Dan Rather on Trump, Nixon, and why he never worked in network news again

Illustration: Anje Jager. Editor’s note: This is the second interview in an occasional series of journalists on journalism. Read the first, with Seymour Hersh.

Dan Rather is as much an emblem of American journalism as any reporter still alive. He covered the Vietnam War in the ‘60s during the heyday of the foreign correspondent; stood up to Nixon at the height of Watergate; sat at the anchor desk of CBS Evening News at a time when the network news anchor was the epitome of journalistic power; and now enjoys an unexpected second life as an 86-year-old digital hipster, with an enormous Facebook following and digital newscasts for The Young Turks and Mark Cuban.

For a man known for his back-country quips and occasional weirdness (“Courage” and “Kenneth, what is the frequency?”), Rather in our conversation was calm and sane—words he himself used to make sense of his newfound appeal. At a time when both the country and journalism are unmoored, Rather has found a place, on cable news and online, as an anchor in the most conventional sense.

In an afternoon of conversation, first in his Manhattan living room then on a bench in Central Park, we talked about the lingering bitterness over his departure from CBS in 2006, after a contested story about George W. Bush’s military service; about his revival as a media statesman; and, at length, about Donald Trump and why his attacks on the media require a different kind of journalistic response.

Rather was dressed for work—crisp white shirt, black loafers—and was briefly joined by his grandson, Martin (soon to attend the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism) and by Jean, his wife since 1957. It is Jean’s artwork, mostly nudes, that dominates their apartment.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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We’ve seen one another a few times since, but I remember meeting you at the occasional dinners and drinks you’d have after you were done with the Evening News. Do you miss that?

Yes. Of course I miss it. How could you not miss it?

 

You didn’t get to the part where you’re exhausted, where you said, ‘I’ve had enough’?

Never. But I don’t think about it very often. I still work full time, and I’m busy. I’m not much on looking back, but to answer your question, of course you miss it.  As you said, I was on the cutting edge of whatever was happening. I never tired of it, I was never bored with it, I loved every minute of it. Even the bad times.

 

After you got tossed out, what was your vision for how you would be spending your time? Did you think you would go to a competing network?

When I walked out of there—and you used the proper phrase, when I was tossed out, because that’s what it was—I didn’t have any vision. My identity was so much with CBS News. I expected to be there until I couldn’t work anymore. I never thought about leaving, I never thought about having to leave. I regret to say some of this, because it doesn’t speak well for my intelligence, but “Dan Rather, CBS News” was just my identity.

 

I was fired from a job by Jared Kushner. After he threw me out. I slept for a month. How did you handle that blow? How did you deal with it?

Not very well.

Jean, from another room: Yes, you did [handle it well].

It wasn’t a feeling of depression. I wasn’t depressed.

 

Were you pissed?

Oh, I was pissed. I was pissed at myself, and, you know, pissed at some other people. But I can say it wasn’t… the overriding [emotion] mostly was sort of stunned sorrow.

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Shock.

Wouldn’t be too strong to say shocked. But Jean, who’s always been tremendously supportive, said, “Look, things will work out.” And I gave her an answer, or at least a look, that indicated, “Well, I hope so, but I’m not so sure.”

But I didn’t mope around. Fairly quickly I got a big break. An acquaintance of mine called me. He put me in touch with a friend of his who had a lot of money and was interested in journalistic enterprises. And that happened pretty quickly, as the CBS time came to an end. So I didn’t have much time, between the time I walked out the door, and the time this event happened.

 

Was that the Mark Cuban thing?

[Editor’s note: Rather joined Cuban’s cable network, AXS TV, then called HDNet, to produce a series of weekly one-hour news shows, Dan Rather Reports.]

