Of all the gloriously absurd moments in the Memogate scandal, only one qualifies for Dan Rather's greatest hits. Asked last week if he would ever concede that the National Guard memos he showed on the Sept. 8 broadcast of 60 Minutes were forgeries, Rather replied, "If the documents are not what we were led to believe, I'd like to break that story." Never before had Rather so perfectly summed up his career as Journalistic Self-Parody: I'll get you the big story, Chief, even if it means interviewing myself.
On Monday, Rather conceded what the blogosphere had known for a week. The National Guard memos were too dubious to effectively dispute George W. Bush's service record. The next few days will determine whether Rather continues as anchor of the CBS Evening News or exits with a Peter Arnett-like thud.
Rather has already achieved a kind of perfection: He has been accused of liberal bias by every GOP administration since Richard Nixon's. After he pilloried Nixon during press briefings for months, the president growled, "Are you running for something?" Reaganites accused the Evening News of interviewing downtrodden workers to generate pathos and undermine President Reagan's policies. Rather's most famous showdown with a Republican came against George H.W. Bush, when he harangued the vice president about the Iran-Contra scandal. Bush responded with so much vitriol—Rather was left to sputter,"You made us hypocrites in the eyes of the world!"—that the veep temporarily quelled the "wimp factor" and marched through the Republican primaries.
In reponse to these brouhahas and the National Guard story, conservative media critics have demanded blood. They charge that Rather's careless muckraking betrays a liberal bias, but it's actually much worse than that. Rather isn't a liberal hack. He's bonkers.
What other reporter could get away with the spontaneous fits of rage and the homespun corniness that are his trademarks? Raised in Texas, Rather reads the news in a colloquial rat-a-tat: Paul Harvey as performed by Bill O'Reilly. He peppers his copy with aphorisms—e.g., "that dog won't hunt"—and for a while ended the Evening News with a single, baffling word: "Courage."
Rather's taste for the absurd goes beyond mere oratorical style, according to Peter J. Boyer's excellent book Who Killed CBS? In 1981, Rather decided that he couldn't occupy Walter Cronkite's chair, so for his first Evening News broadcast he read the headlines while crouching behind the desk. When a rival TV journalist ambushed him outside of CBS headquarters—a favorite tactic of the 60 Minutes gang—Rather instructed the reporter, "Get the microphone right up, will you?" Then he barked, "Fuck you." The clip played on television for days. Then there's Rather's odd penchant for costumes. He once trekked across the Afghan border on foot and returned with hours of dazzling reporting—all of which he undermined by wearing a ludicrous peasant disguise on camera. TV critics lashed him with the nickname "Gunga Dan."
Rather's most embarrassing tantrum came during the 1987 U.S. Open tennis tournament. When producers told him a match would run long and truncate the Evening News, Rather disappeared and left the network with more than six minutes of dead air. (Such was Rather's cachet that no executive dared summon a replacement.) And don't forget the 1986 "What's the frequency, Kenneth?" attack, in which Rather was accosted by street toughs on Park Avenue in New York. You can hardly blame Rather for that one, but Boyer notes that such things rarely seem to happen to Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings. It's as if Rather attracts half the madness in the universe, and the other half comes out of his mouth.
What makes him bluster? Some say Rather, who attended Sam Houston State College, tries to compensate for his brittle education with hard-charging brio. He often tells a story from his days as a young CBS correspondent, when he bought a Great Books series and plowed through all the volumes. Rather didn't wear his newfound erudition lightly. Once, during a tense moment at the network, he lectured his colleagues, "I only have one thing to say to all of you people. Syracuse, 413." Producers were baffled. Only later did they realize that Rather kept a copy of Sir Edward Creasy's Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World on his desk—Syracuse, 413 B.C., was in Chapter 2.
These days, network news survives in hermetically sealed cocoons—free of commercial pressures and calls for financial viability. CBS News has more cocoons than any other network. There's Evening News, which languished in last place for years; Face the Nation, another ratings disaster; Sunday Morning, which remained unchanged even after the death of anchor Charles Kuralt; and 60 Minutes, which is profitable but has an employee-retirement program similar to that of the U.S. Supreme Court.
The CBS cocoons engender a kind of madness. Rather is paid an outsized salary—he makes $7 millionper year—that is in no way commensurate with the number of viewers he delivers. Where most prime-time shows have a few weeks to prove their viability, newscasts often are given years and decades. The network's former glory allows Rather to shroud himself in the aura of Cronkite and Edward R. Murrow. "I'm confident we worked longer, dug deeper, and worked harder than almost anybody in American journalism does," Rather told the Washington Post Sunday, when in fact CBS spent less time verifying the Guard documents than most bloggers.
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.