DAN RATHER recalls that his beloved college journalism professor warned the students at Sam Houston State Teachers College never to let themselves become part of their stories.
"Nobody gives a s-t about you," Professor Hugh Cunningham admonished the young Rather. "You are not the story."
The reporter often is, and should be, part of the story, sometimes a more interesting and illuminating part than the basic story he is covering.
Besides, viewers and readers should know much more about the Rathers and other news persons who influence public understanding more than anyone except a handful of government leaders.
Fortunately, Rather decided to ignore his old professor's advice and this honest biography, written "with" Mickey Herskowitz, is the result. (I cannot find anywhere an explanation of who Herskowitz is or what his role was.)
The Rather-haters will find plenty to hate. The Rather-lovers will find plenty to love. And those people who always ask, "What's Dan Rahter really like?" will have their curiosity satisfied.
The Dan Rather in this book is the real Dan Rather I competed against and tilted with for nearly 15 years: earnest, believing he has a mission to expose the scoundrels, a little pompous, a scrambler who reached the top from an umpromising hard-scrabble Texas beginning, still spouting colorful Texas idioms, willing to admit mistakes and doubts.
Rather's method is chronological and anecdotal. He takes us up the journalistic ladder with him from KSAM, the little 250-watter where he earned his college tuition, to Channel 11 in Houston, where CBS spotted his news reports on Hurricane Carla, to the network where he made his name with coverage of the civil rights struggle, LBJ's White House, Vietnam and the downfall of Nixon.
Along the way, he shares a lot of those stories reporters tell each other late at night in bars. Some of his anecdotes are so pat I wonder if they were touched up. Did Rather really fake a "deep East Texas black accent" and conduct Negro Gospel Hour programs in his early radio days whenever the real host failed to show up?
Throughtout his career Rather has wrestled with the conflict between his inclination and training to remain aloof from whatever story he was recovering, and the pressures of his celebrity status and his ego to become a participant in his stories.
On the one hand, when he phoned his wife Jean from Dallas after the Kennedy assassination, she told him she was puzzled bu his lack of emotion. "So there it was again," Rather wries, "the detachment that has been, for better or worse, a part of my public face . . . To many of the Nixon people, and to some others, I know it came across as coldness, arrogance."
On the other hand, during Watergate, Rather was viewed by many in and out of the White House as a committed Nixon-baiter. He was seen as having a deep emotional and public involvement in the story. Jean Rather once asked her husband during that period, "What is it between you and the President?"
"I don't know," Rather told his wife then. "And I still don't."
Whatever it was, Rather's sense of involvement in the Nixon story led him to create headlines of his own by resisting a promotion off the presidential beat after Nixon resigned, because he suspected the White House had pressured CBS to move him. Rather even suspected that a routine request to turn in his White House press badge when he moved to New York was retaliation for his Nixon coverage.
Rather is surprisingly sympathetic toward Nixon. He is tough on what he calls "the Nixon gang," Haldeman, Erhlichman, Mitchell, Ziegler, etc. But about the former President he writes:
"Whatever feelings I had about Richard Nixon as a person were shaded by the fact that I never knew him very well and didn't know anyone who did. The overriding impression I had was of a man who had been wounded. It was in his eyes. Yet the few times I was ever actually near him and got past the protective armor of the presidency, I can say truthfully that I did not feel uncomfortable."
In fact, Rather is harsher on Barbara Walters than he is on Richard Nixon! He refers to her million dollar salary as "the heist." He snipes that the "Today Show's" ratings were slipping and, if Walters had not jumoed to ABC when she did, NBC might have fired her in another six months.
Rather blames Walters for advancing what he calls the celebrity syndrome in television news, "The feeling that what counts is the name on the marquee, not the integrity of your news."
What if Paul Newman decided to anchor the evening news? Rather guesses he would win the ratings, at least for awhile.
Rather protests (perhaps too much) that he doesn't enjoy his own celebrity status; he just wants to be "in caps, a JOURNALIST."
"The idea of a reporter as pop media star is offensive to me."
Maybe so. But Rather is a pop media star. What he really wants to be, he insists, is Edward R. Murrow.
"We may be at a turning point in television. I fear the consequences if it becomes a celebrity business. That way simply is not compatible with the vision Ed Murrow had of the scholar - correspondent, a vision still good enough for me."
When Rather took over Murrow's old job as CBS London bureau chief, Alexander Kendrick, the departing Murrow-era correspondent, told him, "Well, it's going to very interesting to see, young man, your being a child of television."
Rather objected. He had worked a little in radio, wire services and newspapers. He was not one of the new generation which saw television news as a way of becoming "a small-bore movie star."
"Nonetheless, you are the next wave and you are here partly because you have a pretty face," Kendrick persisted. "What I will be interested to see is whether you have any gawd-damn sense."
Kendrick would agree, I think that Rather turned out to have both a pretty face and also some gawd-dam sense.