Yeah. I didn’t know who Mark Cuban was, other than I knew he owned the Dallas Mavericks and had made a lot of money in the dot-com era. Basically I flew to Dallas to meet Cuban for what I thought was going to be just to sort of get acquainted, feel each other out, a session that might, maybe, in some future time lead to something. And I got to Dallas, and no sooner than my butt hit the seat, he said, “What do you want to do?” It wasn’t a question I had thought about, or was fully prepared to answer. So I said, “Well, I’d like to keep reporting, I’m a journalist, I feel good, I want to do something in journalism.”

And I’m very quickly spinning in my head, saying this is much further along than I thought it was going to be. And so I started rattling off a few ideas, and his next thing was, “Look, we can do this.” This was within the first five minutes. My recollection was Mark literally took out a napkin—it sounds like something out of a bad film—literally took out a napkin and started to write down a few things. He said, “We can do this.”

 

When he made clear this was a firm offer, and this was a decision you were going to make, did you run it by your agent, your friends, to say, is this a good move for me?

No.

 

You just did it?

I just said to myself, this will get you working.

 

See, I remember when you did that. I was surprised you took the risk and I was surprised you weren’t more tied up in how it was going to look. That you went from the perch of the CBS Evening News to this relatively unknown thing. I was surprised at the lack of ego involved in the decision.

It is true that television anchormen think frequently, if not constantly, about ego; in this case, it wasn’t about that. I knew that the network was virtually unheard of. I knew it was on the far periphery of things. But my mind wasn’t there. My mind was, “Listen, this could be something really good, that is successful. But even if it isn’t, it’s worth a good try. Because it could be something that matters.” I had no illusions about working on a network that’s on the periphery.

 

And the sort of bootstrap-y nature of it, and the fact that you didn’t have a lot of resources, that appealed to you?

Well, that added to the challenge. I’ve never been very big on operating out of home. I literally got the name of two or three real estate agencies, and I said, ‘Well, I need a temporary place to operate. And I literally, I walked in, I’ll never forget it… In my memory museum, it’s one of my favorite memories. I had been given an address on Park Avenue, it’s one of these places where you can go and rent an office for a day, or a week, or a month.

I walked in, and it was, I don’t know, four floors up. There’s a receptionist; I said to the receptionist, my name is Dan Rather, I’d like to talk to someone about some space. I’ll never forget her. Very coolly, she dialed something, and said, “There’s a man here who claims to be Dan Rather, and he says he wants to rent some space.”

 

And this is days, weeks after you were bounced?

This is certainly within weeks. You mentioned earlier, what did my friends think, what did people close to me think? Almost everybody thought it was a damn fool idea. And I don’t mean that critically. I mean, their professional assessment was, “Dan, you cannot and should not go from where you were to where you’re about to go. Get out of this thing, or don’t try it.” And in a couple of cases—and I’m talking about really experienced pros whom I had worked with and whose judgment I had come to trust—said it won’t work.

 

And just so I understand, you said you had a couple of feelers, but you didn’t have any big, high-profile offers or even serious conversations on the table at that time?

Zero. I don’t know why, but the answer was none.

 

And did they even come later, or they never came?

Well, later, some came, but much later. At the time, I came to believe, rightly or wrongly, and I believed then what I believe now, that I was considered too hot to handle.

 

Not a single network, not a single cable, not a single broadcast outlet called you in those months after?

No. The answer to that is no. With one exception, I would say one and a half exceptions. Some time at or about the time I was leaving CBS, Richard [Leibner, Rather’s long-time agent], who, in those days, and I think is still true, had some influence and leverage with network executives, got a CNN executive to have lunch with me. But it was so clearly a pro forma, listen, I don’t want to be here, and I just had to go through the motions, and I’m basically doing it because your friend and agent Richard Leibner’s asking me to do it.

 

And you sussed that out pretty quickly in the lunch.

