Dan Rather is calm. Dan Rather is collected. Dan Rather is cautious. And he is not—repeat, not—ready to call Ohio for Barack Obama.
Sure, Obama currently holds a 55 percent lead in the state to John McCain’s 43 percent. And, sure, the TV screen whose images Rather is narrating may feature a blue-and-red graphic reporting that gap. And, sure, other networks have already placed Ohio in the Democrat’s column. But this is Dan Rather. And this is his “dance of democracy.” And. He. Will. Not. Call. It. (Until. He. Is. Sure.)
“Two of the networks are calling Ohio for Obama,” Rather informs his audience—those home viewers watching the special live broadcast of Dan Rather Reports on HDNet, and the small audience watching his broadcast in person at the small sound stage in DC’s Newseum—in response to which several members of the live viewers draw their breaths (Ohio! That would be huge!). “But we,” Rather continues—by which he means himself and his producers, using projections from the AP—”aren’t there yet.”
In response to which: deflated breaths. And a few muffled groans.
“We’re saying to you,” Rather continues, either not hearing the groans or electing to ignore them, “that it may indeed go that way. But we’re not yet prepared to say which way Ohio is going to go.”
Which is greeted with more groans. Because it’s 9:30, and we’ve been sitting in studio-audience silence for two and a half hours, and History May Be Made Any Minute Now—if, indeed, History Hasn’t Already Been Made—and Rather has been engaging in this manner of math-be-damned teasing all evening. (New Hampshire, 54 percent Obama to 45 percent McCain: we’re playing it safe and cautious here, folks; Pennsylvania, 55 percent Obama to 44 McCain: If—and I’m going to italicize, all-caps, underscore that word—Pennsylvania goes to Obama…; New Mexico, 57 percent Obama to 42 McCain: There’s one of the networks that’s jumped out to say that New Mexico has gone for Obama, but we’re not prepared to say that yet. Et cetera.) There’s a thin line, after all, between caution and delusion.
And yet Rather manages—even from the center of his anchor’s desk, even flanked on both sides by four feisty politicos—to radiate calmness. The same preternatural calmness he has radiated on air for, oh, about fifty years. Indeed, Rather moves with a slowness that you sense comes not from his age, nor from his experience, but from some kind of communion between himself and the camera trained on him.
Rather, in other words, presides. And that’s true not only on election night, but also during broadcasts of Dan Rather Reports, the two-year-old newsmagazine he anchors and reports on the cable channel HDNet. Rather seems to see television not just for what it is, but also for what it could be—the Texas-twanged Superego to other anchors’ Ids. While other networks, on election night, are featuring cacaphonic commentary and whizzing, glowing graphics, Rather perches behind a desk, with a neat sheaf of papers arranged before him. He keeps a pen in his hand. His cohost of sorts is Nate Silver, the numbers guru who emerged as one of the principal polling experts of the campaign. And his guests, who cycle in and out of the four chairs surrounding him, like planets circling in and out of his orbit, are political strategists (Donald Fowler, Jr., Todd Harris, and Terry Nelson), journalists (Dahlia Lithwick, George LeMieux), and political psychologist Drew Westin. None is a “big name,” per se, along the lines of CNN’s crew of “partisans” and “commentators”—but each is excessively knowledgeable, unfailingly thoughtful, and, importantly, open to debate. Their composite commodity is smarts. In that sense, come to think of it, they all seem to preside.
Partly that’s because Rather’s calmness seems to be infectious. Even though the HDNet broadcast is live—it’s election night, what else could it be?—it has the calm demeanor of a regular episode of Dan Rather Reports. It lacks the tension-building urgency so often seen on other cable channels—BREAKING NEWS! STAY TUNED!—and instead focuses on accurate reporting and smart analysis.