Dan Rather, the longest-serving and most outspoken of the major network news anchors, recently served as the star attraction at a Democratic Party fundraiser.
Donors paid as much as $1,000 for a private evening in Austin with the CBS newsman, according to an invitation obtained by The Washington Post. Rather's appearance at the March 21 gathering generated about $20,000 for the Travis County Democratic Party -- and will undoubtedly provide ammunition to critics who have long accused Rather of leaning to the left.
Rather said yesterday that he hadn't realized beforehand that the event was a fundraiser. "I didn't ask the question, and I should have," he said in an interview. "I take full responsibility for it. I'm responsible and I'm accountable."
But the Texas native stopped short of calling his appearance a mistake or saying he would not have attended had he known in advance that he was being used to raise money.
Acknowledging that he didn't want to sound like Al Gore at a Buddhist temple, Rather said: "When I got there, I was very aware that it was a fundraising event. I'm not going to say I had no idea what was going on. . . . If someone wants to fault me for that, I wouldn't blame them."
Rather said he agreed to discuss election coverage at the invitation of an old friend, Austin City Council member Will Wynn, who drew 150 people to the event in his back yard. He was not paid for his appearance. Other hosts included Scott Ozmun, the county Democratic chairman, and Robin Rather, the anchor's daughter and a Texas environmentalist and marketing executive.
The Austin American-Statesman said Robin Rather is considering a run for mayor and has been consulting with another host of the event, David Butts, a campaign adviser to Mayor Kirk Watson. The CBS veteran said he didn't know that his daughter was an official host.
Asked for comment last night, CBS News spokeswoman Sandy Genelius said: "Obviously our standards don't allow correspondents to participate in political party fundraisers. No one believes in this and upholds it more fervently than Dan Rather. This was an honest oversight on his part."
Rather has long disputed suggestions that he is a Democratic Party sympathizer. But he consistently draws the most flak of the major anchors from viewers who see him as less than objective, even spawning a Web site called RatherBiased.com.
"I think the stereotype of Rather is occasionally unfair, but this feeds the stereotype," said Republican consultant Mike Murphy. "Generally, television anchors should not be in the business of helping political parties raise money. He ought to make it real clear that it was a huge mistake and he should never do that sort of thing."
Said National Review Editor Rich Lowry: "He is perceived as the most buffoonishly biased of any of the anchors, as far as conservatives are concerned. He's the favorite media pinata for people on the right. He arouses their ire. This, obviously, will just increase that. This will enter the lore about Dan Rather."
In one widely quoted example, Rather said on "Larry King Live" in 1998: "I would not be astonished to see Hillary Clinton be the Democratic nominee in 2000. . . . As far as I'm concerned, she's the Person of the Year [for] Time magazine."
The fundraising invitation, 1,000 of which were sent out, says: "Please join us for an evening with DAN RATHER. Mayor Kirk Watson & Other Honored Guests. 'Power Shifts & Aftershocks.' An Insider View on Politics & Power."
The RSVP form -- which asks that checks be made payable to the county Democratic Party -- says a donor can be a "host" for $1,000, which buys tickets for "four guests for private reception & evening event." A "sponsor" gets two tickets for $500. A "guest" gets one or two tickets (for $150 and $250, respectively) but doesn't get into the private reception.
Wynn, describing himself as a close friend of Robin Rather, said that "it wouldn't surprise me at all if Dan wasn't aware that technically this was a fundraiser. I'm sorry if somehow there might have been some miscommunication. . . . His comments were completely nonpartisan."
Eddie Rodriguez, the party's executive director, called it "a very successful event. . . . There was just a lot of interest in hearing about the election from someone who had such an insight into what happened in the media."
Rather, who maintains a home in the Austin area, noted that the night before he sat with Texas Gov. Rick Perry at an arts dinner and posed for a picture with the Republican.
"This is part of what I do -- I circulate among politicians," he said. "Over a long period of time, I've met with political groups large and small, Democratic and Republican, Green Party, mugwumps, you name it, because that's what reporters do."
Rather said he "wouldn't be surprised" if critics use the incident to call him a closet Democrat. "I'm going to get that criticism whether I deserve it or not."