Now then, Dan Rather. If this were "60 Minutes," I'd hold up this Time magazine cover -- the one with your satisfied, victorious grin on it and the huge caption calling you "The $8 Million Man" -- and I'd say, "How do you feel when you see something like --"

"All right! All right!" Dan Rather groans, laughing slightly, recoiling at the sight of the cover, trying perhaps to blush but really look quite pleased.He is sitting in his "60 Minutes" office with its dizzying, rarefied view of the Hudson River and greater Weehawken, and contemplating his future as news pope to the nation.

In one year, or less, he'll replace Walter Cronkite as anchor man and managing editor of "The CBS Evening News." And how does somebody get a job like that?

Rather got it by wanting it. Wanting it to bits. Don Rather toughed it out, and Dan Rather won.

"In a way, I guess I've always wanted to do it," Rather says, "in that I want to be the best. And for my professional lifetime, the perception has been that you can't be the best unless you do that job, at least once."'

Rather, 48, punctuates conversation with much talk of being The Best; he comes across as compulsively competitive, beset by best-ness, given to sports imagery about hanging in and winning. "I want to play to my own best potential," he says, and "Sometimes my best is pretty good." He stayed at CBS, spurning five-year, $8-million offers from ABC and NBC, because CBS News is still "the best" in town.

"About the job, I feel terrific; why wouldn't I feel terrific?" he says, his sleeves rolled neatly up. "As for the publicity that goes with it, no I'm not happy about it. First of all, I don't like the focus on the money. But I understand the realities of ti. The business has changed. The whole star system is something a lot of us have talked about for a long time, but it's part of the new reality."

There are many in network news who say Rather's victory in landing the Cronkite post over the respected, high-strung Roger Mudd, 52, was a triumph for the star system, for beauty beating brains, for style over substance. Thus it make a handy harbinger of things to come for network news in the '80s. t

Mudd is known to despise the star system and the idea of journalists as celebrities -- something he thinks, friends say, Walter Cronkite and the cast of "60 Minutes" have perpetuated to an onerous extreme. Rather does not say he hates the star system. He says it is part of "the new reality."

In person, Rather is open, friendly and as solicitous as the president of the senior class. He's "easy to work with," a colleague says; "he thanks everybody. Sometimes he just won't stop thanking everybody." But on the air, Rather sometimes seems rigid, terse, programmed, and anything but the avuncular old soul he's replacing.

In a way, we are going to go from the warmth of Walter to chilly scenes of Rather.

"Some people have told me, "You're crazy to stay at CBS. The first guy after Walter Cronkite is going to get his head blown off,"' says Rather. g"That may be true. I don't plan for that to happen. People said the toughest place to try to do it is at CBS. 'It'd be easier on you, Dan, if you do it at ABC or NBC.' But I look forward to it."

Inhale. Exhale. Deeply thoughtful squint. White smoke floats by in fluffs against the blue, sky outside Dan Rather's window on the world. His eyes look just bright enough, just piercing enough, just determined enough. It's the gleam of born success, the ruddy glow of a Marlboro Man with brains -- a guy who, in a phrase he cottons to, "paid his dues" and now gets the prize.

Along the way he learned what he needed to know. He became a pressure player.

"Hey, the pressure's gonna be there," Rather says of the new job. "I'm a pressure player. I know I am. But look, anybody who does it at this level -- the same would be true of Mudd, the same would be true of anybody who does it at this level -- is a pressure player. Because you don't get this far unless you are."

If Jacqueline Susann were alive she'd write this character into a novel right away. Maybe she already did.

The toughness beneath the manicured, polite exterior comes out in subtle little ways. For instance, even in praising the man he will supplant as Chief News Giver to the Nation, rather casually suggests that there are chinks in the armor of the "most trusted man in America."

"Walter can get overbearing sometimes, he can hold on to the microphone too long -- all these things -- that's small potatoes compared to the enthusiams he brings to it," Rather says. As for Cronkite's reputation as the invicible uncle, Rather says, "Walter hasn't always been No. 1. We went through the better part of eight years -- eight years! In this business, that's an eternity, and beyond -- in which he was certainly not clearly no. 1." t

Those million of viewers don't just watch Walter, Rather says; they watch CBS News. "The house that Cronkite built had some pretty good carpenters -- roger Mudd, Marvin Kalb, Dan Schorr, and, yes, Dan Rather -- and a long list of other people, some of whom are still there.

"I can remember the days -- '64, '65, '66 -- when we knew we were better; every night we'd sit down and say, 'We're better than those guys.' But the organization was not perceived to be No. 1. And Walter wasn't No. 1."

And when Rather's fabulous salary is mentioned, he quickly notes "Cronkite has been making big money for a long time. And Mike Wallace, too -- Mike Wallace was very big in radio and television when I was making $85 a week."

