- Anchorman and Managing Editor of CBS Evening News from 1981-2005
- Star attraction of 2001 Democratic Party fundraiser
Daniel Irvin Rather was born October 31, 1931 in Wharton, Texas. In 1953 he graduated with a degree in journalism from Sam Houston State Teachers College. He had already been working for Associated Press and then United Press International and a few radio stations as a “stringer” reporting on local events in Huntsville, north of Houston.
Being in college gave Rather a semester-by-semester student deferment from being drafted into the Korean War. “The way he got around being eligible for the draft was he joined a reserve unit, ‘Army reserve,’” wrote B.G. Burkett, co-author of the book Stolen Valor.
In early 1954 Rather joined the U.S. Marines but was discharged less than four months later for being medically unfit. “He couldn’t do the physical activity,” according to Burkett. Ever since, Rather has described himself as a former U.S. Marine. “This,” wrote Burkett, “is like a guy who flunks out of Harvard running around saying he went to Harvard.”
Returning to journalism, Rather worked at the Houston Chronicle during 1954-55. In 1959 he became a television reporter for KTRK-TV in Houston, then moved to rival KHOU-TV, where by 1962 he had worked his way up to the position of station news director. In 1962 CBS network executives hired Rather as a news correspondent. The following year, they promoted him to cover the White House.
The style of journalism that has characterized Rather’s career was soon evident. “Rather would go with an item even if he didn’t have it completely nailed down with verifiable facts,” wrote Timothy Crouse in his best-seller about presidential campaign coverage in the Nixon era, The Boys on the Bus. “If a rumor sounded solid to him, if he believed in his gut or had gotten it from a man who struck him as honest, he would let it rip. The other White House reporters hated Rather for this. They knew exactly why he got away with it: being handsome as a cowboy, Rather was a star at CBS News, and that gave him the clout he needed. They could quote all his lapses from fact.”
During a 1974 press conference with President Richard Nixon, the President indicated that the next question belonged to an ABC reporter, but Rather butted in: “Thank you, Mr. President. Dan Rather of CBS News. Mr. President …” By now, other reporters were jeering Rather’s brazen behavior, prompting Nixon to joke: “Are you [Rather] running for something?” “No, sir, Mr. President,” Rather replied arrogantly. “Are you?”
CBS executives debated whether to fire Rather over the controversial White House incident. But veteran anchorman Walter Cronkite was nearing retirement, and the network’s attempt to hire NBC’s Tom Brokaw was scrapped after it became public. Consequently, CBS named Rather to succeed Cronkite.
Dan Rather’s first broadcast as the new Anchorman and Managing Editor of the CBS Evening News took place March 9, 1981, weeks after Republican Ronald Reagan had been sworn in as President. The anti-Republican bias in Rather’s own reporting already had been widely recognized, but as Managing Editor, Rather now imposed his slant on all newscast reporting, not just his own. Every bad economic story, for example, mentioned “Reaganomics,” a label Rather would cease using after the economy had improved. In one report by correspondent Ray Brady, Reagan’s success in ending predecessor President Jimmy Carter’s double-digit inflation was reported as bad news: bad, said Brady, because with no rise in the cost of living, welfare recipients would get no cost-of-living increases in their welfare checks.
On September 11, 1987, Rather — angry that a tennis broadcast threatened to delay his newscast covering Pope John Paul II’s visit to Miami — stormed off the set. When the tennis match then ended sooner than expected at 6:32 p.m., Rather was nowhere to be found, leaving more than 100 affiliate stations with six minutes of dead air. “I would have fired him,” Walter Cronkite later said of Rather’s behavior. “There’s no excuse for it.”
In a controversial 1988 documentary, dubbed “The First Rathergate” by National Review reporter Anne Morse, Rather purported to interview Vietnam veterans about atrocities they had committed during the war. But as Morse documented, everything in Rather’s report was untrue.
According to columnist Liz Smith, Rather took part in a 1988 fundraiser for Democrat Ann Richards in New York City that “gathered up money in buckets” used in 1990 to elect Richards Governor of Texas. Richards lost her bid for re-election to George W. Bush.
As its news ratings slid downward in the 1990s, CBS tried to improve Rather’s image in various ways — from putting him in sweaters to teaming him in 1993-95 with co-anchor Connie Chung. CBS’s handlers also had the Texan use “folksy” sayings that came to be known as “Ratherisms.” (For example: “This race is shakier than cafeteria Jello”; “Governor Bush would probably be as mad as a rained-on rooster”; or “This thing is as tight as the rusted lugnuts on a ’55 Ford.”) For a time they had Rather end each broadcast with the word “Courage.” None of these gimmicks halted the Rather ratings slide.
