It was interesting, given the degree of animus surrounding Rather, to hear him talk about happiness and satisfaction, neither of which has ever been considered indispensable to the Rather brand. One reason I was talking to him was that there was something intriguing about the notion of Dan Rather at peace, even though I had never fully bought the various simplistic characterizations that he had been saddled with over the years, from “bizarro Rather” to “liberal Rather” to “folksy, sentimental Rather.” He dodges most questions that attempt to get at his place in history, but Wayne Nelson, his executive producer on Reports, told me that Rather is “enjoying life for the first time,” and I thought maybe he’d open up and talk candidly about his departure from CBS, and about his most dramatic career moments, many of which are among his most contentious. I wanted to reconcile all the ideas that people have about him with the ideas that he has about himself. I also thought that sooner or later he might revert to form. In June, he’d indicated the possibility of getting exclusive interviews with the presidential candidates for what he called “a sit down, not a debate—a talk about things not normally talked about, like crumbling national infrastructure and schools.” Given his notorious run-ins with politicians—he once publicly mocked President Nixon at a press conference in Houston during the Watergate crisis, and later sparred with vice president George H. W. Bush during an interview about the Iran-Contra scandal—I wondered what might happen if he sat with, say, John McCain, and dug into the senator’s positions on the war in Iraq.
But the idea fizzled. Part of it was no doubt due to HDNet’s stature. “We can’t make the argument for a mass audience,” Rather told me. “I think we have a good argument to make about the quality of audience. But we’re seen as peripheral.” Still, any high-profile interview Rather now seeks is also affected by lingering questions about his reputation that are at the center of his lawsuit against CBS, in which he alleges that he was made the scapegoat for the forged-document scandal at the heart of the Bush story. The gaudiest claim is a kind of Washington conspiracy theory: Rather alleges that Viacom, CBS’s parent company in 2004, fired him to curry favor with the Bush administration and protect its business interests in Washington, which in 2004 included the relaxing of media-ownership laws. “The whole beating heart of the suit,” Rather has said, “is to put some sunlight on a fact—and it is a fact—that these huge conglomerates that control eighty to eighty-five percent of communications need favors in Washington.” Clearly, though, the lawsuit has an additional purpose: to provide a stage for the evidence Rather says he has that proves he and his 60 Minutes II producer, Mary Mapes, got the Bush story right.
One morning in June, I met Rather for breakfast at Nectar, a modest Upper East Side coffee shop where Rather blended into the time-worn surroundings. When talk turned to the lawsuit, he again invoked his polar star. “I’m constantly asking myself, ‘What would Murrow do?’ ” he said. “He spoke truth to the powerful at their height, the great fear inducers.” This was a day after Rather had attended Tim Russert’s funeral and a day before he would head to the Gulf Coast to fish for speckled trout with his grandson. “There’s nothing professionally I like better than getting to the bottom of a big story. Short of the power of subpoena, and the pain of perjury, I’m doing all I can. Either you move forward and have the moxie, or . . .”—he collected himself. “I’m taking on a giant corporation; they spend their stockholders’ money. I had the guts to spend my own money and get to the bottom of this. That’s what that’s about.”
Last summer, Rather lived a kind of double life. When he was in New York he was often away from the office, meeting with attorneys or giving depositions. But then he’d “compartmentalize” and do journalism in bundles. In June alone, he traveled to the Galapagos to report a story on illegal shark-fin hunts; to Colombia, where he interviewed President Uribe about a free-trade agreement that’s in the works; and to Washington, where he met the Venezuelan ambassador and tried to arrange an interview with Hugo Chavez.