Television's most famous anchor 'comes in many layers,' says one colleague, 'like a three-dimensional game of chess.' And the more you look, the more Dan Rathers you find.

DAN RATHER IS SITTING on an airplane, tourist class, looking for all the world like any other fed-up, tired, impatient traveler. Riding in the back of the plane may be an aberration, a put-on for a reporter who has asked to tag along and watch him work. But the jeans and blue work shirt and baseball hat and sunglasses serve a more important purpose. In a truck-farmer costume, he is almost invisible. People expect Dan Rather in a suit. They expect him in first class. They expect him to glitter and vibrate with nervous tension, maybe act a little crazed. Most of all they expect Dan Rather to be a star.

"Anchormonster," he's been called by some of his staff, the huge supporting cast at CBS News whose assignment is to report the day's events and make Dan shine while they're doing it. Today, folded into an aisle seat, he seems anything but monstrous.

As if to reinforce the idea that he is just one of the folks, he begins explaining that he is a worker, not a leader. "I get off the truck in the morning and I ask two questions: Who is the boss and what is it that he wants?" he says in that familiar clipped Texas accent.

Dan Rather works for CBS News and not the other way around? Is this guy funning me, as his friends back in Houston would say?

In 1984, according to former CBS president Ed Joyce, Rather's $2.2 million-a-year contract was super-sweetened with bonuses that moved him beyond the ozone, even for anchors. This year his annual earnings will hover in the $4 million range -- which comes out to more than $76,000 a week -- and this contract is golden until 1993. Over a 10-year period, the man whose mother had to cash a $25 savings bond to send him to college will have earned $36 million.

And yet, with all his money, all his signed-and-sealed security, all his name recognition, all his officially bestowed clout, Rather has the besieged manner of a mid-level employee whose office is about to be overrun by painters. When he talks about CBS News now, it is about how others control it -- the corporate bosses, the pollsters, the bean counters, the marketeers.

"I was at Yankee Stadium yesterday," he is saying, nursing a cup of coffee. "And we had invited Mike Milken {the dethroned king of junk bonds} for lunch in mid-afternoon. I said, 'What the hell, I'll watch a few innings and slide back in.' It was a wonderful day. Instead of to the fourth, I stayed to the sixth." He goes on to explain how he deals with the stadium crowd, switching seats every two or three innings as people start to recognize him. But later, as he is talking about something else, he suddenly adds: "On Milken, the boss was not pleased. He chewed my ass out." Pausing, he corrects: "Maybe that's a tad strong."

The picture I am getting, the picture that Rather wants me to get, is of a man who has a boss.

Just Another Working Stiff

LIKE OTHER PROSPECTORS WHO HAVE mined for the truth behind that tense face on the "CBS Evening News," I quickly found that Dan the Working Stiff is indeed a real Dan Rather. But only one of them. Watching this man -- perhaps the last superstar anchor allowed to show his own quirky personality -- is like indulging in a kind of journalistic archaeology. As one colleague says of Rather, "He comes in many layers, like a three-dimensional game of chess."

Yes, there is Dan the employee, the tireless worker. There is also Dan the Prime Reporter, the top news junkie on the CBS team, guardian of the demanding spirit of Edward R. Murrow in the dawning age of the Stepford anchors: pretty well-scrubbed "talent" with the nice voices and the sitcom smiles.

There is What's-the-Frequency Dan, the tense, mercurial person who seems to emit strange subliminal vibes that wackos hear, but the rest of us merely sense. There is Gentleman Dan, the thoughtful, patriotic Texan whose note-writing skills rival George Bush's and whose eyes well with tears over the waving of an American flag.

And there is, simply, The Anchorman, as some of his former bosses have called him, more in fear than reverence. The Anchorman is an unpredictable force whose whims suddenly become commands, whose movements are arranged with the care usually reserved for heads of state. He is a fiercely ambitious, politically savvy infighter who has risen to the top of an institution that would daunt Machiavelli. And yet, perhaps because he's so public, so exposed, he can seem -- even to those who fear him -- deeply insecure.

