By Tom Shales
Wednesday, June 21, 2006; C01
Dan Rather is a free man. After an appropriately acrimonious final round of legal wrangling, his 44 years with CBS News came to an end yesterday -- or will come to an end today. Or will end Friday. There's a bit of confusion on that point.
Those who have followed the awkward exit of Rather from his position first as anchor of the "CBS Evening News" last year, then as a CBS News employee this year, often ask a simple question: How could a network for which Rather has done so much and served so loyally treat him so shabbily as the curtain falls?
Some think there is a strange personal grudge against Rather by CBS chief executive Leslie Moonves, who was quoted diplomatically in a CBS news release yesterday as saying of Rather, "The unique mark he has left on his craft is indelible." Others think there is intense pressure on CBS News President Sean McManus to clear Rather and all remnants of him from the premises in preparation for the arrival of Katie Couric, the former "Today" show host who will anchor the "Evening News" this fall and has a growing reputation in the business as the neediest diva on the block.
An explanation from one of Rather's many supporters inside the company: "We're dealing with a bunch of classic idiots."
Reached at his home in New York, Rather did not sound rattled. It is unlikely he will make an appearance at the fly-infested CBS News building on New York's West 57th Street this week; the contents of his office -- including the family Bible that was always opened to a different verse -- have been removed and will be sent to him. As of Friday, officially, Dan Rather and CBS News will no longer be one.
Now that the smoke has cleared from a final skirmish, Rather says he and his wife, Jean, and one or two of their children are headed for a retreat in the Catskills that has been in the family for decades. Then the couple will head to Alaska because Dan loves to fish there, and because the air is so clean. Especially when compared with the air on the Upper West Side.
CBS will pay Rather, either by lump sum or biweekly paychecks, through November, when his contract is officially up. Since he makes $12 million a year, that was worth arguing about, and CBS executives did argue until Monday. As most of those who follow such events know, Rather was removed as anchor of the "CBS Evening News" a year short of his 25th anniversary after the airing of an apparently flawed "60 Minutes II" report on George W. Bush's alleged special treatment while in the Texas National Guard. Rather was the correspondent on that report. One producer lost her job, others are suing.
Don Hewitt, executive producer of "60 Minutes," and Mike Wallace, its most famous correspondent, huffed and puffed and declared that Rather should resign. Dan Rather is not the resigning type. Wallace has since apologized.
Although the CBS farewell statement issued yesterday was mostly bland and laudatory, it was updated later in the day on the CBS Web site after Rather's statement was released; a small blog war ensued. "In response to the [Rather] statement," said the Web site, "a CBS spokeswoman said: 'We value and respect Dan's tremendous career at CBS News. Despite the fact that we couldn't reach an agreement that satisfied everyone, we wish him all future success.' "
Rather was reassigned after the Bush report to join the correspondents on "60 Minutes" and "60 Minutes II," a then-successful spinoff of the original classic news program. If "60 Minutes II" went off the air, the agreement said -- and it did go off the air -- Rather was to join "60 Minutes," where he'd earlier made a major mark as an investigative reporter, full time. But Rather discovered in fairly short order that he was a correspondent in only a token, perfunctory way.
He contributed a mere seven reports to the shows over the past year and a half, Rather said Monday. "From 18 to 22 is the norm."
Some of his detractors claimed this was poetic justice because Rather, on ascending to the anchor chair March 9, 1981, supposedly banished his predecessor, Walter Cronkite, from ever appearing on the program and even from doing other reporting work for CBS News. But one of Rather's supporters said yesterday that, first of all, Rather would hardly have had the authority to "ban" Cronkite from the airwaves and, second, Cronkite hosted a series, "Universe," in prime time on the network.
That his last weeks and days at CBS should be marked by turbulence seems somehow appropriate for Rather, although through the years he has been among the most ferociously loyal of company men where CBS News was concerned. As with such illustrious predecessors as Edward R. Murrow, Rather's in-house enemies were up in the corporate stratosphere, not down in the trenches with the hard-working journalists.
He suffered and squirmed under the disastrous reign of CBS Chairman Laurence Tisch, who slashed the news division budget and, by losing professional football to another network, lost a number of important affiliates, too. Rather's "Evening News," which had been No. 1, eventually fell to third place. In some major markets its lead-in, the local CBS station's news, was paltry, further handicapping the Rather program.
Over the years he endured all kinds of advice and counsel on his delivery of the news. There were plans to do the newscast standing up after Cronkite left, but those were abandoned. For a while, Rather wore a sleeveless sweater under his jacket to try to "warm him up" on the air. Some found his formality too rigid. As the hired entertainment at a Clinton-era press dinner, radio shock jock Don Imus observed, "Dan Rather delivers the news as if he were making a hostage tape."
But all the comments only tend to "underscore," as Rather liked to say, his controversiality on the air, his status as a national lightning rod, a dynamic personality about whom no one seemed to lack an opinion. On the CBS Web site yesterday, former rival Tom Brokaw spoke in mellow tones of the old three-anchor era that is now history, Brokaw having retired, ABC's Peter Jennings having died and the great Rather having been brought down from his pedestal.
"Dan, Peter and I chased each other around the world a lot," Brokaw recalled. "We made each other better, I think, by being so competitive." It was Rather who was the most competitive of all and whose trips to the news sites of the world forced his fellow anchors to follow. This might be his great contribution: redefining the term anchor to such a degree that "anchor" is an anomaly. An anchor holds a ship in one place, but Rather was always on the go, whether interviewing terrorists in the Mideast or clinging to a tree in the midst of a torrential hurricane.
He was and remains a living legend in the business he loves, and the bumpy years that ended his CBS run cannot change that. One of Rather's former bosses, Sir Howard Stringer (now president of Sony Corp.), used to marvel that when he'd walk down the street with Rather, the anchor had a magnetic effect on people -- real people, who would come up to him to shake his hand or express a grievance or offer words of admiration.
Last night, Bob Schieffer -- Rather's temporary successor -- said on "CBS Evening News": "Dan Rather was one of the great reporters of his time." This followed an affectionate and even stirring report by Anthony Mason that retraced a few of Rather's giant steps.
Rather says that, though 74, he has no intention of leaving broadcast news. But watching the farewell report last night, one couldn't help thinking: We shall not see his like again. Ever. Because the domain he dominated is one of the things he is taking with him.
The world has changed a lot in Rather's 44 years at CBS. Yesterday, it changed a little more.