Very quickly. Listen, I’m not good at any number of things, but I get paid to assess people in situations, and it was pretty clear that’s what it was. ABC did contact me. An executive at ABC and I talked, and he said, “I’d like to have you, if you’re willing to come on as a correspondent.” He said, “I think you’re particularly good at covering boring stories.” I read that to mean, “You won’t be covering the White House.” But he fairly quickly called back, and basically what happened is, he had run it up to corporate and corporate had said, “We don’t think so.” And he was kind enough to tell me that.

 

And you said you didn’t get depressed afterwards, because that’s not the kind of person you are, but how did you not just get really bitter?

I was sad about it. I really was sad about it. And I was disappointed. It was one thing for them to fire me. It was another thing that they really sought to diminish, if not destroy, my reputation. And it took me a while to understand that.  

And that, fair to say, pissed me off. And I wasn’t to know the full extent of it, until months, maybe a year and a half later.

For example, they… I’m trying to be careful here, which is not my wont. Let me say, a former power at the network, said, “He never was any good”—this is a direct quote—”he killed us in the ratings.” Well, it’s true, near the end we were third. Anyways: “Never was any good at writing, he was always a phony.”

 

Nobody in the old corporate superstructure—nobody at CBS News—was prepared to deal with this kind of onslaught. An onslaught that basically said, the facts don’t matter.

 

I don’t want to go into great detail about the National Guard story, but one of the things I find particularly interesting about it is it was an early example of this fake news swarm. A story becomes political, a group of partisans sort of swarms around it, tries to discredit everybody involved in it, targets somebody to bring them down because they don’t like what was reported in the piece. We’re living now where this is happening every day. But I think this was one of the first, right?

I think that’s true. Looking back on it, I believe that to be true. And that is exactly what happened.

[Editor’s note: Rather reported on a series of memos raising questions about George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard. Documents supporting the story were later called into question, and CBS eventually retracted the story. Rather has consistently maintained that, despite the retraction, the story was, and is, true. He left the Evening News in 2005 and the network in 2006, after 44 years.]

Neither I, nor anybody in the news division, nor anybody at the corporate level, was prepared to fight that. Which is to say, we didn’t understand what the fight was. The first time it had even entered my head was when the president of the news division, when I said to him, “But the story’s true.” And he said—this is almost a direct quote—”Yes, we have in mind the story’s true, but at this point it doesn’t matter.” I’m saying to myself, and in fact I said to him, “We’re moving into a whole different world when you say to me the story’s true but that doesn’t matter.” Because the ethos at CBS News, and I think throughout journalism, was that whether the story is true or not is all that matters. Well, how wrong we were.

 

I remember, for a time, you hired some investigators to look into this, and you kept pursuing this.

I did.

 

Are you done with it? Or do you still pick at it once in a while?

No. I’m done with it, and I’ve been done with it for quite a while. I’m not sure I could say either one of those things if I had not plunged into work, into a challenge, almost immediately. But no, I’ve been done with it for a long time. I would say once we got through the lawsuit stage, from that time forward I rarely think about it. Truthfully, this is the first time I’ve even thought about it, the most I’ve discussed it.

 

Sorry to bring it back up again. But I do think, to look at it from the perspective of today, is particularly interesting because I do think it set a template.

It did. And I would agree with you, with your hypothesis. And I don’t want to go back over the whole thing. My point is, they attacked the process. But the core of the story, which was, number one, that George W. Bush used his father’s influence to get into champagne service, to avoid combat service—that’s a fact, no way to get around it. Fact two, is having gotten into this champagne flight unit, he did at least reasonably well for awhile, and then he disappeared.

But at any rate, at this late date, it’s a ramble. A swamp. Nobody in the old corporate superstructure—nobody at CBS News—was prepared to deal with this kind of onslaught. An onslaught that basically said, the facts don’t matter. Those who didn’t like the story, it was, “We can crush them if we just stay on it and just accuse them often enough.” None of us were prepared for that.

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This is just such a good segue into the state of journalism right now. I remember, a few years ago, I read a quote from you, before Trump’s election. You were quoted complaining that you thought the press corps was spineless. Do you still think that today?