Eric Sevareid, who worked with Rather for years, thinks that most people -- and certainly most newspaper veterans -- have no understanding of how tough it is to be The Anchorman, to have your every twitch scrutinized by millions every evening. "The big difference is that the newspaper writers are riding inside the stagecoach," Sevareid said recently. "And however bumpy that is, it's not that of the anchor, who is riding shotgun."

In the nine years since he took over from Walter Cronkite, it has been a particularly bumpy ride for Dan Rather. Sometimes he seems to be struggling to control the network. Sometimes he seems to be struggling to hold on to his anchor's chair. His battles have fascinated not only people within CBS but millions of outsiders. In recent years, there have been four major books on CBS, and each wrestles with the impact of the Rather factor.

Colleagues have said he had A-lists and enemies lists, just like his old adversary Richard Nixon. He was treated like a new king who had inherited the crown but didn't know exactly how to wear it. And the elders of CBS News, people like former president Bill Leonard, have implied that giving Rather too much control over his program was like letting Bette Davis direct her own pictures.

"I never felt it was the right thing," says Leonard, who signed Rather to replace Cronkite and gave the new anchor Cronkite's old title, "managing editor." "I still feel the same way because I think that it's enough of a job to do -- the job of being an anchorman -- without taking on the additional responsibilities that inevitably adhere to somebody who spreads his wings into the management area."

The title itself isn't that important, Leonard adds, because Rather's influence would have been huge in any case. Still, he says, "anchormen running news divisions -- that is bad business."

If he ever had the power to run the news division at CBS, Rather and others at the network apparently believe that he doesn't now. After a series of leadership changes on the news side of the troubled network -- Rather had four "bosses" in his first seven years as anchor -- CBS owner Laurence Tisch brought in a man widely touted as an anchor-tamer, David Burke. Burke, formerly the number two at ABC News and well-known in political circles as Sen. Edward Kennedy's most trusted aide during Chappaquiddick, became CBS News president in July 1988.

Burke came in swinging: He forced out Rather's friend David Buksbaum, who was vice president of special events, threatened to oust anyone who talked to the media and managed to send a message that Rather was going to start taking orders, not giving them. What surprised some of those who thought Rather was out of control was how easily he seemed to fall into line.

Says one insider: "Dan is floating in very calm waters now."

But lately, the fear is that it's gotten too quiet around the "CBS Evening News."

Once in first place for more than four years, the show slipped to third in 1987, has bounced up and back down since then, and so far this year has settled into second place, barely ahead of NBC. All three of the major networks are losing ground these days -- with everything from CNN to Nintendo competing for a place in front of the nation's couch -- but for CBS to be second or third is humiliating, not only for Rather but for the people he works for.

"We have him under control," says a CBS executive. "Now what we need is creativity."

'What I Want to Be Is a Journalist'

For a "48 Hours" program on policemen's stress in Miami, Rather has been given a packet of information, background on everyone he will interview. Producers submit questions. He glances at them, then leaves them in the car.

To his startled subjects, Rather seems much warmer in person than he does on the air. His questions are direct but gentle. A policeman's widow asks Dan, her new soft-spoken friend, to come with her to the graveyard. They lean on the wheel-like tombstone that marks the grave of her motorcycle-cop husband.

As they talk about the accident, Rather moves deftly around the tombstone so that Roberto, the cameraman, has a perfect shot. Roberto has to step on a new bouquet of flowers, but fortunately, the widow cannot see. She stares intently into Rather's eyes.

Most good journalism involves seduction, and Rather has not lost his touch. In a few minutes, the widow has told a terrible story about how she vented her anger over her husband's accident. As he lay dying, she says, she walked in the hospital room of another policeman who was recuperating and hissed abuse at his wife.

"I'm not proud of that," she admits. Rather pats her hand. Clearly she would confess much more, if she could, but time and tape are running out.

WHAT I AM AND WHAT I WANT TO be is a journalist," Rather has said numerous times. In his autobiography, he elaborates: "A special vigil is required if you are to resist becoming something else -- a showman, an actor on a 21-inch screen, a personage. In ways varied and subtle, a reporter can be led down those paths."

