The anchor as madman.
Rather has labored in Walter Cronkite's shadow for more than 20 years, ever since the old man lumbered off into retirement. The problem isn't that Rather can't match Cronkite's gravitas (though he can't). The problem is that Rather can't duplicate Cronkite's magnificent ratings, which protected him from all sorts of unwanted intrusions. When Rather took over the anchor chair—and ratings dipped—CBS began to slash costs and push for Nielsen-boosting scoops.
"Old anchormen don't go away," Cronkite said on his final broadcast, "they keep coming back for more." When Rather quits—whether this week or at a moment of his own choosing—it will mark an enormous shift in American cultural life. For the first time in a generation, viewers will flip on Evening News, grab a snifter of brandy,and prepare to receive the day's stories from someone who isn't barking mad.
Bryan Curtis, Slate's "Middlebrow" columnist, writes for Grantland, Texas Monthly, and Newsweek. Follow him on Twitter.
Illustration by Charlie Powell.