No. I don’t. I think what I said was, “News needs a spine transplant. We’ve lost our backbone.” But I am pleased that there’s been a renewal, a renaissance of pretty deep-digging investigative reporting. Some of the stuff that The Washington Post and The New York Times have been doing, but not them alone; USA Today has done some really good investigative work, the Houston Chronicle has done some really good investigative work, the Chicago Tribune has done some, LA Times has done some, CNN put together an investigative unit, NBC has an investigative unit. In the last two and a half years, we have seen some of the best investigative reporting domestically, that we’ve seen in a long time.

My reaction to that is thank God, whatever other forces there are, they came along just in time. We’ll see whether it’s enough to save us. I think that large sections of the press have had the spine transplant.

 

But it’s a different kind of journalism. Your whole persona and your whole worldview about journalism, when you were at CBS, was “I’m going to give you the facts. We’re going to report the facts and you’re going to make a decision.” We’re in a different mode now. Is it that the moment requires that? Or do you worry at all about what appears to be a more opinionated press?

Well, that’s not only a good question, but I think the most important question to talk about. But I want to put it in two categories, if I may. One of them is about American journalism, where it is. And the other about where I am. Whether it was clearly stated or not, there was, for really all of my professional journalism lifetime, an understanding that, to be in news, there were four basic categories. News. News is just the facts, ma’am. I’m just going to lay out the facts as clearly as I possibly can. Then there’s analysis. And analysis takes a view—that’s the second category—that you can know all the facts and still not hear the truth. And after all, what’s the goal? The goal is to get the truth. So in order to get to the truth, or as close to the truth as humanly possible, you need to do the facts and you need to do analysis.

Then there’s a third category, of commentary. These are my comments, having given the facts and analysis. And the fourth category is editorial. The difference between editorial and commentary is editorial takes the view that I am trying to convince you.

Now, in recent years, I do think it’s a case of recognizing that this is an extraordinary time. And that extraordinary times require extraordinarily deep thought about what you do and how you do it.

We journalists have got to be careful, the press as an institution’s got to be careful, and assess where we are in trying to speak truth to power, and truth to the public in this atmosphere. So, in journalism as a whole, I understand and applaud what we’re doing. And at the same time, I say to myself, I’m not in a position to give people advice. We better be careful and assess as we go. But I don’t think, in good conscience, a leader at the Times, the Post, what other position could you take, when you’re met with the full power of the presidency? A president who is trying to convince the public that the press as an institution, these people are “Enemies of the people.” I don’t see what alternative journalists of conscience could have.

 

You went toe-to-toe with Nixon, who hated the press. Do you think he was different from Trump in that he did have some degree of respect for the institution?

Exactly. Because Richard Nixon hated the press.

 

If you look through any newspaper, watch an overwhelming amount of what passes for news on the internet or on television, you don’t see many stories about the homeless, the hungry, the heartbroken, the helpless, the placeless, those people who have almost lost hope, at the very bottom or near-bottom of society. There is remarkably little reporting on that.

 

Hated you.

He did. Boy, the man hated me. But two things. First of all, Nixon, even Nixon, believed in the importance and the responsibility of the press as an institution, as a check and balance of power. He hated individual press people, including myself, he hated some, and no few, press organizations, including CBS News. But for the institution of the press, he understood where it fit in our system of checks and balances. That’s number one.

Number two, rarely, almost never, did Nixon out of his own mouth say broad, sweeping indictments of the press as a whole. Surrogates, Spiro Agnew and other people, did, but Nixon did not.

Compare that to today. There is no respect for the press as an institution that’s part of our system of checks and balances, no respect for the judiciary, no respect for Congress for that matter, like in those days. And, out of his own mouth, consistently he ridicules, damns individual reporters, individual press organizations, and the press as a whole.