He says his prime job at CBS News is chief correspondent. Journalism first, everything else follows. When the subject turns to reporting, his face lights up, and he talks excitedly about the pursuit of one story, the extreme importance of another.

"I guess it would be easier just being one of the guys. I've got a good long-term contract, and I could take a long lunch and be easy, be serene," Rather says, though he knows as well as anyone that he would have to take mule tranquilizers to be easy or serene.

"Do they want some airhead who comes in at 4:30 or 5 p.m.," he asks rhetorically, "who doesn't have to think about the news, doesn't have to rewrite, doesn't have to care about the news? Just read the damn stuff, that's all? We are in some danger that the next generation will be that way because a lot of managers, well, that's what they want."

Then, as he often does, he slips into the voice of an all-purpose manager giving orders: "And the rest of the day I want him making talks to the ladies garden clubs and talking to schools and youth groups."

For a guy who is just an employee, he can do a good imitation of a boss.

Like Peter Jennings at ABC and Tom Brokaw at NBC, Rather spends a lot of time on airplanes these days, parachuting into the middle of hot stories around the world. Much of this is just PR, of course -- having The Anchorman on the scene, however briefly, helps a network stand out in the journalistic crowd. (Oddly, Rather recently criticized ABC's Sam Donaldson for jetting down to Panama for a stand-up without really covering the story.) But when Rather is really functioning as a journalist, even one who travels in limousines, few argue with his skill and speed. In most cases, he takes a big story and gives it life and energy. In 1989, he was in Tiananmen Square shortly before it became synonymous with Chinese government brutality. A tour in South Africa brought the footage he is most proud of -- emotional coverage of Nelson Mandela's triumphant emergence from prison.

"My overall impression," says veteran political operative Tom Donilon, who helped out at CBS during the 1988 elections, "was here was as hard-working a journalist as you'll find. He works on covering a story all day and all night long . . . He strives for perfection constantly. This is what he does, and he does it full time."

To some this effort makes him seem like an anachronism, a loner fighting changes in the basic nature of television news. "He's like a great, noble, slightly crazed monarch in an era of democracy," says Peter Boyer, whose book Who Killed CBS? outlined the network's slow but steady deterioration.

Rather sees part of his job as the preservation of the House of Murrow, the idea that CBS is the network that does the news right. He rails at cutbacks in the news division, cuts that he tells associates he believes will erode the network's reputation for excellence. He grows angry at the mention of Ted Turner, who once made a run at buying CBS and whose Cable News Network gets thrown in every CBS news executive's face by the money men because it represents a quicker, lower-budget way of doing the news. For Rather, the thought of making CBS more like CNN is like asking the writers for the Economist to start imitating all-news radio.

The way he says this publicly is that yeah, sure, he cares about ratings, but he cares more about jumping on a plane and going to Moscow -- even during key periods when the industry ranks television programs for advertisers.

"It's not a good idea to be on the road in sweeps month," says Rather, once again mimicking an unnamed boss. "Or if we are, it's a good idea for us to be in a bright, sunny place, but NOT in the Soviet Union."

Coverage of the race issue is another example of the erosion of journalistic values, Rather says. Race, he says, is the story in the United States these days. He wants to push it, make it a theme, hammer it home.

"I know it, I can see it, feel it and smell it," he complains. "We know the important story right now is the increase in racial tensions. Nobody wants to talk about it, but it's there. But if we put the broadcast together . . . market research tells us not to do this story . . . this is not good news." As he says this, Rather sounds tired, almost forlorn.

As much as he seems to resist the notion, however, Rather is more than just another correspondent, out on the road, shlepping his own bag, getting the story. He is a showman -- the guy who wears the sweater, stands up on the set, greets the pope for his viewers. And as a showman, the personality he projects -- as much as the energy he puts into getting the story -- is crucial to the success or failure of his show.

So why aren't Dan Rather's best routines -- the hard, hard news and the roadshows -- doing better at the box office? Is it the story? The pictures? His producers? His boss? The public? Is it, dare we ask, The Anchorman?

