I have withheld writing this column until I was certain that Dan Rather was safely out of Afghanistan. Thank heavens he is back in New York, shaved and well.
For those of you who missed "60 Minutes" a week or so ago, Dan joined up with Afghan rebels, disguised as a mountain freedom fighter, and was filmed under fire from Russian artillery.
Millions of us sat in the comfort of our living rooms watching this modern day "Lawrence of Arabia" risk his life to bring us the true story of what the rebels were facing in this remote part of the world. "Gunga Dan," as the Washington Post TV critic Tom Shales dubbed him, in the true foreign correspondent tradition, knew this coul d have been his last story. But he still went because he believed he owed it to the American public to tell us what it was like for the Afghan tribesmen doing battle with the Soviet Goliath.
Now that he is safely back home, I think some tough questions have to be asked of CBS management. What the devil were they thinking of when they permitted Walter Cronkite's successor t risk his neck in the Khyber Pass, only a few months before he will take over as anchorman of the evening news?
When CBS declared that Dan would be the heir to the Cronkite throne we thought they would immediately throw a ring of Secret Service men around him, and make certain that no harm would come to him until the coronation.
Rather, you would assume, was too valuable a property to be sent off to Afghanistan in disguise. It wasn't just a question of physical harm befalling him, but what would have happened if he had been captured by the Soviets?
No major power can sit idly by if one of its anchormen is being held as a prisoner of war by the other side. The pressure on President Carter would have been great to do something to free Dan, in time for the summer political conventions.
Mr. Carter's options would be limited. Having used up his Moscow Olympic boycott once already, he might be forced by public opinion to threaten military action against the Soviets. Under international law, the holding of a CBS anchorman is the moral equivalent of war.
Without being too harsh on the "60 Minutes" producers, they didn't have to send Dan Rather to Afghanistan.
They could have sent Harry Reasoner, Morley Safer, Mike Wallace, Andy Rooney or even Roger Mudd. If anything happened to any of them, there would have been an uproar, but nothing that couldn't have been handled by Cy Vance's sending a stiff note to the Soviet Embassy.
By dispatching Dan Rather into a war zone, CBS violated the first rule of television news, which is, "an anchorman's place is in the studio," just as "the president's place is in the Rose Garden."
I called "60 Minutes" people for an explanation concerning their gaffe, and all they could come up with was, "We knew what we were risking, but the only one who could fit into the Afghan rebel robe and hat we rented was Rather."