I’ve known Donald Trump a very long time, since some time in the late ‘70s. Some of the things don’t surprise me. But I’ll tell you… During the campaign, when he mocked a reporter who has physical disabilities in a very crude and cruel way, that was a tip-over point for me in some ways. There were several tip-over points, but that was one. I would’ve have thought that even Donald Trump would do that.

 

One of the things that I’m very convinced about is that Trump did not invent this crisis. He tapped into it, he’s very intuitive about this. Why is it there, where does it come from?

First of all, I agree with you. He didn’t invent this. He did it instinctively. Give him credit, if that’s the proper word.

I’d like to think I’ve never forgotten from where I come. It’s always amused me, and bemused me somewhat, the effort to create the picture of me as an Eastern effete, elite—

 

Liberal.

Liberal. Look at the record. I was born in Texas. I’m not playing humble beginnings here, but my father was a ditch digger, a pipeliner. I went to all public schools. Basically never saw anything outside of Texas until I volunteered to go to the Marines. I had one of the shortest and least distinguished records in the whole history of the Marine Corps; wasn’t in very long, didn’t see combat, all of that. This is not the picture of somebody who was fortunate enough to go to Harvard or Yale, it’s just so.

Those of us in the press—and I include myself in this criticism—have done a very poor job of reminding people of what it is we’re trying to do. If you look at television night after night, it’s all about Washington, and almost everything is centered around Washington. If you’re out there and you’re, I don’t know, you’re a single mother with three kids working two jobs trying to make ends meet, or if you’re an oil field hand whose work comes and goes—the kind of people, many of whom make up Trump’s base—there’s the fear of, can I make a living? There’s the fear and confusion about the changes in the culture. The country’s changed tremendously. And it’s still evolving. Demographically, economically.

And this results in some deep-seated fears. What Trump has tapped into… well, he’s a person born to privilege and place. But some would say he stumbled onto it, I don’t think so. He realized that there was this feeling.

 

Even though he grew up in the situation he did, he had that outsider’s view of not being taken seriously, and he had a chip on his shoulder.

Absolutely. It’s unconscionable what he’s done, trying to divide the country along the lines of race, for example.

But if you look through any newspaper, watch an overwhelming amount of what passes for news on the internet or on television, you don’t see many stories about the homeless, the hungry, the heartbroken, the helpless, the placeless, those people who have almost lost hope, at the very bottom or near-bottom of society. There is remarkably little reporting on that.

 

How bleak does this picture get before we emerge on the other side, do you think?

Let me start by saying I’m an optimist by nature and by experience, and I do think we’ll get through it. We need to stop, think, work, particularly those of us in journalism. You used the word “bleak.” I think, seen from one perspective, that at least in the short to medium term, it could get pretty bleak.

Right now, there’s very little check on Trump. The modern presidency has tremendous power, if whoever leads it chooses to use that power, to discredit and cripple the press. Trump is demonstrating right now that he has no inhibitions about using the full power of the presidency for his own partisan political advantage. So short- to medium-term, yeah, I think it could get pretty bleak.

And I do want to say, in parentheses, that President Obama, when it came to trying to cut off the press’s access, and hammer down on sources, was nowhere near ideal. I do think we’ll get through it and come out the other end. Maybe with a better and stronger understanding of and commitment to what the value of quality journalism can be in a society such as ours.

 

People like to paint him as this sort of bumbling fool. But if you look at the recent congressional elections, where people who spoke out against him from his own party were punished and lost, the template is clear. He has absolute power in the party.

Well, Trump is now the Republican Party. We may, as a country, as a society as a whole, have gone through a period where we were asleep at the wheel in understanding how much power we’ve concentrated. And Donald Trump understands that. I don’t for a minute doubt there is a bumbling, disorganized side of Donald Trump, which is scary in its own part. Listen, he’s supposed to be this great businessman, but sometimes he gives indications that he couldn’t organize a two-car motorcade.