When asked about that alleged $8-million deal, Rather says, "Don't believe everything you read," but he doesn't blink when it is noted that he will make "around $1 million" a year, or when he is asked whether he can possibly relate to the world of the common man when raking it in at that pitch. p

"I think it's possible.I hope it is," he says. "But I don't know. Mind you, I didn't make six figures until fairly recently. It's no complaint; I've been well paid. And I certainly don't feel guilty about it, no. I work hard. I have worked hard a long time.

He can't help thinking back, though, to life in his native Houston, where his father worked on a pipeline and his mother was a waitress.

"I believe the most my father ever made was one year in which he made $11,200. Yes, the year he died he cleared 11-two. He worked a helluva lot harder than I did. But no, I certainly don't feel guilty. I'm at total peace with myself about that."

The road to total peace didn't start 18 years ago when CBS News hired Rather away from network affiliate KHOU-TV in Houston. It probably goes back to some magical day when Rather decided he would be the best at whatever he did, even if it meant stretching the talents he and beyond their limits -- whether playing on the high school football team or going for some of the biggest glamor bucks in broadcasting.

Grit, pluck drive and determination helped him get what he wanted in the world just as they are supposed to. "I've never had a job in this business I didn't like, really like," he says in his carefully, softly, look-you-in-the eye trusty Texas way.

If there are not that many people who consider Rather brilliant as a thinker, he is widely respected at CBS for his tirelessness and teamsmanship. He is also amenable to a fault. "If Dan were a woman," says a former colleague. "he'd be pregnant all the time. He can't say no." The 'Company Man'?

Scenario-By-Consensus -- or, how some insiders at CBS News think Dan Rather got the job of jobs:

Rather is "a company man," the story goes, while Mudd is the type to tell management to "go -- yourself." Mudd felt his years of work, including weeks of subbing for Cronkite, would earn him the job on merit, while Rather and his high-powered agent Richard Leibner trusted nothing to luck or justice and actively "went after it" with vengeance

Dan Rather stands up suddenly and turns off the Muzakky radio station that has been burbling in the ground.

"That is complete, unadulterated and unalloyed bulls---," he says firmly, now sounding more like Dan Rather anchor man. "Simply not true. Grossly unfair to both Roger and myself. I'm going to have some difficulty talking to you about it candidly. I cannot say it too often: Roger's one of the best reporters I know; he may be the best political reporter I know. He is not only a complete pro, but he is a good and decent person. Roger and I have been continue to be good friends."

Good and decent though he may consider Mudd, Rather also notes, later, speaking more forcefully now, "I don't think 'going after it' had very much to do with it -- and if anybody went after it, Roger damn sure went after it.

"I think it's true that for a very long time, Roger assumed he was the person, and I think he did so with very good reason. Had I been in his shoes, I would have assumed the same thing."

Rather a company man? "No one was saying that in '67, '68, '73. It was more like 'Rather won't stay in line,'" Rather says. "Lyndon Johnson certainly didn't think I was a company man, and Richard Nixon didn't think I was a company man. And I'm proud of that. I think if you talked to enough people around here, you'd hear them say Rather is less of a company man than Mudd.

"I can't think of a single instance in which Roger said, 'Stick it in your ear,'" Rather says.

Then he waxes magnanimous. "I'm very hopeful Rogers will stay," he says. Indeed, that's what all the executives at CBS News seem to be saying, and started saying the day Rather was chosen. They say it so often that they are essentially conceding they have no real hope -- and perhaps no desire -- for Mudd to stay at all.

Mudd himself will say little. He is staying home these days in McLean. Is he calling this a vacation? "I haven't called it anything," he says. But he will confirm there have been talks with ABC News and NBC News, the latter now run by the well-regarded former CBS News President William Small.

"I have had some discussions with ABC and NBC," says Mudd. "That's all I can say."

Some who know him, however, say he is sickened by this latest star-wars skirmish in what is supposed to be a journalistic shop and bitter about the way the decision was reached and announced.

They say it is completely unthinkable that Roger Mudd will return to CBS News.

"The tragedy," Rather says somberly, "is that somebody has to lose." The Candy Apple

It was last November, by most accounts, when CBS News President William Leonard approached both Rather and Mudd to renegotiate new, long-term contracts, partly because CB News was quivering under the onslaught of talent raids from Roone Arledge at ABC and Small at NBC. At that time, "Leonard dangled the candy apple" -- the Cronkite gig -- in front of both men, an insider says.

One proposal was to set up a dual anchor along the lines of NBC's illustrious Huntley and Brinkley. Rather says now that he never turned down the idea of sharing the job with Mudd. But sources say Mudd turned it down flat; hates star status, he thinks Cronkite has taken that to the nth degree," and he fears Rather would take it even further -- to the nth-plus degree -- an associates says.

For Leonard, then, it became a choice not only of which man was better for the job, but which man CBS thought could do less damage by joining the ranks of the competition. The decision was made to cut Mudd loose like an astronaut in outer space whose umbilical snaps. This is outer space in a way. This is the galaxy of the superstars.

