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.
Later that same month, Rather and a producer, Mishi Ibrahim, went to Kansas City to report a story on a spate of exploding gas cans that Rather called “ticking time bombs.” The plastic gas cans had been manufactured without a flame arrester, a metal shield that could have stopped the vapor trails from backtracking, ignited, into the can, and Rather’s report, like many Dan Rather Reports stories, had a 60 Minutes feel—a morality tale culminating in a moment of truth when, on cue, an expert (in this case Lori Hasselbring, a chemical engineer) demonstrates how a flame arrester could have prevented the gas cans from blowing up. This contradicted statements by the manufacturer, Blitz USA, and the primary distributor, Wal-Mart, that insisted such internal combustion wasn’t possible. If it wasn’t as glamorous as a confrontation with a president, it had a populist, investigative bent that Rather said brought its own kind of pleasure.