NEW YORK – As his final evening newscast approaches on Wednesday, Dan Rather (search) is seeing the indignities pile up as quickly as the roses that were tossed in the path of Tom Brokaw (search) when the NBC anchorman stepped down late last year.
The embattled Rather is left fighting for something largely beyond his control — his reputation. Will his role in last fall's discredited story about President Bush's military service ultimately overshadow his remarkable 50-year career?
"With the passing of time, that immediate sourness will pass and people will say, 'God, Rather did that for 40-plus years,'" said Tom Bettag (search), a former Rather deputy who is now executive producer of ABC News' "Nightline." "When you get paid a lot of money, like a basketball player, people don't realize how hard it is. The amount of effort he poured into what he genuinely believed was a public trust was stunning."
Often, however, last impressions are the lasting ones.
"It is going to loom large," said Alex Jones, director of Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics and Public Policy (search). "Over time, this is something that will be put in better perspective, especially if he has another chapter in his career."
Rather leaves without a victory lap. America's most popular anchorman in the 1980s, Rather and the "CBS Evening News" have been third in the ratings behind NBC and ABC for several years. In a relatively slow news period, the CBS ratings have declined twice as much as its ABC and NBC competitors this season.
CBS hasn't decided who will ultimately replace Rather — Bob Schieffer (search) begins as a temporary stand-in Thursday — and management hasn't consulted the outgoing anchor during its deliberations.
In a series of evening news reports leading up to his departure, Rather has tried to keep the focus on the stories he's reported for CBS, a long list that dates back to President Kennedy's 1963 assassination. He wants to be remembered as a hard-bitten reporter who wasn't tied to the anchor desk, and CBS recently distributed a timeline of his career that's a travelogue of world hot spots.
In January alone, he logged more frequent flier miles than most business travelers do in years: to Indonesia for tsunami coverage, to Washington for President Bush's inauguration, to Iraq for the elections.
Yet his critics continue to hound Rather's trail. The Web site Ratherbiased.com, which for several years has parsed his words for political meaning, posted a "countdown clock" of the minutes until he signs off.
One of his career's memorable moments echoes oddly in the current context. During a live 1988 interview about the Iran-contra scandal, then-Vice President George Bush angrily recalled Rather storming off the evening news set after a tennis match cut into time set aside for the evening news.
"It's not fair to judge my whole career by a rehash on Iran," Bush said. "How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set?"
Or, in this case, the moments that he depended on faulty reporting for one high-profile story and spent too long defending it instead of questioning it.
For many conservatives, the reason the National Guard story will define Rather's legacy is because it fits the longstanding suspicion that he has a liberal agenda, said PBS host Tucker Carlson (search).
This was a story where it appeared Rather was out to get a sitting Republican president two months before an election, he said (although the independent panel examining the story said it found no evidence of a bias against Bush).
The belief among many conservatives that Rather is biased has contributed to a public distrust of journalists, he said.
"You've got this sacred trust if you're the anchor of one of the three broadcast networks," Carlson said, "and he kind of squandered it and subverted it."
It was obvious the events of the past six months weighed on Rather as he sat for a series of interviews with New Yorker's Ken Auletta (search), the writer said.
"He's 73 years old," Auletta said. "He's spent a life in which he's tried to be noble. He tried to treat journalism as a public calling and, as he said, speak truth to power. Is that all going to get washed away by the events of Sept. 8 [when the Guard story aired]? Anyone would worry about that and he is."
Auletta said Rather's work as a reporter should stand the test of time, particularly as one of the most aggressive TV reporters covering Watergate (search) at a time it put him under attack.
The New Yorker article, published last week, generated some public sympathy for Rather because of Cronkite and Wallace's comments.
Cronkite, his immediate predecessor as anchor, said he often watched Brokaw and that it appeared to some viewers that Rather was playing the role of a newsman.
Wallace said Rather is "not as easy to watch as [ABC's Peter] Jennings or Brokaw."
Their remarks made headlines.
"I thought that was odious," said Harvard's Jones, who said he admired Rather.
"I felt he was more fully himself than any of the other anchors, more fully a journalist," Jones said. "You might not like it or like him, but he was who he was. He was a guy from Texas. He was a guy with a pugnacious streak. He was very ambitious and he put himself in a position to do some reporting."
Rather will go back to reporting full-time, but the "60 Minutes Wednesday" broadcast he has worked for is considered a candidate for cancellation. It remains to be seen how he'll be welcomed by the people at Sunday's "60 Minutes."
"It's hard to feel sorry for a guy who gets a seven-figure salary," said Reuven Frank (search), a former NBC News president. "But, yes, I do feel sorry for him. It's a bad way to go out."