In the coolness of time, Dan Rather well may be regarded with the same awe and reverence now afforded Edward R. Murrow, patron saint of CBS News. But in the heat of the moment, Rather has become one of the most criticized, hounded and harassed newsmen in TV history, a veritable magnet for calumny and misfortune.

He is the most closely watched anchor. And the most frequently bashed.

It's been pretty much that way ever since he took over "The CBS Evening News" from Walter Cronkite in 1981, but 1987 proved to be Rather's most turbulent year; his newscast fell to third place, scored its lowest ratings ever, and he was heavily chastised for leaving the network with six minutes of dead air after the end of a tennis match.

Added to these woes were drastic budget cuts and firings in the news division and rampant rumors suggesting Rather was losing his emotional balance.

"It wasn't my best year, and a lot of it was my fault," Rather says now. "But I work with good people, doing the kind of work I want to do, and I wouldn't think much of myself if I went around complaining.

"We had a year, and I had a year, in which, yeah, we got knocked down a few times, more than one would like. But when you can get up and come back, that's a good year. You look back on 1987, a lot of good things happened, the best of which was to come back. Winning may not be everything, but winning after you've lost may come close. It's at least very sweet."

After three months in a third-place position unthinkable to "The CBS Evening News," the program did indeed come back and, with Nielsen's updated audience measurement system in place, has returned to the No. 1 spot, resting comfortably there for the past 15 weeks.

Beyond that, associates of Rather say he has shaken off the moody blues that dogged him last year and is back at ramming speed, ready and eager to anchor an ambitious new prime-time news program, "48 Hours," that premieres next Tuesday.

Yesterday, for the first time since the dead-air incident in September, Rather spoke at length about his tribulations, the blows taken by the news division, and his belief that the darkest hours are behind him. He thinks "48 Hours," a news time capsule shot at different locations each week, is a clear signal that happy, or at least less miserable, days are here again.

"I believe in this broadcast and believe it to be a very important broadcast for us at CBS News," Rather said. "First of all, it's time on the air; that's oxygen for any news operation. Secondly, there are jobs involved. We actually hired people for this broadcast, which is very good news here. I like it when we're increasing jobs for journalists, not decreasing them."

What Rather likes or dislikes holds great sway at CBS News. He is consistently its most visible performer, and more. "Dan is very much the emotional barometer of the mood of this place," says CBS News President Howard Stringer. "And the mood of this place at the moment is very good."

This wasn't the case last year, however. And Rather concedes that as morale plunged in the news division, reeling under cutbacks ordered by new CBS President Laurence A. Tisch, his spirit wilted as well. What he disputes is just how closely he scraped the ocean floor.

"Is my morale better? Sure," says Rather. "Is morale around here better? Yes. These are the big leagues. The industry is changing. Our company has changed. A great deal of change has now been completed with us, and that's one of the encouraging things. And we've been in a league where they shoot to kill, and we still are. So nobody here has any illusions. We simply have to continue learning how to maintain standards and deliver more value per dollar."

With the ratings falling last summer, Rather was bombarded with counsel from within the division about improving his on-air performance by cranking down his alleged intensity. He tried this for a while with a kind of Quaaluded approach that was of no help and seemed totally unnatural for him.

"What I learned last summer," Rather says, "is that when things are on a downswing, all the things you've heard are true: Some people you thought were your friends aren't; others you thought you might get help from are not so close by to give it. Everybody has advice, everybody has an idea of what you ought to do, and after a while, you just dig deeper within yourself and say you'd better start listening to yourself more. There's only so much advice you can take."

Even Tisch appeared to be among Rather's critics. He was quoted in a magazine article as wondering aloud why the No. 3 anchor was being paid the No. 1 salary (reportedly about $3 million a year). Tisch said yesterday he never wondered that, aloud or otherwise.

"That was completely untrue, a total fabrication. That thing drives me up the wall," said Tisch. "It was absolute nonsense. I never said it. The fact is, we at CBS were doing our own testing, our own surveys, through this whole period and in every survey we did, Dan was always number one, no matter what the ratings said. Dan is the best in the business. I have great respect for him, and I like him personally very much."

There is no friction between him and Rather, Tisch said. "It's hard to believe, because so much has been written about it, but there never was any friction. Dan is the top banana, and when you're the top banana, everybody wants to take a potshot at you."

Mr. Top Banana has seen the view from the bottom of the bunch. Last summer, as magazine and newspaper articles about Rather's decline proliferated, so did rumors concerning his emotional health. It was bandied about in New York media circles that Rather was taking medication for clinical depression, and was holed up in his office like some sort of Captain Queeg waiting for the Caine to founder.

