As a former Houston reporter, White House correspondent and "60 Minutes" regular, Rather has always taken pride in unchaining himself from the anchor desk to cover wars, political campaigns and various other crises. Determined not to be just a multimillion-dollar news reader like some younger-generation stars, he continued to anchor "48 Hours" before finally giving it up and to contribute pieces to "60 Minutes," even at the cost of being stretched thin. So it was not unusual for Rather to be crashing an investigative piece, as he did last week.
The most controversial of the three broadcast network anchors who took the reins in the early 1980s -- the others are ABC's Peter Jennings, 66, and NBC's Tom Brokaw, 64, who is retiring after the election -- Rather has long drawn the most headlines and the sharpest criticism from conservatives who view him as biased.
Compare: Memo obtained from Pentagon differs from disputed memo obtained by CBS.
Transcript: Washington Post staff writer Michael Dobbs, who has been following the story about Bush's Vietnam-era service, was online Monday.
_____More From The Post_____
Expert Cited by CBS Says He Didn't Authenticate Papers (The Washington Post, Sep 14, 2004)
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Some Question Authenticity of Papers on Bush (The Washington Post, Sep 10, 2004)
Records Say Bush Balked at Order (The Washington Post, Sep 9, 2004)
Democrat Says He Helped Bush Into Guard to Score Points (The Washington Post, Sep 4, 2004)
"Dan is a lightning rod, compared to Brokaw and Jennings, because of his personality," said Lawrence Grossman, a former president of PBS and NBC News. "He's had some very strange incidents. His colorful use of language makes him a little quirky in many people's eyes. So he's a little vulnerable."
But ABC News executive Tom Bettag, who once produced Rather's evening news, said his friend has been "quite extraordinary" in shouldering the burden. "He is the sort of person who could easily say 'this is a team effort,' but he's one of those anchors who puts it all on his shoulders and doesn't pass it down the line to anyone else," Bettag said.
Bernard Goldberg, a longtime CBS correspondent who has turned sharply critical of his former employer, said he believes that Rather was duped and will survive. But, he said, "CBS News is acting the way the Nixon administration did during Watergate. I'm really sad to say that Dan Rather is acting like Richard Nixon. It's the coverup, it's the stonewalling."
Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, said that "if it turns out CBS got this wrong, it's very damaging." He added that Rather "has a 'hot' personality that provokes strong reactions."
That may be an understatement. Rather has a penchant for down-home Texas truisms, the sort of globe-trotting that earned him the nickname "Gunga Dan" for his Afghan foray, and plain old strange behavior -- such as signing off his broadcasts for a time with the word "courage."
In 1986, he was mugged on Park Avenue with one of his attackers shouting, "Kenneth, what is the frequency?" In 1987, the network went to black because Rather had angrily walked off the set in the belief that a U.S. Open tennis match would bump his broadcast. In 1988, he got into an emotional shouting match with then-Vice President Bush, who accused Rather of being unfair. In 2001, he apologized for speaking at a Democratic fundraiser in Texas in which his daughter was involved.
His career has seemed revitalized in the past year and a half. He landed an interview with then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein shortly before the U.S. invaded Iraq and the first sitdown with Bill Clinton about his autobiography. And with producer Mary Mapes, who also spearheaded the National Guard story, Rather broke the news of Iraqi prisoners being abused at Abu Ghraib -- after agreeing to a two-week delay at the Bush administration's request.
Once the most watched of the three anchors' broadcasts, Rather's show has been ranked third for several years. Now he is even the target of a new Web site, Rathergate.com.
Some media analysts are already comparing the Guard controversy to the 1993 fiasco in which NBC's "Dateline" apologized for staging the fiery crash of a truck, and the 1998 debacle in which CNN apologized for the "Tailwind" story that accused U.S. troops of using nerve gas during the Vietnam War.
"Dan knows that trying to do a story about a Republican president is immediately going to stir up a hornet's nest from the conservatives who have jumped on him since the Nixon days," Bettag said. "He could have been excused for saying 'I don't need this kind of grief.' But he didn't."
As Rather signed off to rush back into the studio last night, he sounded a defiant note.
"I try to look people in the eye and tell them the truth," Rather said. "I don't back up. I don't back down. I don't cave when the pressure gets too great from these partisan political ideological forces."