According to Bias author Bernard Goldberg, Rather’s leftward bias was one reason for the declining number of CBS news viewers. Rather was apparently unwilling to employ non-liberal producers or reporters. He almost always deflected questions about his bias by dismissing his critics as partisans.
“You have to understand that Dan Rather is Richard Nixon,” a colleague told Goldberg. “If he sees you as an enemy even for a second, you’re an enemy for life. And like Nixon, Rather must destroy his enemies [and] has become what he detested.”
In his 2003 book Arrogance: Rescuing America from the Media Elite, Goldberg quotes a 1995 Rather news story: “The new Republican majority in Congress took a big step today on its legislative agenda to demolish or damage government aid programs, many of them designed to help children and the poor.”
Over the years, Rather has been candid about his deep admiration for Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton. Characterizing Mr. Clinton as an “honest man,” Rather once said (amid the height of the Clinton scandals) to Fox News Channel host Bill O’Reilly: “Who among us have not lied about somebody? I think you can be an honest person and lie about any number of things.”
“If we could be one-hundredth as great as you and Hillary Rodham Clinton have been in the White House,” said Rather during an interview with Bill Clinton, “we’d take it right now and walk away winners.”
While he has done friendly interviews with the Clintons, Fidel Castro and Saddam Hussein, Rather over the years has demonstrated thinly veiled hostility towards Republicans and conservatives. His aforementioned confrontation with President Nixon is but one example.
“I think Dan is transparently liberal,” Rather’s CBS colleague Andy Rooney told CNN’s Larry King during a 2002 interview. “I always agree with him, too. But I think he should be more careful.”
In 2001 Dan Rather helped the Travis County [Texas] Democratic Party raise $20,000. “Please join us for an evening with DAN RATHER,” read the invitations that, as Brent Bozell of Media Research Center reported at the time, arrived with “an RSVP envelope asking for $1,000 for the Democratic Party.” Rather later claimed he did not know that the event — created by and for his activist, politically-ambitious daughter — was a fundraiser. When asked about it by Howard Kurtz of the Washington Post, Rather said he “wouldn’t be surprised” if “critics” used the incident to call him a closet Democrat. “I’m going to get that criticism,” said Rather, “whether I deserve it or not.”
Travis County, Texas includes the liberal capital city Austin. The county party on whose behalf Rather appeared at that 2001 fundraiser is heavily connected with local Democratic lobbyist Ben Barnes, one of the biggest fundraisers for Democrats in the United States. Barnes appeared in the same 2004 “60 Minutes II” story in which Rather first displayed some documents alleging that George W. Bush had shirked his duties when he was in the Texas Air National Guard in the 1960s and 1970s. The documents were quickly proved to be forgeries.
Barnes claimed in that interview to have used political influence to get a young George W. Bush into the Texas Air National Guard (and thereby enable him to avoid active combat) during the Vietnam War, a claim Barnes’ own daughter has said her father told her was a lie. Dan Rather, in introducing Barnes, told the CBS audience nothing about the shipwreck of Barnes’ political career amid a bribery and stock fraud scandal, nor that Barnes stood to become very wealthy as a toll-collecting “gatekeeper” for White House favors if John F. Kerry, for whom Barnes had raised at least $500,000 in campaign contributions, were to be elected.
The forged memos were sent to CBS, according to the Washington Post, from Abilene, Texas. The suspected faxer, Bill Burkett, was represented by lawyer David Van Os, former chairman of the Travis County Democratic Party. Burkett has been a Democratic Party activist in Travis County, and has said that he gave his information to John Kerry’s presidential campaign via Kerry spokesman former Georgia Senator Max Cleland.
Rather retired as the Anchorman and Managing Editor of the CBS Evening News in 2005, airing his final broadcast on March 9 of that year.
On September 19, 2007, Rather filed a $70 million lawsuit against CBS, its former parent company Viacom, CBS President Les Moonves, Viacom Chairman Sumner Redstone, and former CBS News President Andrew Heyward. Rather charged that the network and its ownership and management had made him a “scapegoat” in the false story regarding George W. Bush’s military experience.
This profile is based largely on the article “Who Is Dan Rather?” written by Lowell Ponte and published by FrontPageMagazine.com on September 20, 2004.