spores and stripes: dan rather’s lunatic fringe

What about Rather’s incognito venture in to Afghanistan that same year, running around with the mujahadin as they merrily sniped away at hapless Soviet troops, Rather sneaking about in peasant garb, looking like a DEA agent trying to sneak backstage at a Burning Spear concert….”


by marc covert


It must be tough to be Dan Rather. A high-profile media icon such as he must never know peace; his instantly recognizable mug forever preventing him from just being able to mingle with the masses, getting the straight poop from the average Joe on the street. And of course, the 9-11 attacks have changed everything: so many cameras, so little time. It’s just a matter of time before he brings serious injury upon himself by leaping bodily in front of a traffic-interchange camera, all the time screaming out his latest take on the Attack on America, Freedom, and 0 Percent Financing. Not least of all, it must be tough to stay the course in a long, protracted, difficult battle, one that is bound to involve combatant casualties as well as collateral damage. By that of course, I mean the erratic trajectory of his grasping, grim-faced, incessant quest for greatness, respect, and, dare I say, a legacy.

The only other person I have ever seen wage such a desperate, relentless scramble for glory was Bill Clinton, whose eight years of happy circumstance were brought crashing to a tawdry halt when he leaned back in his squeaky leather chair and instructed Monica Lewinski to put a lip-lock on his lobster. Legacy, indeed, the type that has sent history textbook authors scrambling for the thesaurus, trying to find synonyms for “hummer.”
But maybe it’s not so tough to be Dan Rather after all. His long career has seen endless opportunities for such self-immolating gaffes; when you think about it, every time someone puts a live mike in his face, his handlers must draw in gasping breaths in unison, slapping their sphincters shut in lockstep, praying this won’t be The One, the final breakdown of what little grasp on sanity he ever had. He has not often let those opportunities pass, yet there he sits to this day, somehow always able to emerge from the fray unscathed.

Take, for example, the following quote from a 1980 interview in Ladies Home Journal: “I had someone at 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 be addicted to ‘smack’…I’ve tried everything…I know a fair amount about LSD.” Now, picture if you will, a reporter from Ladies Home Journal sitting there, mouth agape, tape recorder hissing, trying to come up with follow-up questions for that little gem.

Or what about Rather’s incognito venture in to Afghanistan that same year, running around with the mujahadin as they merrily sniped away at hapless Soviet troops, Rather sneaking about in peasant garb, looking like a DEA agent trying to sneak backstage at a Burning Spear concert. Or his storming off the set of the CBS Evening News on Sept. 11, 1987, pitching a fit when informed that his broadcast may be delayed by a tennis match? Six minutes of an empty swivel chair, in a perfect world, would have cost Rather his job, or at least tarred him as the “Hanoi Jane” of broadcast news, but he was on last night when I checked. Or the infamous “Courage” signoffs during the week of September 2, 1985 (broken up on Thursday by “Coraje,” a Spanish version). There is an embarrassment of riches when it comes to “Ratherisms,” too many to list here.

Somehow he hangs in there. I think the closest he ever came to losing his mind once and for all was during the ill-fated Dan Rather/Connie Chung matchup of 1993-1995. CBS wanted desperately to get the hell out of its last-place slump and paired Rather and Chung on its evening newscast; the outright resentment, hatred, and rage brewing within Rather made it worth watching just to see when he would finally explode on camera, giving the annals of television history perhaps its most surreal display ever. It may well have happened had not Chung sandbagged Newt Gingrich’s mom into alluding to Hillary Clinton as a “bitch” in front of a rolling camera (good thing she didn’t say “rhymes with ‘punt’). It was going to be one or the other; Connie opened a door and nervous CBS execs did not hesitate to hit her in the ass with it on her way out.

I wouldn’t have made it through those two years to see any final blowup. It was about halfway through the Rather/Chung era when I had my Dan Rather epiphany; I can’t remember exactly what was going on, probably some sort of flyover in Iraq, because Chung was safely ensconced behind the anchor’s desk at CBS, while Rather was dressed in full, ridiculous battle fatigues, clutching his microphone like he had a cobra in a headlock, screaming out his report directly in front of the open door of a military helicopter as it swept along some desert panorama. (At least the network had the sense not to put them both in a speeding helicopter. Rather probably could never have resisted the urge to frag Chung once and for all: “Connie, you’ve just got to see this! WHOOPS!”) It finally hit me: there was no reason for Rather to be on this ride-along, none whatsoever; it was just another in a long string of frantic, headlong stunts to raise CBS from its dead-last place in the ratings. I just haven’t been able to stomach the sight of him on the news ever since.

So it was with some sense of uneasiness that I tuned in Rather during the 48-hour, glassy-eyed, mouth-breathing marathon I spent watching the news after the 9-11 attacks. Our Dan did not disappoint when it came to bizarre, unfathomable behavior on live TV. I’m not sure where he was when the attacks occurred, but you can bet he got his ass into the studios post-haste, determined not to miss one moment of career-defining, preordained face time. He was quite a sight by time evening rolled around; I’ve seen Jerry Lewis look better than that on Labor Day night. Rather’s heavy-lidded, greasy-eyeballed, slogan-slinging, “drunk-on-attention” performance, complete with unfathomable outbursts of “patriotic” rhetoric that came across more like power-mad, flag-waving, conservative shilling was just the beginning.

Rather’s incessant crusade to stake his claim in the journalistic Vahalla populated by Harry Reasoner, David R. Murrow, and their ilk (with spots reserved for Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley) has kicked into overdrive in the weeks since the attacks. What drives me crazy is that time and time again he gets a pass for his bald-faced self-aggrandizement. Cronkite himself has said we should lay off of Rather for his crying jag on the Letterman show, when one would think Cronkite himself would be crying himself to sleep at night over the current state of journalistic “objectivity.” Cronkite has also been silent on the statement Rather managed to choke out once Letterman took him in his arms, dried his tears, and rocked him gently: “George Bush is the president. He makes the decisions, and, you know, I’m just one American. Wherever he wants me to line up, just tell me where.”

And of course, the ever-present threat of a snub-induced Rather meltdown was averted earlier this month when anthrax reared its ugly head at CBS studios, infecting an unfortunate aide with the skin-contracted version of the disease. “I’ve been a target for a lot of years,” he said. “We are at war…in wars, people do bestial, savage things.” He has since declared that he will not be tested for anthrax, nor will he take antibiotics, in direct defiance of terrorists. I suppose it’s just a coincidence that both Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw have been tested, and Brokaw was placed on a two-week Cipro regimen as a precaution. Don’t be surprised to see Rather rolling around nude in a huge vat of spores, screaming “here’s what I think of Evildoers!” as be berates Brokaw and Jennings as “Cipro-sucking sissies,” if that’s what it takes to assure his place in the pantheon of broadcast greatness. The gaffes and jaw-dropping comments will continue, mark my words, and who knows how long Rather will manage to stumble, Clouseau-like, through a minefield of his own making?


Originally published:
Issue Fifteen
November 2001


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