'He Looks Like He's Wound Up Very Tight'

After correspondent Fred Graham left CBS, he wrote a book about his network television career called Happy Talk. The book has 17 chapters, and one of them is about his old friend, Dan Rather. It is titled "Rather Inscrutable," and in it Graham tells the story about a correspondent named Lem Tucker who was asked why he seemed to be loitering on Rather's set one day, watching like a tourist as the anchor did his news segments.

"Don't you understand that this guy, sometime, someplace, somewhere, is going to go stark raving mad?" Tucker answered. "If it happens when he's around me, I don't want to miss it."

During his tour promoting the book, Graham says, even when he was trying to talk about the larger issues facing the television industry, virtually every interviewer asked him about Tucker's comment.

Finally, after Brian Lamb of C-SPAN interviewed him and included the usual question about Tucker, Graham asked: "What's this all about? Why does everybody seem to concentrate on this? Everywhere I go, they ask me about it."

"Because everybody feels that about him," Lamb replied.

"Everybody senses that about him, I said," Lamb confirms, when asked about the Rather comment. "We've read about him, we've watched him for years. He looks like he's wound up very tight."

"I'M A WORRIER," DAN RATHER EXPLAINS with a smile. "I worry. I worry about everything."

Rather worries about the ratings, for example, even though he says those worries primarily belong to others -- the accountants, the corporate executives. But ratings spell clout, and Rather knows it. "Dan Rather does not know a moment's peace. He looks over his shoulder constantly," said one former CBS associate. "And as there is slippage, there is a true measure of desperation. He wears it on his sleeve."

But when The Anchorman wears something on his sleeve, a few million people are bound to notice it.

Rather lives in a strange vortex of celebrity that draws attention, fascination and trouble. He is a worrier who attracts reasons to worry.

He worries over whether his image is too strait-laced, so he wears a sweater, tries to do it right, and the media critics yell that he is trying to fake it. He is like the kid on the playground who is panicked about being teased: He is always the one the other kids tease.

Rather talks about worshiping at the shrine of hard news, but he sometimes decides, apparently by himself, to add strange dramatic flourishes to his work. He signed off with the word "courage" for a while, and then later, in Spanish, coraje. (More recently he has said, "See you again soon," or "See you later" or "That's part of our world tonight.") When he was working for "60 Minutes," he sneaked into Afghanistan dressed up like a peasant and whispered into the cameras, causing a headline writer to dub him "Gunga Dan."

Morley Safer, Rather's colleague at CBS News and author of a new book on Vietnam titled Flashbacks, recalls first meeting Rather in the Caravelle bar in Saigon. Rather was wearing fatigues and combat boots, "though it was most unusual for correspondents to be dressed for war in Saigon," and a leather shoulder holster with a .38-caliber revolver sitting in it. "I could not imagine who he might have to shoot in the Caravelle," Safer writes. "The service was always quite good." (Rather denies he ever wore a gun; Safer, asked recently about the denial, didn't want to talk about it. "I think I've said enough," he said.)

Three years ago, a Rather attempt to protest the erosion of hard news by the entertainment side of the business backfired. On September 11, 1987, Rather was in Miami to cover a visit by the pope when CBS management decided to extend coverage of a semifinal match of the U.S. Open. The extension would eat into Rather's time, and he threatened that if the broadcast were late, he would walk off the set.

It was late, and he kept his promise: When the tennis match ended, the huge network system looked toward Miami, and Rather wasn't there. For six long minutes, the screen was blank. What came across was not protest, but petulance.

The incident produced reams of bad press, with the Times of London asking whether the anchorman was "losing his marbles." In February 1989, TV Guide writer Roderick Townley carried this theme much further in an article titled "Rather Strange: Behind Dan's Odd Behavior" -- a story that particularly infuriated its subject.

Townley was not granted an interview with Rather himself, but he did talk to a number of psychologists and psychiatrists. One said Rather was suffering from a "failed ghost-buster syndrome" because he had failed to bust the ghost of Walter Cronkite. Another likened the anchor to a high-spirited racehorse who kicks the barn door occasionally.

A tougher analysis came from a Los Angeles psychiatrist and radio personality named David Viscott, who was asked about several incidents in which apparent strangers chose Rather as a target. In the most famous case, Rather was beaten on the street in New York by two men who kept asking, "Kenneth, what's the frequency?"