"Not true," says Rather. "I never heard that one. What else can you say? Absolutely positively unequivocally not true. Anybody who knows me well knows that I don't have the kind of personality that gets depressed in that sense.

"I have my bad days and when I have bad days, I tend to come to work anyway. I'm here a lot. I come in early and stay late. Not everybody does it that way. But when you do, and this has been a tough lesson for me, everybody watches you very closely. I don't go around thinking, 'Everybody's watching me very closely.' But some of that advice last summer was along that line: 'You have to understand everybody's watching your every move every second.'

"I'm saying to myself, 'What kind of life is that? I'm not going to live that way.' "

It got worse. When a U.S. Open tennis match ran past its allotted time, Rather and Stringer wrangled with the sports division about vacating the air so Rather's newscast could begin as scheduled. Rather, anchoring that night from Miami, was caught unawares and the network fed its affiliates six minutes of "black," dead air with no sound or picture. Associates say Rather had no way of knowing the match had ended; it wasn't being carried by the local CBS affiliate.

"Anybody who believes that I took the network into black doesn't understand anything about live television, and they certainly don't know anything about me," Rather says. "Miami for me and for us was a bummer. A lot of well-intentioned people, including myself, made mistakes.

"I thought then, and believe now, that there was a principle involved, the principle that we not only should not do anything that would trivialize a network news broadcast, but not even be seen doing anything that could be interpreted that way. That's the way I felt, the way I feel. In an effort to make that argument that day, I didn't do very well. For one thing, I didn't prevail."

The episode only fueled speculation that Rather was becoming unglued. Rupert Murdoch's Times of London, in a story headlined "TV man's nerves worry America," asked, "Is Dan Rather, bishop of the nation's news business, losing his marbles?" The idea persists in some quarters that Rather remains at least slightly unbalanced.

"That is so wrong, that's crazy," Tisch says in Rather's defense. "I've never seen Dan in better shape than he is now. He's relaxed. He's working awfully hard, maybe too hard, with this '48 Hours' program coming on, but there's no tension. I think Dan is one of those people who thrive on hard work."

To add to the indignity of the dead air affair, and to the angry chorus that formed around Rather, Walter Cronkite joined it, telling an interviewer from a college newspaper that if he'd been in charge of Rather, "I would have fired him."

Rather, who has yet to comment on the Cronkite remark -- and has never publicly criticized his avuncular predecessor -- says, "Walter is a member of the board {of CBS Inc.} and he's entitled to say whatever he wants to say. And I'll leave that there.

"Maybe I shouldn't leave it there, as a matter of fact.

"I don't want to leave it there. Walter's a great journalist, justified living legend, and naturally I'd like always to do things of which he approves. It turns out that no matter how hard I try to do things of which he approves, it just isn't possible.

"I like him, I hope he likes me."

Has Cronkite ever called to apologize? No. "We've talked since then," however, and cordially, Rather says.

Attacks on Rather are nothing new. In October, 1986, in a now-famous incident, he was physically assaulted by two mysterious men while walking on Park Avenue late at night. One of the men, Rather said later, asked him the inscrutable question, "Kenneth, what is the frequency?" It was speculated that Rather may have suffered injuries in that attack more serious than was reported at the time, that they could even have contributed to later emotional problems.

He says this is not the case, that he no longer sees doctors because of the injuries (mainly to his back, where he was repeatedly kicked) nor suffers recurring pains. Nor any symptoms of trauma.

Ah but there's more. Alas but there's more. Spy magazine this month goes public with yet another malingering Rather rumor: that the attackers did know who he was, and that they had been dispatched on their violent errand by an angry husband with whose wife Rather was allegedly having an affair.

There seems no limit to the stories that people will tell, nor innuendo they'll float, where Dan Rather is concerned.

"I don't have an inkling" about the identity of the assailants, Rather says now. "I was absolutely bewildered then, I am now, and I guess I may always be. I don't think they knew who I was. I think it was a case of mistaken identity. I was dressed down; I had blue jeans on, and a sport shirt, and a new pair of glasses, and I rarely wear glasses.

"I don't know who did it. And I don't know anybody who does know who did it." The police, Rather says, have told him they may never find out.

Tisch says ugly rumors about Rather may be inspired in part by his wholesomeness, which some find disingenuous or just plain unbelievable. There is an open Bible in Rather's small, windowless office, and he really reads from it, mostly the Old Testament. As for Rather's relationship with his wife Jean, Tisch says, "They're happily married. Everything is wonderful with them. People can't stand that idea.

"There's not one phony thing about Dan. Any time you're that straight, people can't believe it. They start making things up. There's been no change; Dan is Dan. A great anchor, a great correspondent, and a fine man."

