A Day in the Life of CBS's Dan Rather
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 15, 1999; Page C1
Dan Rather, perpetual promotion machine, is in full impeachment mode.
He arrived in Washington yesterday after midnight, forced to take the train after being turned away from the rain-delayed shuttle. He had an online chat with America Online from his cell phone in the car. He was up at 5:30 to finish the last of 16 radio interviews, then launched into a series of "two-ways" with CBS affiliate stations. And at the moment he's taping a feed for CBS's radio network.
Tieless in a starched white shirt and black suspenders, he switches to his deepest anchorman voice: "CBS News, I'm Dan Rather in Washington. In one hour, for the first time in history, an elected president goes on trial in the Senate of the United States . . . ."
The phrase doesn't lose its punch no matter how many times Rather repeats it. He can't help but think back to his days as a young White House correspondent, when he lived in Georgetown and found himself tangling with Richard Nixon at the height of Watergate. He will never forget the sight of the disgraced president boarding Marine One on the morning of his forced exile a quarter-century ago.
"I never thought I'd go through another impeachment story," Rather says. "I figured it was a once-in-a-lifetime event."
Indeed, throughout the tumultuous events triggered by President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky, Rather never expected to be here at the CBS bureau on M Street NW, lending his imprimatur to the first presidential impeachment trial in 131 years. "I did not believe when the Lewinsky story broke that it would lead to impeachment," he says. "But I've been wrong about a number of things."
To be a celebrity anchor when a huge story is breaking is to juggle the incessant demands of journalism, theatrics and publicity. Rather is preparing for the live 1 p.m. broadcast, but he's also mapping plans for an hour-long edition of the "CBS Evening News," from the Hay-Adams Hotel overlooking the White House, after which he will be whisked to CNN to hold forth on "Larry King Live." After 17 years in the anchor chair, he is a walking advertisement for CBS News. In fact, his face has been crudely pasted onto the newsroom clock.
Rather must be cognizant as well of the commercial pressures that increasingly push the broadcast networks to leave real-time coverage of major events to cable. In a sense, he and his reporting team are merely showing the flag on this opening day before ceding the airwaves back to the lucrative soap operas. On the day Clinton was impeached, Rather was essentially bumped for a football game. Now he's worried that the network bosses in Manhattan will pull the plug in less than an hour.
"I want to stay on for every second of it," Rather says. "Is it frustrating? Yes. They shouldn't want me in this job if I didn't get frustrated when we don't go wall-to-wall on coverage of big events. We have a history. CBS News reaches pretty far back."
Despite the lack of sleep, Rather doesn't look tired, though his constant refilling of a coffee cup with the famous eye logo suggests the need for caffeinated assistance. He worries openly about setting the right tone, conveying the proper gravity for the trial. "You want to be solemn, but you don't want to be funereal," he says. At the same time, "this story does have its farcical aspects."
Rather joins in on two conference calls, with CBS bureaus here and abroad, on other possible stories for the evening news, from Brazil's economic problems to horse shootings in Nevada. He calls a White House source, then grabs evening news producer Al Ortiz in the hallway. The House Republican prosecutors seem set on calling Clinton as a witness, Rather says. Does White House reporter Scott Pelley know anything about that?
"They're dead set against it," Ortiz says of the administration.
"This we know: Heat is being built to either force him to testify or to be seen as afraid to testify," Rather says.
At 11:25, veteran correspondent Bob Schieffer calls from the Hill to tell Rather that the proceedings may begin just a couple of minutes after the networks come on the air.
"I wanted to go long at the top," Rather tells him. "I may have to truncate my remarks." Mid-course corrections are the essence of live television.
While Rather goes to makeup, producer John Reade, hunched over a laptop next to the anchor desk, ponders the time constraints. Rather will be joined on the set by U.S. News & World Report columnist Gloria Borger, reporter Phil Jones and former senator Warren Rudman, a CBS consultant, with two academic experts in the back of the room and Schieffer and Pelley at their posts.
"That's always a worry: Can we get our folks on the air?" Reade says. "We don't know if there will be a stretch of time that we can get them in. But if we don't have them here and there is a long stretch of time, it's terrifying."
Associate producer Deborah Sternberg is fiddling with a green box of oversize index cards, each containing a dab of color, that will be slipped to Rather and his panelists. "TV monitors have never been used in Senate before," one says. "2 specially made tables for House managers and WH defense," says another. There's a quote from an unnamed Clinton aide in The Washington Post: "You're sort of in a parachute plunging in the darkness."
At 12:17, Diet Pepsi in hand, Rather takes his seat in front of the faux Capitol dome. "Bring me the AP and UP," he says, using old shorthand for the latest wires. He reads his opening copy out loud and starts editing it. "Strike the William Jefferson Clinton," says Rather, who doesn't like using the president's formal name. "Underscore the word Constitution."
Washington bureau chief Janet Leissner arrives with word that a prominent former senator is being made available for interviews. "The White House is now putting out George Mitchell, which is sort of interesting," she says.
At 12:53, Rather slips on his jacket and inserts his earpiece. Two minutes later he rehearses his opening: "Good afternoon on a momentous day for the United States of America. The House of Representatives is about to ask the Senate to do something it has never done in the 200-year history of this country . . ."
Rather checks on what is called a "roll cue" with special events producer Jim Murphy in the control room. "When I say 'let's set the scene for you,' that's when you're going to the animation, right?" he asks.
At 1 p.m., Rather welcomes the audience "Good afternoon on a momentous day" then tosses to Schieffer on the Hill. Schieffer manages a couple of sentences, but when he says, "We saw the first friction here this morning," Murphy interrupts in his ear: "Back to Dan!"
"Well, I think we're about to get started here," Schieffer says, just before the sound of "hear ye, hear ye" fills the Senate chamber.
As Reps. Henry Hyde and James Sensenbrenner begin their opening arguments, the only CBS commentary is in on-screen details about the speakers and strange split-screen visuals, such as showing Clinton with the likes of Boris Yeltsin and Nelson Mandela while the congressmen demand his removal from office. Rather does a short voice-over at 1:30 for stations just joining the coverage after their local news.
Seven minutes later, Murphy announces from the control room: "Our plan is we'll stay with Sensenbrenner. He'll go about another half-hour. We will dip out of that, and let Dan talk to Bob and Scott and the senator and Gloria, and we'll go off the air."
Rather repeats the instructions to his guests with a touch of sarcasm. "The geniuses in New York have decided this," he says.
At CBS, at least, Sensenbrenner has lost his audience. Rather and company talk politics as the congressman drones on. The control room keeps asking Schieffer, who has the only copy of Sensenbrenner's text, what page he's on. As the end approaches, Rather, worried about the limited time, says to Rudman: "What question would you like to be asked? It's probably one question, one answer."
When Sensenbrenner winds up at 2:18, Rather asks for an assessment from Schieffer. "Thus far we have not heard Clarence Darrow or William Jennings Bryan," he says. "This has been fairly tedious, to be absolutely candid about it."
The gang gets a few extra minutes to chat so that CBS can cut away cleanly at 2:30. Rather has a full minute for his closing remarks, but feels compelled to explain that CBS News is not abandoning the trial. "If news breaks out, we'll break in," he says.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company