Viscott said that there is a general rule that "what you get back is a reflection of what you give . . . There must be something about what he does that causes anger in other people."

For certain, the article caused anger in Rather.

"They have never met me and they give their analyses of me," he says, his voice quiet but his irritation readily apparent. "What bullfeathers . . . The TV Guide thing was laughable on the face of it."

Yet it seems true that Rather somehow attracts strange confrontations. In his 1977 autobiography, The Camera Never Blinks, written long before he became a household face, Rather tells about a woman who accosted him on an airplane. After accusing him of showing disrespect toward President Nixon, she hissed, "Somewhere you are going to get yours. If I have to arrange it, I will." In Chicago, a taxi driver once took him on a wild ride, forcing him to yell out the window for help. A security guard at the Democratic Convention in 1968 slugged him in the stomach -- albeit after Rather blocked the man's way as he was trying to arrest protesters.

Today, as he moves through crowds in his makeup and suit -- the full Dan Rather outfit -- he smiles and shakes hands and nods to people. But if there is a bump, a crash, he turns an eye quickly, not so much like a reporter as like a startled animal trying to determine if it has to defend itself.

In the public eye for decades, Dan Rather still does not have a very tough skin. Criticism, he says, takes a heavy toll, and even though he knows a high profile makes a large target, he feels every arrow.

Rather is not the only anchor concerned about his image, of course. Peter Jennings of ABC News once called to complain when I referred to ABC's "World News Tonight" as a "show." Tom Brokaw of NBC News has privately griped about Washington Post television critic Tom Shales' references to his "button nose." But Rather seems the most sensitive of the three.

The CBS anchor recently had a bit part in a Post piece on Sister Marie Louise, a Georgetown Visitation nun who was beating the pros at picking football winners in Glenn Brenner's Channel 9 "Mystery Prognosticator Contest." When her picks were compared with Rather's one week, Rather did poorly, and the writer teased: "Get out of here with Dan Rather. He went 4-9-1 with his crummy picks. He's not even in the race anymore. 'Well, I didn't really want to beat Sister,' he lamely told Brenner, or something to that effect. Sure, Dan."

Silly stuff, right? Not to Rather. The Saturday this story appeared, Benjamin C. Bradlee, executive editor of The Post, got a call at home about 7:45 a.m. Rather was shouting, said he was "enraged" and claimed that the writer had "piped a quote," that is, made up the quote. After the two talked, Rather hung up. Fifteen minutes later, Bradlee's phone rang again. It was Rather, who said he was still enraged but didn't want Bradlee to pass along his complaint to the reporter. Later, Rather described the whole episode as a mistake.

Up close, he seems brittle, nervous. He fairly hums like an electrical generator. Some who know him mention the overwhelming stress of his job. Others wonder about dark psychological undercurrents of which even Rather may not be fully aware.

Flying down to Miami with Rather, another possibility becomes apparent. About an hour into the flight, he says: "Do you know first aid?"

He is looking down the aisle. I am suddenly afraid I will have to leap out of my seat and perform the Heimlich maneuver on somebody a few rows down.

"A little," I say, feeling the adrenaline start its course. "Why?"

"Because if I don't get some coffee soon, you're going to need it." He smiles. It's a nice smile, and I try to reciprocate. But I have a hard time coming down from my Heimlich fantasy in time to get the joke.

Rather drinks coffee voraciously. At a 7-Eleven he buys a cup for everybody else and gets two for himself. It's like an alcoholic fixing his own drinks. Once, he says, he drank 16 to 18 cups a day. Now, his doctor has told him to cut down, and he says he drinks only 8 to 10 cups a day.

In half a day, I see him drink five cups of coffee and a diet drink. This guy has to be buzzing. An assistant, who sees I am shocked, is suitably protective. She quickly explains that he never finishes the cup. Still, all this talk about Rather turning into Howard Beale, the guy in "Network" who had a nervous breakdown on-screen -- could it be just caffeine jitters?

