Dan Rather said yesterday that he will end his nearly 24-year reign as CBS News anchor early next year, setting the terms of his departure instead of waiting for an investigative report on his rushed and admittedly flawed story on President Bush's National Guard service.
In saying he will step down in March, the 73-year-old anchor said that he was making a "separate decision" from the fallout over his "60 Minutes Wednesday" report but that he wanted "to get as much separation as possible" between the announcement and the findings of an outside panel likely to be released next month.
CBS anchor Dan Rather at a panel discussion last month with ABC anchor Peter Jennings, right, and NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, who is stepping down next week in favor of Brian Williams. CBS says no decision has been made about a successor to Rather, who will depart in March.
(Gregory Bull -- AP)
Video: The Washington Post's Paul Farhi talks about Dan Rather's resignation and reflects on his career as CBS News anchor.
"It was time," said Rather, who has held the anchor job longer than anyone else at CBS, including Walter Cronkite. "It just felt right."
CBS News President Andrew Heyward said the decision was timed to be made public "after the election and before the report comes out, to make clear this is his call and it's happening before we've seen any findings. You have an extraordinary record of achievement by one of the most significant people in the history of journalism. Certainly it would be unfortunate if that were all overshadowed by this story, which is not to minimize how importantly CBS takes this story."
Whatever Rather's reasoning -- and colleagues say he thought hard for months about relinquishing the anchor job and becoming a "60 Minutes" correspondent -- it is also possible that the report on CBS's use of apparently bogus National Guard documents would have intensified calls for Rather's dismissal.
"Dan Rather did the Texas two-step, one step ahead of the posse," said Tobe Berkovitz, associate dean of Boston University's school of communication. "It was inevitable that Viacom and CBS were going to have to get rid of him."
Richard Leibner, Rather's agent, said the discussions about Rather moving on began last summer and that as of two years ago, his contract has not guaranteed him the right to remain as anchor. Even without the Guard story, "he never would have been there another year or two."
Rather told a cheering newsroom staff meeting in New York, where several people choked up, that discussions about his eventual transition were put on hold when "the hippopotamus entered the room," a reference to the National Guard controversy.
Once he set his departure date -- March 9, his 24th anniversary as anchor -- "I've been at peace with it," Rather said in the interview. "I'd like to think even my enemies would give me that I'm a pro. I had to stand back with a wide shot and assess the situation."
Rather said he did not want to wait until next week to announce his decision because NBC's Tom Brokaw is stepping down as anchor in favor of Brian Williams. "Next week should be Tom's week," Rather said.