A talk with Dan Rather -- ten weeks into his new job
New York — At CBS News, the date is 10 AC (10 weeks After Cronkite). As Dan Rather enters his tenth week as anchorman on the "CBS Evening News," the network is breathing a collective sigh of relief.
All network news audience numbers are down since last year at the same time, with the CBS ratings just a shade farther down than the others. But there certainly is no evidence of a mass desertion, as some CBS observers feared.
If there is any big news, it is that ABC's "World News Tonight" is creeping up more often on NBC's "Nightly News" in a seesawing battle for second place. But both still lag behind CBS, the No. 1 news network.
So it is time to visit Dan Rather, now in the same office in which I interviewed Walter Cronkite 10 weeks ago.
Mr. Rather, like Mr. Cronkite, greets me in shirt sleeves. Like Cronkite, Rather is functioning as "managing editor" of the news show, writing and rewriting the news he reads. Whereas Cronkite's bookshelves on normal days were filled with wide variety of books and memorabilia, including awards, Dan Rather's shelves now contain a set of the Harvard Classic, a set of Mortimer Adler's Great Books, and a multivolumed "History of the Jewish People."
Way up on the top shelf there is a gift from a viewer, a sculpture which looks like a cross between a real hot box (printer's type faces) and a Louise Nevelson construction. Did Walter Cronkite give Dan Rather any parting advice?
"The last thing he said to me when I walked out of his office was: 'Be yourself.' I can't say enough about how well Walter handled that whole awkward period, and how good he was to me."
Has DAn Rather managed to be himself on the "Evening News"?
"I knew it was true when he said it, but I didn't know how true.
"I've gotten a lot of advice from a lot of people and I believe I should consider it, particularly if it comes from people I respect. But in the end you have to follow your own instincts. That's tougher to do than I ever imagined. I am basically a loner -- I've been a one-man operation. Here, you have to put people together editorially. CBS News has roughly 1,100 people -- we now have 43 here" --he points to the newsroom which viewers see on camera just beyond his blind-shaded, glass-enclosed office.
Does Mr. Rather feel that too much emphasis is being placed on comparatively trivial things like his appearance?
"I do. I understand it -- it goes with the territory. This business of haircut, ties, smile or frown are not things I want to spend my time worrying about. In the end, my success or failure will depend upon the strength or weakness of our coverage."
How does he fell about the recent TV Guide article which faulted him for being a hero figure, rather than an avuncular (like Cronkite) anti-hero figure?
He chuckles. "I don't think of myself as a hero figure. I don't have much patience for studies of that sort. I'm in the news business and I'm not much for public opinion polls, surveys, data analysis as applied to the presentation of the news."
Has he used polls to change anything about the show? There are reports he had his hair trimmed, that he looms smaller on the screen, that at first he didn't smile enough and now smiles more.
"Absolutely not. I haven't seen any surveys, I don't want to to see surveys, and even if I did see one, I wouldn't make changes. I have to be myself. If there are changes, they are due decisions based on improving the presentation of the news, not on my personal appearance."
What changes in the news presentation would Rather like to see?
"Another half hour. I am dedicated to that and I think there's a good chance we will get it. My first priority is to have a one-hour evening newscast. We need it because the world is a complex place and there's a great need for understanding."
The last time I interviewed Rather, he was just moving into CBS Reports and he told me that Edward R. Murrow was his role model.Who has taken that place now?
"It is still Ed Murrow and always will be. I was raised on the Murrow mystique as boy and man."
Rather takes a yellowed newspaper clipping from his pocket and reads: "The only person in network journalism since Edward Murrow who can conceivably supply the conscience missing from network news. . . ."
He shakes his head. "I carry that in my wallet. I'm smart enough to know that I haven't lived up that, but that's what I would like to live up to. Murrow gave audiences a sense of conscience. It's hard to do. There are always rating pressures, 10,000 pressures all at once. It'd a matter of keeping some sense of conscience and some sense of self."
How has the "Evening News" job affected his life style?
"No major changes. On '60 Minutes' and 'CBS Reports' I used to get up and go somewhere. Now I get up and stay somewhere. I don't have time to go on the road very much anymore. I try to wrestle the beast to the ground each day right here.
"I live in New York City. I have a wife and a son and daughter, both grown. The major change in my life is that I now come to the same place every day. I'm realizing that being on the road can also be an escape. Now, every night at 6: 30 p.m., I must be here [the show is fed to affiliated stations live at 6:30; some stations air it live then, others hold it on tape till 7 p.m.]."
What else in TV news is there left for Dan Rather?
"Honestly, there's not much else I want to do in TV. CBS has been good to me. I've gotten to do an awful lot of things I wanted to do. I'm not so sure that being the White House correspondent during the Nixon administration was not the culmination. But I don't think in those terms. I think of today and tomorrow."
Is Dan Rather happy, secure, satisfied?
"I'm happy. I'm secure because in the almost 20 years I've been with CBS they've been very supportive and there's a good line of communication. But satisfied? No. I always feel I could be doing things a little bit better."
What does Dan Rather, so intense on the air and in the office, do for relaxation?
"I read, go to the theater, play basketball with my son and daughter, fish, take long walks, scuba dive. But mostly I like to go away, preferably to Texas to fish."
With all those Great Books on his shelf, is there one book that has influenced him most?
"Are you ready for this?" he asks embarrassedly. "The Bible. And, oh yes, the essays of Montaigne. And Strunk and White's 'The Elements of Styl e.'"