Deep in the Heart of Rather

The Anchorman moves through the gathering of policemen's widows like an elder statesman from the 1950s. With their hair sprayed and curled, their dresses and shoes a perfect match, the women twitter over the famous face who has come to interview them for "48 Hours."

"Thank you, ladies," he says to those who spread out coffee and doughnuts.

"Yes, ma'am," he says to a grandmother.

He looks around the small house and realizes that somebody has been cleaning behind the books until all hours, rushing around in a panic that morning to make it look -- heavens, straighten that picture! -- perfect for the cameras. "What a nice home you have here, a lovely home," he purrs appreciatively.

Oh, Lord, his mamma would be proud.

SOME OF RATHER'S ASSOCIATES say that he worries so much because he is simply insecure the way a lot of people are insecure when they go from a rock-hard childhood to the big time. He came a long way up. Some people never lose the fear of falling the long way back down.

He was born 58 years ago in the East Texas town of Wharton. Within a few months, the family moved to an old working-class neighborhood in Houston called "the Heights." His mother was a waitress. His father, Irvin "Rags" Rather, dug ditches.

Dan was the first in his family to go to college, and he went to the closest one to his home that would take him, Sam Houston State College, where he briefly had a football scholarship. There he found a mentor, journalism professor Hugh Cunningham, who took the young man under his wing and even paid for some of his meals when Rather's lean, hungry look proved to stem more from malnutrition than anxiety.

"He was a wound-up clock that wouldn't run down," remembers Cunningham, who is now executive editor of the Anchorage Times. "There was nothing he would not do. He must have hit the ground running when he was born."

Friends from that era recall that even then he was intense and driven. But there was one place where he seemed at ease: on the stage. He got involved in campus theater, sometimes as a kind of master of ceremonies.

"He was superb," Cunningham says. One show "got so good we had to put the thing on the road. He got that stage presence there. He began to develop it there, at this little school."

Rather says his advanced education came mostly after he became a reporter, from people who encouraged him to read, to pursue the subjects that he might have missed by not going to Harvard or Yale. Among those people, he has said, was Eric Sevareid, long a revered figure at CBS News and clearly one of Rather's heroes. As a young CBS newsman, he told some of his interviewers how Sevareid had advised that a journalist could not do better than to devour The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White.

"I never read it," says Sevareid, now 77 and retired in Washington. Sevareid said that after he saw himself being portrayed as Rather's tutor, he wrote Rather a letter to suggest that things were beginning to sound a little lofty for the news business.

" 'Sevareid is not Walter Lippmann the Second. Rather is not Edward R. Murrow the Second,' " he recalls writing. "I thought that a little modesty might be our saving grace." For a long time, he did not hear from Rather. Finally, a "gracious letter" arrived from the young anchorman, Sevareid says.

Rather, who is married and has two grown children, worked for UPI and the Houston Chronicle after college. In the late 1950s he was director of news and public affairs and anchorman at Houston's KHOU-TV. When Hurricane Carla hit the Texas coast in 1961, Rather kept his camera crews on the scene, while most others stayed at a safe distance. One proud moment for Rather: He showed the first live television shot of a hurricane on radar, which he had superimposed on a map of the Texas coastline. CBS News was impressed and hired the gutsy young journalist a few months later. He covered the White House, worked in London and Vietnam and joined "60 Minutes" in 1975. On March 9, 1981, he took Walter Cronkite's place.

Nine years later, some of Rather's friends say that the strange hokeyness that appears on his show now and then is really the Texas side of his personality reasserting itself.

Take last year's series on religion in the Soviet Union, for example. Called "God and Gorbachev," it included a "bumper" or title shot of God's and Adam's hands almost touching as painted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. And in one sequence, Rather was seen bowing to greet the pope.

One former CBS producer who witnessed the series said: "Yikes, that's 'Saturday Night Live.' The celebration of events instead of coverage and the unapologetic jingoism are a very Rather- esque play for the ratings. We're talking marketing. We're not talking journalism." (In fact, the series did nothing to boost the "Evening News" ratings.)

"The most intelligent people can get themselves talked into things," explains former CBS president Dick Salant, after critiquing the series.