Obviously, the Tisch-Rather relationship, which was strained mightily when Tisch was making his budget cuts, has largely healed. Rather says they see each other often at lunch or dinner. Tisch says he enjoys Rather's company.

"At one point last summer," during a breakfast meeting at the Regency Hotel, Rather says, "Mr. Tisch asked me quietly but directly, as is his style, 'If you could have me do three or four things in the news division, what would you do?' And I ticked off four things: return the morning time block to the news division, keep 'West 57th' on the air, start a new prime-time news broadcast, and give us some stability and steadiness, and the best way to do that was not to have any more cost-cutting."

Rather says he felt he'd be lucky to get one out of four. But "The Morning Program," produced by the CBS Entertainment division, and a ratings calamity, was canceled and the news division retook the time. "West 57th" is still on the air, soon to be joined by the new "48 Hours." And the cost-cutting appears to have ceased for now.

Did Laurence Tisch, once vilified by many in the news division, have an experience akin to that of Ebenezer Scrooge, visited in the night by ghosts who converted him into a pussycat? "The honest answer is, I don't know," Rather says. "I know this much: He listened, and he made a series of decisions beginning sometime in mid- to late summer that indicated he'd not only been listening but listening closely and carefully."

Rather credits Stringer with encouraging the miraculous Tisch conversion.

But Tisch says he didn't have to change: "I've always been 100 percent for the news division, from the first day. People don't understand me. They think I'm budget-minded. I don't care how much money is spent, so long as it is spent correctly. There never was an obligation to waste X-number of millions of dollars a year."

Tisch describes himself as a "news junkie." Rather says things are looking up. But then, it seemed impossible they could look down.

"When you look back over the past five or six months, I'm not saying everything has been wonderful," Rather says. "Life doesn't go that way. But if anybody had said in the spring or early summer of '87 that CBS News could end the year on as many up notes as we managed to end it, I think I would have suggested they seek medical attention.

"I frankly didn't think it was possible. I'm an optimist, but I didn't think it was possible. Things are relaxed and there's a sense of vigor I hope we can sustain. How long can this last? Listen, I'm at the point where I say, 'This is the way it is today, and I'll take that, and if it changes tomorrow, then we'll worry about it tomorrow.' "

He sounds a little like Scarlett O'Hara.

Clearly he hopes, with God as his witness, he will never be hungry again.

On one other frequently leveled criticism of him, Rather has strong opinions -- the notion that, as managing editor as well as anchor of his newscast, he exerts too much power over CBS News and its operations, and the shaping of the daily program. And that, additionally, Tisch has put new limits on that power in light of last year's festival of crises.

"I don't think in terms of power," Rather says. "Frankly, I don't find anybody who watches television asking any of these questions other than people who try to write about television. In our system, that is here at CBS, I wouldn't want the job of being anchorperson if I didn't have the job of managing editor.

"For 50 years we have said to the listener and the viewer, the person who brings you the news is emotionally involved in the responsibility of putting it together. We don't have people who just sort of sail in in the middle of the afternoon, look at two or three things, and then read the newscast. I don't consider this a matter of power. I see it as a matter of responsibility. I think that's the best way to do it."

Cronkite also held the title of managing editor and had just as much power.

"There's such a strong undertow in the business to make every decision by committee and to have no clear line of responsibility for anything -- to drain any semblance of idiosyncratic editing out of a broadcast," Rather says. "I sometimes think a lot of people in this business think if they could have a computer, a kind of journalistic HAL, do the editing, they'd jump at it.

"Everything in my experience is, in the end, editing a good newspaper or editing a good newscast has to be in the hands of real people putting it together for real people. The higher you go, the more difficult it is to make that happen. And with something as large as a network operation, if you aren't careful, it becomes a journalistic fudge factory in which nobody's responsible, nobody's to blame, and nobody cares."

Say what you want about him -- and everybody does -- Dan Rather is no computer, no fudge factory foreman, no fake. Stringer constantly refers to him as "larger than life." He is volatile, vulnerable, mercurial. It has a down side. And it has an up side. "When Dan is feeling as good as he is now," says Stringer excitedly, "the sky's the limit."

Does one become immune to the slings and arrows? "I wouldn't want to become immune to it," Rather says. "A reporter has to listen. There's no way that everybody's going to like the way you do it. What I'd like them to say is, 'He's a reporter, I'll give him that.' That's the best you can hope for, and in our business, that's getting to be pretty rare.

"Listen, it strikes a lot of people as corny, but I care. When I stop caring, I'll get out. We had 300 people laid off last year. That was not a happy time for anybody who cared about CBS News. And you bet I didn't look happy about that.

"And when things are better for CBS News, my morale is likely to be better, and things are better for us now, so it is. What kind of reporter would I be if I said none of that made any difference?"