Apparently the highest-paid anchor is also the hardest working. Three weeks of steady, persistent negotiation paid off for Dan Rather and CBS News this week when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein gave Rather the first interview with an American journalist since the Persian Gulf crisis began.
CBS News Vice President Joe Peyronnin, who helped coordinate the anchor's movements, said yesterday from New York that Rather, after two days in Baghdad, suddenly got a late-night phone call Wednesday saying he was wanted at the Foreign Ministry. But the car that picked Rather up at his hotel just before 11 p.m. didn't head for the Foreign Ministry, Rather noticed anxiously. He asked the two military police in the car where he was going.
He was going to the presidential palace.
Rather was without his executive producer, Tom Bettag, and his own camera crew; over Rather's protests, the Iraqis insisted on using theirs. If Rather's smile seemed a little forced, or dazed, during a shot in which he and Saddam walked down a hallway, it may have been because Rather had found himself completely on his own in the palace.
But as for the questioning itself, Dan was tough, Dan was blunt, Dan was there for us. In the interview, which aired in prime time on CBS Wednesday, there was, mercifully, none of the unseemly groveling that marked network audiences with the Ayatollah Khomeini back at the dawn of that other Mideast crisis.
Remember Mike Wallace's "Forgive me, Imam"? Yuck.
Rather did twice tell Saddam -- perhaps too charitably -- that he assumed him to be "an intelligent man," but he did not hesitate to lob bold questions. At one point, Rather told Saddam, "Mr. President, respectfully -- a hostage is a hostage is a hostage." Saddam did expand on his previous insistence that the hostages were "guests" by referring to them as "guests against their will."
To Saddam's slightly shocked face, Rather quoted George Bush comparing him to Hitler. Saddam asked Rather how he was like Hitler. Rather said, "You invaded a weak neighbor who was no threat to you."
Way to go, Dan!
The interview must have been a good one, because the green-faced competition started sniping immediately. On NBC-owned WRC-TV's late-night newscast Wednesday, reporter Steve Handelsman snottily dismissed the interview as having been newsless and charged that CBS made "an unusual agreement" to land Saddam, promising him a full hour of prime time.
Peyronnin said yesterday that that wasn't precisely the promise made. "We said we would do a special prime-time broadcast based on an interview with Saddam," Peyronnin said, "if he would do the first exclusive interview with us."
The plan, said Peyronnin, was to air the interview during one of the two regularly scheduled CBS News hours in prime time -- either "60 Minutes" on Sunday night or "48 Hours" on Thursday. But then Saddam picked Wednesday for the interview, so the scheduled entertainment program "Top Cops" was bumped and the "CBS News Exclusive Report" substituted.
As for the allegation that the interview was newsless, one only had to check the next day's front pages to put that one to rest. "That was a very important interview," Peyronnin said. "I thought Dan did a superb job."
For CBS News, the victory was sweetened by the fact that Rather and the news division took some derisive heat early in the crisis for rushing Rather to the front when the story first broke. That sniping, largely from competitors, looks even more like sour grapes now than it did then.
So does the hollow complaint, often voiced in recent days, about sending anchors to this hot spot when knowledgeable "foreign correspondents" could do a better job. Just who are all these foreign correspondents so knowledgeable in Iraqi ways and wiles?
If CBS hadn't had someone of Rather's stature in there, it almost certainly would not have obtained the interview, just as ABC would probably not have been able to claim the first correspondent to report out of Baghdad if someone of Ted Koppel's stature hadn't been on the scene.
The only person of Koppel's stature is Koppel, and the only person of Rather's stature is Rather. Anchors get to be anchors because they are, at least theoretically, megareporters. Rather and Koppel have been megareporting.
What happens next is where the worries come in. If Saddam grants interviews to all the networks -- ABC, NBC, CNN, plus Jesse-the-Journalist Jackson -- just to maximize his exposure to American audiences, where will the line be drawn? Already the Iraqis have exploited CNN and the global showcase it provides with two preposterous (if fascinating) agitprop talk shows.
The more TV time they get, the more they want.
Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), questioned on CBS by Bob Schieffer after the Rather interview, noted what he considered the "skillful use of television by Saddam Hussein." It's certainly been an attempt at use, but has it really been all that skillful? "I don't think we should respond through television," Hamilton said. "That's not going to get us anywhere."
Bush, at yesterday's press conference, said he had "no complaints at all" about Saddam's access to American viewers, but said, "I'd like to have a similar opportunity to present our case to the people in Iraq."
With what must have been disingenuousness -- or just an attempt to keep his longtime feud with Rather alive -- Bush claimed, "I haven't seen the last couple of interviews with the man," meaning Saddam. Dismissing the journalism this way unfortunately made it sound as if Bush doesn't care enough about the crisis to turn on a TV set.
However it all progresses, or regresses, or lags on for months, the crisis coverage by the networks so far hasn't given them much cause to be apologetic. Rather, understandably exhausted, is on his way home at last. He returns with yet another trophy for the case.