For Rather, however, "God and Gorbachev" may have been an effort to hark back to his own roots, a return to the God-fearing attitude he may believe still exists in most of America. Indeed, there is something about Rather that his supporters call old-fashioned and his enemies see as simply out of date.

In New York City and Washington, this yes-ma'am, thank-you-ma'am Dan Rather is widely viewed as a fraud. The Bible in his office, the strange country sayings that suddenly creep into the conversation of a man who has lived in cities since he was a baby -- these are seen as part of the sheath Rather wears to cover the raw nerve endings underneath.

But the more durable reason may be that Rather uses his roots in Texas as a way to reach people. Without them, he can seem to withdraw into a distant, mysterious inner self. But when he is telling Texas stories -- when his tight, little end-of-the-evening-news grin relaxes into a real, wide smile that makes him look handsome enough to be a local anchor -- he seems like just a good old ordinary person. Almost.

"In my experience, TV is often a liar," says Peggy Noonan, who wrote radio commentaries for Rather at CBS and later wrote speeches for Ronald Reagan. "He is to my mind much shyer, in its original sense. He is someone who doesn't feel real comfortable with people when he first gets to know them."

And the folksy, hokey stuff? "It's real," says Noonan, who says Rather treated her well at CBS and who has remained his friend. "He's corny and emotional about America. He's corny and emotional about democracy. One morning we were shooting the breeze, and somehow we got on the topic of national monuments. I'm doodling, and he starts talking about the San Jacinto monument {in Texas}. Apparently, engraved upon it were words written by the commander about why we stand here and why we fight. He described the monument. His voice shook, and tears were coming down his cheeks.

"It's genuine, but when you see it on TV, it never looks as genuine as it is."

It's Lonely at the Top

Rather likes to tell stories. Driving through Miami, he tells one about going to a dinner in China with Richard Nixon when the president and his following were served a great delicacy -- live fish in champagne. If you swallow them quickly enough, you never feel it, Rather explains, and we laugh.

A short time later, after another yarn that Rather tells with technical skill but not a genuine storyteller's ease, his assistant laughs and says: "I liked the fish story."

Rather looks stricken.

"Tisch?" he says, fearful that somebody has told me something about CBS owner Laurence Tisch.

"Tisch?" he says again urgently.

"Fish," his assistant says. He still looks puzzled. "The goldfish," she says. "In China."

He exhales, and becomes a storyteller again.

DAN RATHER MAY LIKE TO SEE himself as a hard-working, down-home news hound -- but he's also a successful corporate infighter at an institution where these skills have been at a premium lately. He may be the consummate public gentleman, but he can also be quick to show signs of anger -- a cold, quiet anger that can freeze a reporter's career, or an executive's, in some cases. Numerous CBS News employees, all of whom asked not to be named, told me that they fear Rather's wrath because it appears so swiftly and can be so destructive.

Richard Cohen (no relation to the Post columnist), who was once a key producer for Rather, says that when he was quoted "out of context" saying something slightly critical about Rather, his job began to evaporate.

"Instead of saying 'Why'd you say that?,' I got called in, and it was the iciest meeting in 10 years, and, literally, the light went out," Cohen recalls. "It took only one little misstep in 10 years, and I was gone." Rather said he did not want to talk about his relationship with Cohen. His colleagues recalled that after Cohen and Rather had their disagreement, CBS executives, who had been wanting to oust Cohen, felt they could safely make their move.

Fred Graham, who thinks Rather could have helped save his job at CBS, also feels betrayed by The Anchorman.

Rather and Graham had been friends for years -- in part because they were both non-New Yorkers, people who by network standards still talk funny; in part because they were young and eager together at CBS News. Of the two, however, Rather was clearly on the faster track. White House correspondent extraordinaire, "60 Minutes" star, he soared to-ward the top. Meanwhile Graham, an Arkansas-born lawyer educated at Yale and Oxford, became known as an expert on legal issues, and especially the Supreme Court. This gave him a place of honor in the '70s but started looking like a luxury to CBS managers in the 1980s.

