NEW YORK – When Dan Rather (search) thinks back on all his years as anchorman of the "CBS Evening News" (search), his role reporting 9/11 comes to mind. And Tiananmen Square. The fall of the Berlin Wall. The two Gulf wars.
He also recalls his very first broadcast, which, on March 9, 1981, included items about President Reagan cutting social programs and English girls cutting their hair like Diana, Prince Charles' bride-to-be.
Was he nervous? "Who wouldn't be? I was glad when it was over. I thought, 'We're through with that. Now we can settle down and go to work.'"
Rather's work has been constant during his long reign. But there was no settling down. Storms have never let up. From his testy face-off with then Vice President George H.W. Bush (search) during a live "Evening News" interview in 1988, to bizarre incidents like his mysterious 1986 mugging (which plugged "Kenneth, what's the frequency?" into the pop-culture phrasebook), Rather became news in ignoble ways — not just delivered it.
Even now, as he prepares to sign off Wednesday after 24 years at the anchor desk, he is reeling from the aftershocks of last fall's discredited "60 Minutes Wednesday" report on President George W. Bush (search)'s military service.
Four CBS News colleagues lost their jobs. In the midst of the uproar (although he and CBS execs denied any connection), Rather announced that on reaching his 24th anniversary he would leave the "Evening News," to work full-time as a correspondent for the "60 Minutes" newsmagazines — the result, he maintains, of voluntary discussions that began weeks before the story aired last September.
"Am I leaving under a cloud? I recognize that a lot of people see it that way," Rather says. "But I don't. This is a continuum. I'm not retiring, I'm changing jobs. I see myself as a reporter, moving to what is basically another reporting job.
"Right now, I'm healthy, feel invigorated, have a hunger to do great journalism."
His office overlooking the newsroom is being packed up, shelves already bared of books and mementos. He will move to "60 Minutes" headquarters across 57th Street from the CBS Broadcast Center. So, upon greeting a visiting reporter recently, Rather pulls up a chair beside his own at the anchor desk, and reflects on what it has meant to sit here.
Anchoring (as Sen. Eugene McCarthy once said of politics) is like being a football coach, says Rather with a smile: "You have to be smart enough to understand it, and dumb enough to think it's important.
"Reporting," he adds strongly, "is important. And anchoring 9/11 or Election Night or any other big breaking news is, in some ways, the prime test of an anchor: Take air, hold air, be the honest broker of information coming in from a lot of different places.
"But just reading a teleprompter: You have to be dumb enough to think that's important."
Would that make him happy? The question gave him pause a quarter-century ago as he pondered whether he wanted to follow Walter Cronkite (search) in the anchor chair. And despite his conclusion that he could meld the role of anchor with that of reporter, people he trusted counseled otherwise.
"They said, 'It's not going to work, and if it doesn't ensure your failure, it will certainly contribute to your undoing.'"
Indeed, the image of Rather as a globe-trotting, swashbuckling uber-correspondent sometimes clashed, especially early on, with the popular notion of a solidly grounded anchorman handing down the word. (Disguised in native garb to report from Afghanistan soon after the Soviet invasion in 1980, he was derided by some as "Gunga Dan.")
"It hasn't always worked," concedes Rather, taking a swallow of diet cola from his coffee mug. "But I think the audience became comfortable with it and liked it to a degree, because now it's the norm" among TV anchors.
Rather's final half-hour anchoring the "Evening News" will be followed at 8 p.m. EST Wednesday by a one-hour retrospective with the telling title, "Dan Rather: A Reporter Remembers" — not "Anchor Remembers."
Rather professes a bit of pain screening some of old clips included in the program, thinking to himself, "Why didn't I do this right! Why did I do that!"
But that's OK. In his view, he's still honing his craft. Joking that "73 is the new 53," he declares that "as long as I have my health, I'm going to be a reporter, and now should be the best time. As close as I'm gonna come to doing great journalism should be in the days, weeks, months ahead."
At 73, he's still trying to prove himself. At least to himself.
Meanwhile, he will doubtless continue to serve as fair game for his detractors.
"If you go after tough stories, go after things people don't want the public to know, you're gonna catch hell," he observes.
Maybe so. But that doesn't begin to account for the hell caught by Rather, who, long before his anchoring days, was singled out as a scapegoat for TV news at large. Rather's appeal as a whipping boy for the misbehavior, real or perceived, of network news — that, too, should be factored in when measuring his impact.
After all, what other TV journalist has a Web site (ratherbiased.com) dedicated to cataloguing his alleged sins?
"I hadn't thought about it like that," he says with a rueful smile, "but it's true. And I may be the only one for which there was a concerted effort to buy the whole network in order to get me out of this job." That was in 1985, when Sen. Jesse Helms (search) called for fellow conservatives across the nation to buy enough CBS stock to "become Dan Rather's boss" and counter alleged liberal bias at CBS News.
"It goes back a long way," notes Rather. "It's been my lot, my destiny, and I'm not sure I fully understand it. But I am, for better or worse, independent and, when necessary, fiercely independent. When somebody or some group takes the attitude, 'You can report the news the way we want you to, or we're gonna try to cave you in,' I don't turn my back on that. I don't run."
Speaking in hushed, draw-you-in tones, Rather remains a model of defiance and humility, a man who, even in valedictory remarks, is put in the position of explaining and defending his record.
Quite a contrast to Tom Brokaw (search)'s victory lap as he left "The NBC Nightly News" (search). Under a transition plan announced 2 1/2 years earlier, he will do a handful of documentaries each year for NBC News. But amid tributes and tears last December, the 64-year-old Brokaw, clearly satisfied with his career, turned his sights beyond the broadcast news grind. On retirement, he handed "Nightly" to Brian Williams (search), long groomed as his successor.
On Thursday, veteran CBS News correspondent Bob Schieffer (search) begins a stint as interim "Evening News" anchor. But no long-term plans have been announced, or, by all indications, hatched.
Asked if a transition plan similar to NBC's should have been ready at CBS, Rather cites the "different culture, different history" of each network news division. "It's yet to be seen whether at CBS News it would have been wiser to have put something in place two years out — to make your present anchorperson, in effect, a lame duck in his own organization, and choose who is to be the (next) face of your network so far in advance."
He says he has no idea what's in the minds of CBS chief Leslie Moonves (search) and the other high officials who will make the decision. "They want to innovate, and they may try some things that don't work in the beginning. A year from now, we might have a better perspective."
The last time there was a change at the top at the "CBS Evening News," TV journalism's old order still held: CBS and NBC were the main players, and ABC News was only beginning to be a factor. That was the world when Rather became the square peg in the round hole carved by Cronkite, his hallowed predecessor. It's been a remarkable run.
"But it's not about me," says Rather. "I hope I can make this point when I close the broadcast Wednesday."
Will he be sad at that final fade-out?
"Beware of predictions," he warns himself before declaring, "I'm not going to be sad. I don't know what I'll be. And it won't be just another day's work. But on the other hand, I don't think it's that big a deal. It's not about me. It's about news. It's about CBS News. I want to keep that foremost in my mind."