Many network news insiders think Mudd is the superior newsman. "A journalist of the old school, and a fabuously gifted writer," one top producer calls him. But Rather has what Time referred to as "craggy good looks" and an alleged "Q" rating (which measures the likability of a performer with a test audience) that goes thorugh the roof.

Rather will only say, "I've never had a single executive at any network even say the phrase 'Q rating' to me. If my life depended on it, I wouldn't know how to find what one's Q rating is."

On Thursday morning, Feb. 14, Leonard boarded the CBS corporate jet bound for Washington to tell Mudd that Rather was the chosen one. But the company pilot showed up a little late, and Mudd was kept waiting. Sources say he took that as a slight, one indication of the indignity of the whole pageant. The Scepter of Cronkite

Leonard returned to New York for a late-afternoon press conference at which Walter Cronkite all but handed a royal scepter to the heir very apparent. Rather celebrated that night by going out to dinner with his wife, jean, and a couple of "old friends."

For Dan Rather -- as the narrator of a TV documentary might put it -- it was the end of a long journey, a journey that began 10 years earlier when he learned to his dismay that he had been eliminated from the competition to find a new anchor for the Sunday eidtion of the "Evening News."

"I was surprised, shocked, amazed when I heard they weren't even going to talk to me abut it," Rather says slowly, quietly.

When news Vice President Gordon Manning told Rather he wasn't anchor material, 'Well, that hit me like a ton, and my attitude was, wait a minute, I don't like that one damn bit."

It was then that he set his sights on the top of the hill.

"Along about that time, I think it was in 1970, I just said to myself, 'If that's where the next level of achievement is, if that's where the attention is, if that's where the money is, if that's the next ticket you have to get punched on the road to being the best, then you, Dan, had better get into that very quickly and you'd better start establishing you can do it.'"

The race was on.

He went to Manning. "I really leaned on him." He got the Sunday news on a trial basis for six weeks. "I did tire of constantly reading that I was in a race with people and didn't stand chance. the hell with that! I I didn't like the sound of that at all."

Rather grins and becomes suddenly and briefly self-mocking: "This is a modesty-prone business in which ego plays a very small part," he says. Heat of the Battle

Even if one scoffs at the head-blown-off theory, the man who follows Walter Cronkite in the "Evening News" throne is going to be watched very closely by network executives. Network news has never been more profitable, and a surfeit of world crises has boosted audiences to new highs. Intense competition put up by heavy-hitter and big-spender Arledge at ABC has made a hectic three-way heat out of what used to be a gentlemanly two-party joust.

Rather needn't worry about ratings, apparently. During the last week of February, when on most nights Rather substituted for Cronkite, "The CBS Evening News" drew a 30 percent share of the viewing audience, two share points higher than the usual Cronkite showing.

But in the zest to compete, will good gray CBS News begin to emulate the yappy underdog, adding more hype, glitz and pinball wizardry in the attempt to retain dominance? Associates expect Rather to make considerable changes in the look, tempo and tone of the broadcast.

Rather won't say what changes he has in mind. But neither will he say a word against the Arledge hit-and-run technique. Arledge courted Rather feverishly during the negotiation period.

"If the danger with the ABCs of the world is that they will go too far with the 'look' of something," Rather says, "the danger for the CBSes of the world is that we will succumb to the temptation to believe that in order to be serious, it to bedull. Any rational person can see that simply isn't true.

"Arledge has certainly not met the worst expectations of him. He's been good for the business and good for news. And I don't think even ABC believes that the new era is all flash and spash and dash."

Even in casual talk, there is something rehearsed about Rather, something practiced, polished and perfected. He is careful to ask questions of an interviewer so that an illustion of two-way interest is maintained. He has such a straight-shooter, straight-arrow appearance and demeanor that it seems too real to be real.

He'll say square, pinstripey things like "I think your point is well taken" and "But let's get back to serious business." Tie Breaker

He speaks admiringly of a son who plays basaketball in college and is known as the guy who can be counted on, in those last closing seconds, to make the shot that breaks the tie and wins the game.

Get on the team, get into the game, take the chance, make the shot, break the tie, be the hero, get the trophy. It's the American way. Maybe the best man didn't win the Cronkite job but the man most obsessed with being best certainly did.

"I get irritated when somebody else says, 'So-and-so is better than you are.' I don't take the attitude that I'm better than anybody else. But I refuse to take the attitude that I'm not as good as somebody else," Rather says.

"If I bought the idea that the person who went in after Cronkite would get his head blown off, I might do it anyway. I'm probably crazy enough to do it anyway. But I don't plan for that to happen.

"The air is thinner where I'm going than anyplace I've been," Dan Rather says with visionary zeal. "And There's probably no pressure to match that pressure. Having never been at that altitude, I don't know, but I'm eager to get there and eager to see."

Eager, and willing and ready. Dan Rather is as ready as they come. It's part of the new reality.