Graham had hoped to be considered for several jobs when his contract came up in 1985, including anchor for "Face the Nation." But when his agent called, it was with the news that not only was he not getting a raise or "Face," but his contract would not be renewed at all. (After further negotiations with CBS, Graham decided to go to a local station in Nashville, and next year will be chief anchor for the American Courtroom Network, a 24-hour cable channel that plans to air important court cases from around the country.)

Graham says he got a nice note from Rather as he left. But when he tried repeatedly to telephone his friend -- to determine as part of his book whether Rather had actually approved of his axing -- Graham says he couldn't get a response.

Rather says now that he did try to protect Graham, and helped save his job once. Ed Joyce, the president of CBS News at the time, he says, "came to me and said, 'I hate Fred Graham. I hate his work. He's mush-mouthed, I can't understand him.

He's overpaid and arrogant.' I argued that no, he has two kids, he's a pro and he should stay." When CBS executives came to him again during another round of cuts -- the one in which Graham lost his job -- Rather says, he was told that the deed was already done, "to let it go."

"If one call I did not answer, my conscience is clear on Fred Graham," he says. And when he and his wife saw Graham on television one day, talking about Rather and his psyche, "I wondered, 'Is this a man in a Fred Graham suit?' This isn't the Fred Graham I knew."

Rather is even tougher on Joyce, whose book Prime Times, Bad Times tells about his tour as Rather's boss from 1983 to 1986. Joyce paints a portrait of an anchorman who is haunted by perfectionism, dogged by comparisons with Walter Cronkite and maniacally protective of his image. At one point, Joyce writes, he asked for a change on the evening news "if you can do it without unbalancing the anchorman." He portrays news executives as people whose chief job was to go into the "Evening News" compound shortly before airtime and hold Rather's hand.

"Before Ed Joyce came to CBS, nearly everybody said to me, 'That guy's a snake. Don't have anything to do with him,' " Rather says now. "But I tried with him, as I tried with every one of them, to do a good job."

Blame comes his way more often than credit, and it bothers him. Do people think he has the power only to do bad? Why, he asks, are his actions always interpreted in a negative way?

When Rather tried to save the jobs of CBS managers David Buksbaum, Joan Richman and Mark Harrington, he complains, he was accused of trying to build an empire, of protecting his own turf at the expense of others. "These three I know to be brilliant, caring workhorses," he says now. "These are three people I had worked closely with who had been intensely loyal to CBS and had spent a lot of their professional lives working to make me look good. What kind of person would I be, what the hell would it say about me, if I didn't stand up for them? I don't understand the argument that says: loyalty back to a person who's been loyal to you -- that's a bad thing to do."

Asked about his reputation for overthrowing the boss -- a reputation built in the days when he had better ratings and the clout that comes with them -- Rather begins to show a combination of pain and anger. His face grows taut, his lips tighten, and he speaks methodically and cautiously.

"Inside CBS, people say part of Dan's problem is that he does get off the truck, he does obey the boss man," Rather says. "My attitude was -- listen, he's the president of CBS and my job is to do my damnedest to deliver what he wants. Inside CBS, people say that's my problem -- I'm too easy."

He's writing another book, he says -- to be called Anchors Away -- and mostly it will include the kind of stories he tells his friends. But somewhere in there may be an answer to all this criticism -- a page or two in which The Anchorman strikes back.

IN PERSON, THE FACE IS SO MUCH more intriguing than it is on television. Up close, it can be different. When he really laughs, it is a nice face. When he is tired or concentrating, the eyes are heavily lidded, the lips disappear so that he looks lifeless, like a puppet.

He is concentrating now, on a promo he's doing for the CBS affiliate in Miami. Standing in front of a police station in the purple Miami twilight, we all wait. The camera crew, the assistant, the woman from the affiliate, the police public relations man. We are waiting for him to reappear. I want to go up and say, "Where are you?," but I don't.

Suddenly, he turns his head up, and the face we know is back. The voice is there, the cadence, the smile, the Rather that 9 million households watch every night. I'm left to wonder, as I did in the beginning of this pursuit, about this distant, complicated man almost everybody recognizes but almost nobody knows.

Eleanor Randolph covers the media for The Post's National staff.