"Your assignment, Dan, should you agree to accept it, is to penetrate the Afghanistan border, gain the confidence of resistance fighters there, let your beard grow a few days, wear a funny hat, and file a story for '60 Minutes' that will have Roone Arledge absolutely chartreuse with envy. . . ."
We may never know precisely how dauntless Don Hewitt, producer of "60 Minutes," and daring Dan Rather, crown prince of network news, plotted the slightly sensational Afghanistan war repost seen on CBS last night. But the result was in the best and worst ways typical of the program and its enterprise: punchy, crunchy, highly dramatic and essentially uninformative.
Except that, yes, we knew something about the war against the invading Soviet troops before "60 Minutes," but, and this is important, did we know how the war was affecting Dan Rather?
We certainly did after Rather's report, which took up the space of two regular "60 Minutes" segments and found Dan, among other accomplishments, logging a striking new variation on the editorial "we." Resistance fighters, Rather reported, "disguised us as one of them."
The histrionic highlight of the report was reached when Rather made it to the mountaintop, a ridge overlooking a Soveit army encampment. The camera stayed on Rather's silhousette against the dark blue sky as he hushed out a whispery narrative that might have been compared -- and was probably meant to be compared -- to Edward R. Murrow's historic "This-is-London" reports during World War II.
It also, in its blank verse way, recalled the famous directive of Charles Foster Kane to a correspondent: "You supply the prose poems, I'll supply the war."
Rather -- over the sounds of gunfire -- murmured what was essentially a radio report from the front.
"The resistance fighters have opened up with automatic weapons from the top of the ridge toward the tanks below," he said breathlessly. "Anti-tank gun goes off. Now, again, silence. Artillery shell. Anti-tank round. Impossible to know where it hit. Or if it struck home . . . That round hit the ridge just below us."
And then, the ordeal over: "I don't know when anybody's been so glad to see stars."
Of course the resistance fighters were seeing a star, too -- a superstar who would greet them with a businesslike, "Hello, my name is Rather." The camera repeatedly cut to Rather to show us his reactions (reactions we were expected to share), whether to the condition of shelling victims in a Peshawar hospital or the recollections of a villager claiming to have been gassed by Soviet aircraft.
Was it all a story about the war in Afghanistan or a story about the courage and gallantry of someone out of "Foreign Correspondent" -- Danny Do-Right, ace reporter? Mike Wallace set it up dramatically at the show's opening with ". . . and up on that ridge, Dan Rather found the war he came to cover."
Rather himself tended to emphasize the hardships of the reportage. He made a "three-hour trek" down the mountain, a "two-day walk" from one village to another, and as for getting to the ridge, "the climb was straight up -- 10,000 feet."
Rather wore peasant togs that made him liik like an extra out of "Dr. Zhivago." Vanessa Redgrave wearing the same outfit would have been welcomed at any chic party in Europe. Somehow one got the feeling that this was not so much Dan Rather as Stuart Whitman playing Dan Rather. Or Dan Rather playing Stuart Whitman playing Dan Rather. Perhaps it's all part of the New Reality.
There was one other dominant theme to the report, and that was that the gallant, ill-equipped resistance fighters desperately need American arms. "America seems to be asleep," Rather's interpreter told him at one point. At another, he virtually negotiated with a resistance, fighter about whether America should send troops and risk getting into another Vietnam.
Repeatedly he portrayed the Afghans as lost, lost unless help arrives soon, perhaps the way it arrived in the form of British cavalry in the movie "Gunga Din."
"It's over in Afghanistan," Rather said ultra-soberly. "So you think Afghanistan is gone?" he soon asked an interpreter. "My friend, let me ask you a direct question -- is Afghanistan lost?" he asked a villager.
There is certainly nothing unjournalistic about donning a disguise -- although a $50 haircut still looks like a $50 haircut even when mussed up a little -- and using clever ruses to get a story. True, Rather in his white safari suit, trudging through a village, did resemble a soldier of fortune in an Old Spice commercial, but that isn't excatly his fault.
And, as usual, "60 Minutes" was effectively personalizing an otherwise abstract, distant story. But the report also smacked of showy one-upsmanship and theatricalify. Perhaps Barbara Walters is right now wondering how she'll look in mufti or having a designer disguise prepared.Geraldo Rivera may be trying on caftans at this very moment.
The war goes on. We know little more about it than we knew before. But at least, thank God, Dan Rather is safe. "What's that bombing sound in the background?" he asked nervously at one point. "nothing to bother us. Don't worry," the interpreter replied. And it's hard to decide whether Murrow is smiling down approvingly or spinning in his grave.