Trump has benefitted, time and time again, by people underestimating him. No, he’s not the brightest person in the world. But you gave him an SAT test, he’d probably surprise people with how high he’d score. He’s pretty savvy, in a certain shrewd intelligence. It’s always a mistake to underestimate him.

[We leave the apartment, and walk to Central Park, which Rather seemed to know intuitively. We settle on a park bench with sandwiches and some seltzer water.]

I love the trees. I love the park. As you know, I grew up in the outdoors. Any time I can even simulate the outdoors…

 

So what does your week look like? Do you go into the office every day?

If I’m in town, I try to go to the office every day.

 

You’ve said a few times that you’re still making efforts to report, to try to figure out what’s going on. How much sourcing time do you spend?

To be honest, the answer is not enough. But that’s always the answer for any reporter. I’m glad you asked me because I’m in a period in which I’m trying to redouble my efforts to do that. Most of what I do is by telephone. I haven’t been to Washington, I’m sorry to say, in maybe a month. But I try to stay in touch with news sources. You know, when I was at the Evening News, my goal every day was to make 25 phone calls. That was my goal. And a lot of days I achieved it. Sometimes it was just, “Senator, it’s Dan, what’s going on?” Now, and I’m not proud of it, my goal is three to four phone calls a day. Mostly to people who I’ve known over the years and I trust. That’s why I say, what I’m hopeful is we can some way find a way to finance a real reporting arm. I’d love to have three people who do nothing but report. Right now, I can’t afford that.

 

When you say you can’t afford it, what do you mean?

Frankly, some of it’s my own money. But here’s the way it works. The Big Interview [an hour-long series for AXS, where he interviews everyone from Quentin Tarantino to the rocker Sammy Hagar] just about pays for our expenses. By the time you get through payroll, rent, the income from The Big Interview… This is why I say I’m no businessman. I’m not here to complain. It’s a struggle to keep our head above water, but most years we’re able to just about break even.

 

Then there’s Facebook. Have you been surprised by the success you’ve had there?

Yes. I was slow to come on to social media. When it first started, I just said, I was born too young for this. But the people I work with, particularly the younger members of staff, they all said, “Look, it’s not an option. If you want to stay anywhere close to relevant, if you want to be in the conversation, it’s imperative that you at least try Twitter and Facebook.” So I agreed to try it for a little bit. I still don’t profess to understand it. But I’m very grateful for it.

 

Have you thought about what is it about you that is of interest to people? Because, there’s something so intriguing to me about it.

I like to think I’m candid enough to say I really don’t know why. My guess is, it’s a combination of this being such a strange time in our country, and certainly strange enough to strike many people including myself as a very dangerous time, and therefore people of all ages, but one might want to say particularly young people, are looking for what I’m trying to provide, which is a calm, at least most of the time calm, sane voice that can put things into some context and perspective. In particular, historical perspective.

My guess is that whatever appeal the Facebook page has, it’s sort of a sense of, he’s walked around a lot of places, seen a lot of things, and the tone is calm enough, rational enough, sane enough to be trusted. I learned a long time ago, being in television news has its pluses and minuses. But one is, I did learn a long time ago that with the audience, everything has to do with authenticity. Whether they like you or not personally, or whether they agree with you or not, if something comes through the glass that says, “Well, at least he’s what he’s presenting himself as being.” It’s not a voice of authority that they’re looking for. They’re looking for an authentic voice that strikes them as sane, most of the time calm.

 

So how long are you going to do this, all of it?

As long as I can. As long as I have my health, I want to keep working. I fully understand people who retire and say, look, I no longer want to work. I understand that. But I’ve lived long enough to at least understand this about myself—I actually like to work. And I love this work. So as long as I can do it, I intend to do it.

 

I don’t want to keep you from your sandwich.

I liked it, did you like yours?

 

I did.

What have we not covered that you want to cover? I have a feeling that I haven’t given you much that’s usable.

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Kyle Pope is the Editor in Chief and Publisher of the Columbia Journalism Review.