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Dan Rather, Leaving By the High Road

By Tom Shales
Wednesday, March 9, 2005; Page C01

Emptying out his cubbyhole office in the CBS News building on West 57th Street in New York, wading through stacks and boxes of memorabilia accumulated over the years, Dan Rather came upon a piece of framed embroidery made and sent to him a couple decades ago by a nun who was, one might say, among the faithful -- a regular and loyal viewer.

"Be thou a soul to fullness grown," says one of her meticulously embroidered mottos. "Arise to gain thy dreams." Rather's voice warms. "Pretty nice, huh?" he says. Among the other embroidered words of wisdom: "Today's trials were meant to make you strong."

"Now I'm guilty of a lot of things, and I've made a lot of mistakes -- but I haven't made that mistake -- of running, backing away," Dan Rather says. (By John Paul Filo - CBS)

Video: Washington Post media critic Paul Farhi discusses NBC anchor Dan Rather's final broadcast.
Audio: Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz reflects on Dan Rather's final anchor broadcast.

Some call them "Ratherisms." Others prefer "Danisms." Either way, it was election time that inspired Dan Rather to come up with his most memorable sayings. A sampling:


• "Walter Mondale has seen the light at the end of the tunnel -- and it's out."


• "You can pour water on the fire, call in the dogs, the hunt is over, Terry Sanford has won the North Carolina Senate race."


• "George Bush is sweeping through the South like a tornado through a trailer park."

• Bush went through Dukakis's hopes in Georgia "like a jackknife through peaches."

• In Florida, "where the flamingos fly, George Bush has taken off."

• Daniel Patrick Moynihan's Senate opponent was thought by some observers to have "about as much business in this race as a moose in a phone booth."

• In the Southwest, "fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, and Republicans have to win in Arizona."


• The election is so exciting it could "make the wax pop out of your ears if you love politics."

• Clinton took one state like "a big wheel through a Georgia cotton field."

• Texas is "the big enchilada or, if not an enchilada, then a huge taco."


• On the Democrats' challenge, "It was always a big rock up a high hill. The rock just got bigger and the hill just got higher."

• Election results were "scary enough to make the Democrats' fingernails sweat."


• Election night was "the long kiss goodnight for Bob Dole."

• In reference to a poll showing Colin Powell would have beaten Clinton: "Woulda, coulda, shoulda. If a frog didn't have long hind legs, he wouldn't have squat to jump with."


• "This race is tight like a too-small bathing suit on a too-long ride home from the beach."

• "Sip it, savor it, cup it, photostat it, underline it in red, press it in a book, put it in an album, hang it on the wall, George Bush is the next president of the United States."

• "We've lived by the crystal ball and learned to eat so much broken glass tonight that we're in critical condition."


• "This race is hotter than a Times Square Rolex."

• "This race is humming along like Ray Charles."

• "This situation in Ohio would give an aspirin a headache."

• "We don't know what to do. We don't know whether to wind a watch or bark at the moon."

-- Compiled by John Maynard

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With a few parting words and possibly -- but unlikely -- a few parting shots, Dan Rather will make his last appearance tonight as anchor of "The CBS Evening News," 24 years to the day since his first telecast as anchor and a full year sooner than he planned. As virtually all of our world knows, Rather agreed to step down in the wake of a scandal involving a discredited "60 Minutes Wednesday" story on George W. Bush's supposed preferential treatment while in the National Guard.

The case, which resulted in four of the top people in CBS News being told to leave, has caused a tremendous schism within the organization, ruining Rather's exit not only by moving it up a year but also by hanging a dark cloud over it. Rather, who's had many trials and certainly seems a soul to fullness grown, is told it's a shame he couldn't be leaving on a high note.

"First of all, from where I sit, I am leaving on a high note," Rather says, "and a higher note than I deserve and certainly a higher note than I ever thought possible when I walked into this job. Secondly, what's gone on these past few months, it all goes with the territory, as the cliche goes. It's part of the turf, particularly if you're determined to at least try to be an independent reporter. And I understand that very well."

(Rather's amazing 42-year career at CBS News, including a discussion of the flawed Bush report, will be recapped in a fascinating and evocative documentary, "Dan Rather: A Reporter Remembers," produced by Judy Tygard and airing at 8 tonight, after Rather's farewell newscast.)

In addition to the indignity of leaving the anchor chair prematurely, for weeks Rather has had to endure attacks from not only outside but inside CBS News -- like a combination of Davy Crockett and Julius Caesar. In a devastating Ken Auletta piece for the New Yorker, such venerable CBS personalities as Mike Wallace and Walter Cronkite were quoted as saying they preferred watching Peter Jennings over Rather and basically dismissed him.

Then on Monday, just two days before Rather's farewell, old man Cronkite, the anchor Rather replaced, had the stupefying temerity to say that he thought Bob Schieffer, the "Face the Nation" host who'll fill in on the "Evening News" until a remodeled program is hatched later this year, would have made a better anchor. "I would like to have seen him there a long time ago," Cronkite said of Schieffer on CNN. He also said Rather "gave the impression of playing a role more than simply trying to deliver the news to the audience."

Talk about bad form. "A codgerly old ass," one Rather loyalist, asking not to be identified, said of Cronkite. "He stayed alive just so he could see this moment." However pathetic Cronkite's remarks make him seem, they enforce the image of "Dan Rather -- Alone at the Top." Unlike some of Rather's adventures over the years -- the coolest anchor, he's one of the few men over 60 who can successfully still wear jeans -- this one is dead serious.

Rather will not be dragged into a mud fight. "I've said consistently to everybody that I'm not going to respond to that," he says. But he agrees to continue.

"First, this is parenthetical, but I've been moved, and I like to think I'm not moved easily, by how many people, particularly people who make the place go -- technicians, editors, writers, researchers, producers, people I've worked closest with -- have taken the time and trouble and had the grace to come up to me and say encouraging and supportive things. And that means a lot to me. . . . . Now, close parentheses." Rather often includes punctuation in his remarks.

"This is no big deal, but when you ask me about those specific quotes from those specific people, this is what I have to say, and it's all I have to say: That the accomplishments of these men speak for themselves. Individually and collectively, they've had some of the truly great careers in television news, at CBS or anywhere else. Since that's the way they feel, they're entitled to express their opinions. They've earned the right to voice them. Period."

Although Cronkite's later comments made things worse, Wallace said yesterday he and Rather are still friends, and that Auletta's piece was originally going to be about changes in network news generally, not just Rather and CBS. "I wrote a note, and Dan wrote a note, and I wrote a note, and Dan and I have it all straightened out now," Wallace said yesterday from his home in New York. "It has to be remembered, too: He's just the best damn reporter there is."

There may not be lots of other CBS News veterans coming forth to cheer Rather, because one says he was threatened with the loss of his own job if he did. Rather is obsessive in his loyalty to CBS News, but it begins to seem like unrequited love.

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