Dan Rather had a dilemma. The veteran broadcaster wanted to set down in print some of the remarkable stories he has covered in five decades on the national journalism stage.
“I think I’m a pretty good storyteller, or at least I should be by now,” said Rather, 80, in a recent interview. He comes to Kansas City on Wednesday to discuss his memoir, “Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News.”
President Kennedy’s assassination, the civil rights movement, Vietnam, Watergate, 9/11: his stories about covering such historic events, stories he has told family and friends.
Yet there was an elephant in the room, so to speak: Rather is a famous guy who in 2006 famously lost his job after 44 years at CBS, 24 years as the anchor and managing editor of “CBS Evening News.”
If he chronicled his rocky departure from CBS in the book, the controversy might overshadow the rest of the memoir. If he left it out, folks would conclude he “ducked and dodged.” The latter didn’t sit well with him.
So “Rather Outspoken” begins with a defense, first of his coverage of abuse by U.S. troops at Abu Ghraib, the Iraqi prison, and then of an investigative piece about President George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard. It was the latter, broadcast in 2004 before the presidential election, that lost him his job.
CBS resisted airing the Abu Ghraib story until competition forced its hand, Rather said. The reporting of the Bush story came under intense fire, particularly the documents that backed it up. But Rather maintains that the story was true and that CBS’ response was to cave to White House and Republican pressure.
Neither situation would have occurred in the network’s earlier days, Rather said.
Among the facts that aren’t disputed in the investigation of Bush’s National Guard service, Rather said, were that Bush received a privileged place in the Texas Guard unit to avoid serving in Vietnam and that Bush was absent from his unit for a year, which should have brought severe consequences.
“There wasn’t any doubt we had that story eight ways from Sunday,” Rather said. “Neither George W. Bush nor anybody in his family has ever denied it.”
For years and through explosive events, Rather had a close relationship with his employer. Despite hostile backlash to coverage of the civil rights movement, CBS leadership held firm, he said, adding that many folks don’t recall the vitriol directed at CBS and other journalists.
“We were the ‘Colored Broadcasting System’ and the ‘Communist Broadcasting System,’ ” Rather said. “The pressure was enormous on the network to stop covering these ‘Communists.’ ”
The network’s own affiliates refused to broadcast some of the coverage, he said, but CBS backed its journalists.
“When you’re there with a television camera as people in authority turn very high-pressure water hoses and ferocious dogs on women and children because of their race, this needed to be brought to the country’s attention,” Rather said.
Rather’s book moves through his experiences in Vietnam and Afghanistan and the coverage of Watergate and 9/11. He concludes that the tragedy and aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks combine as the most compelling story of all.
Rather tells of his early life in Texas, the trauma of beating back rheumatic fever as a boy and his passion to become a reporter. The two were linked in a way.
He had two severe bouts of the disease between ages 11 and 14. It was the many months lying still in bed — the treatment at the time to protect the heart — when Rather grew enamored with radio news and “the Murrow boys,” the CBS journalists who worked with Edward R. Murrow.
“They took me to faraway places with strange-sounding names, with Western Civilization hanging in the balance,” Rather said. “The radio became my constant companion.”
Rather also touches on his home life with wife Jean and their daughter Robin and son Danjack. During his first year at CBS, Rather was home just 31 days. His coverage of the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s took him away for nearly a year.
“I am the first to say that this could not have been possible without a wife and mother made of pretty strong steel,” he said. “When I was home I tried to be in the moments there, to hit the off-switch and give all my attention to family and home.”
After CBS, Rather signed on with HDNet to produce “Dan Rather Reports,” a weekly television newsmagazine. He lauded the network for the free rein given to him and the show’s other journalists.
Rather views his last years at CBS as evidence of the “corporatization, politicization and trivialization” of the news, but he holds out hope that new opportunities will be available for serious international coverage and investigative journalism.
Retirement? Rather turns 81 in October and sees no reason to stop now.
“Covering the news, I burn with the same hot flame I’ve always burned with,” he said. “I love doing it, and I find myself saying, if not daily then weekly, I’d much rather wear out than rust out.”RATHER IN KANSAS CITY
Dan Rather discusses his memoir “Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News” with Kansas City Library director R. Crosby Kemper III.
6:30 p.m. Wednesday
Kirk Hall, Kansas City Central Library, 14 W. 10th St.
Admission: Free, first-come, first-served. RSVP at kclibrary.org. Overflow seating will be available on closed-circuit television.