good story with facts?
Still another example of this approach was to kick back in embarrassing fashion. This was when he did a "60 Minutes" segment on insurance fraud entitled "It's No Accident." During the broadcast, Rather held up a phony medical report and said, "It was signed by Dr. Carl A. Galloway. M.D."
Claiming his name was forged, Dr. Galloway tried a $30 million slander suit against CBS and Rather. At the Los Angeles trial, Rather did not dispute Galloway's claim- Rather, however, insisted that he had repeatedly left messages for Galloway to call him but that the doctor failed to return his calls. "People with nothing to hide will get back to you," he said. "The others usually hire a lawyer." Galloway testified he had never gotten Rather's messages.
Rather conceded he had never met Galloway. But to explain his conclusion that Galloway was a dishonest doctor, Rather said, "If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck and quacks like a duck--you've got a duck." Even Rather's normally liberal defenders were appalled. As Gary Deeb, the TV critic, put it, "Not only was that statement a stunning (though unintentional) admission of arrogance and a bizarre snap judgment, it also was nearly a carbon copy of a favorite phrase used by the late Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the 1958 Communist witchhunts."
The trial attracted considerable attention, and it resulted in CBS being required to let the plaintiff see the outtakes of the program, material filmed but not shown on the air. This led to the discovery that Rather and his producer had filmed persons being interviewed for the program several times, covering the same ground. This showed that the interviews were not "spontaneous and unrehearsed," as ..CBS News operating standards require. In one case, the interviewee drastically altered some figures he was citing, evidently to make them more dramatic.
Eventually, the jury found CBS not guilty of libeling Galloway. And CBS spokesmen gleefully described the decision as a vindication. The jury foreman, David Campbell, thought otherwise. Interviewed by Human Events, Campbell contended that CBS "won on a narrow point," namely, the judge's instructions on what constituted "reckless disregard of the truth."
Given the instructions, Campbell said, the jury could only have ruled in Galloway's favor if evidence had been presented showing the defendants (CBS and Rather) had "entertained serious doubts" about the Galloway allegation. In other words, because Rather believed something was true, even though it wasn't--under the libel law--meant that no malice was involved. Campbell said the Rather program was "nothing to be proud of." considering the numerous examples of deceptive editing and news staging involved in its production. "CBS got off scot free--freer than they should have," he said.
A footnote to the trial was provided by Rather when he claimed that Carol Gallo, representing Human Events, had been harassing him. In a loud voice, he demanded that he be accorded the protection of the court. What made the episode particularly amusing was that when a journalist phoned Rather to inquire about the contretemps, the CBS anchorman failed to return the call.
Another newsman whom Rather repeatedly refused to call back was Steve Wilson. Representing "Breakaway," a daily TV magazine program, Wilson was seeking to interview Rather about the Galloway suit. Wilson stationed himself outside CBS news headquarters.
When Wilson spotted Rather, he said, "Could I see you for just a moment: I've called your office three times. I've sent you a registered letter... I don't know how else to do it." Rather responded: "Get the microphone right up, will you? Placing his left hand on Wilson's shoulder, he said, "(Bleep) you!" "You got it clearly?" Rather added, as he walked away.
Rather later apologized to Wilson for his behavior. In a letter, Rather wrote, "I mistook who you were and what you were doing. That was inexcusable, rude and un- Christian behavior for which I am remorseful."
Wilson responded, "I think he had a serious lapse of personal judgment."
Rather had another such serious lapse back in 1978 when he got into a dispute with AIM's Reed Irvine. Their phone conversation is illuminating.
Irvine: I have just watched your appearance on the (Phil) Donahue program, and I found it very interesting. I was most interested in your response to the viewer who charged you with being liberal. You denied that you were, and my mind went back to our correspondence a couple of years ago on your endorsement of The Progressive (a leftist magazine). Rather: I have never endorsed The Progressive. Irvine: Well, they were sending out mailings to solicit subscriptions that included a statement from you. I presume you authorized that. Rather: If I did that for National Review, would that make me a conservative? Irvine: Have you ever endorsed National Review? Rather: I read it. Irvine: Have you ever authorized them to use a statement of yours to solicit subscriptions? Rather: Yes. Irvine: Do you do that for everyone? Rather: I didn't understand what this call was about. Now I recall You are a right-wing pressure group and ... Irvine: Right-wing? What do you mean by right-wing? You said on the Donahue show that you did not know what was meant by liberal and conservative. Could you tell me what you mean by right-wing? Rather: Would you like to listen very carefully? And you may quote me. Irvine: Yes, of course. Rather: (Bleep) you!
CBS had ordered Rather to tell the Progressive to stop using his endorsement. The mailing continued unchanged. Rather claimed he had told them to stop, but editor Erwin Knoll denied this, and Rather refused to say when or how he had communicated his wishes.
Several months before taking over as anchorman on the CBS Evening News, Rather got into a brawl with a Chicago cab driver. What is known is there was a high speed chase with Rather frantically shouting, "Please call the police. I'm being kidnapped by a madman."
The cabbie claimed that Rather had refused to pay the fare. Mike Royko, the Chicago columnist reported that Rather had demanded suspension of the cabbie's license. After talking to the cabbie, Royko concluded that this was another case of a poor underdog up against a multi-millionaire media star.
Two months later, Rather announced he was dropping disorderly conduct charges against the cabbie, because of a "mounting schedule of reporting assignments." By this time, Dan Rather had beat out Roger Mudd for CBS's top news job. Mudd, a far more cerebral journalist and acute political observer, had long been considered the heir apparent.
Mudd issued this statement: "The management of CBS and CBS News has made its decision on Walter Cronkite's successor, according to its current values and standards. From the beginning, I've regarded myself as a news reporter and not as a newsmaker or celebrity."
All the heir to Cronkite would say was, "I earned it." And, as noted, he's earning plenty. But what makes his financial status so interesting is the comment Rather mode in his book on Barbera Walters and her million-a- year ABC contract.
"It is true," Rather wrote, "Barbara came out of what is basically a variety show, not news. But she is a gifted interviewer and no one outworks her. If anyone comes close to being worth a million, she may. But in my own view no one in this business is, no matter what or how many shows they do, unless they find a cure for cancer on the side."
As of now, Dan Rather has yet to find a cure for cancer.
Victor Lasky is the author of It Didn't Start With Watergate: JFK, The Man and the Myth and many other books.
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