This CBS News special is a candid memoir of Rather's extraordinary career, told in his own words, and spans the past 50 years of his life, and of the nation's history.
Dan Rather says he always dreamed of being a reporter while growing up in the Heights Annex of Houston, Texas.
"All frame houses. Streets were unpaved. But this was not unusual. This was the 1930s," says Rather. "My father had a job in the Depression, which was a precious thing. He was a pipe-liner, which meant that he dug ditches along which they could lay pipe."
He says he lived in a great neighborhood, where people looked after one another: "I can remember any number of times, I'd get a block and a half away, and if I didn't behave myself, before I got home, my mother knew about it."
When Rather was 10, he developed rheumatic fever, which left him bed-ridden for two specific periods, once for a period of eight or nine months. "I hated having to stay in bed. But the radio was my escape," says Rather.
"The great war, World War II, was exploding. The Ed Murrows, the Charles Collingwoods, the Richard C. Hottelets — the great legends of CBS became very real to me," adds Rather.
"People in radio were great describers. A picture sometimes is worth 1,000 words. But sometimes a word, the right word, is worth 1,000 pictures. I knew that from listening to radio."
When Rather recovered from his fever, he was thin, and had difficulty moving because he was in bed for such a long time. But as soon as he was able to get up, he says his father insisted that he go right back to work: "By getting work, beginning at 14, in and around oil fields and pipe gangs, I built my strength up fairly quickly."
Rather's mother was "absolutely determined" that her son go to college "against all odds," as he put it. Rather wound up at what was then Sam Houston State Teachers College in Huntsville, Texas.
"I started to enroll, and they say, 'What do you want to major in?' I said, 'Well, you know, I want to be a reporter,'" says Rather.
"When I started in broadcasting, which overstates a bit, my job in radio was to be a jack-of-all-trades, write commercials, do newscasts, and football, baseball, and basketball games, play-by-play. This was certainly not rocket science. But one of the things I learned was the ability to ad lib."
In September 1961, Rather was in Galveston, Texas, covering Hurricane Carla. "Hurricane Carla was so huge and potentially so destructive that pretty quickly it became clear to the weather bureau that what they needed to do is convince people they needed to evacuate," says Rather.
"And the key was to use, I say it with a smile, the new technology, which was the ability to get a radar picture pretty far out in the Gulf."
Putting the radar picture of the hurricane on TV was something new. "People could see in the living rooms how huge the hurricane was," says Rather. "While the death toll was reasonably small, the reason it was low is because people listened and got out."
In late 1961, after
At the time, , and Rather reported on the rise of Martin Luther King, Jr., and his attempt not to let the voter registration movement in Leesburg and the rest of South Georgia fail.
But Rather also reported on groups at the other extreme: the Ku Klux Klan, and the White Citizens Council, who were determined to keep segregation as it was.
"I was gape-mouthed and bug-eyed most of the time about what I was seeing," recalls Rather, of some of the protests he witnessed. "People would come out of, seemingly, out of the woodwork or out of the shrubbery, and hit people with clubs. Particularly, cameramen were sometimes beaten. In place after place, we were spat upon by the worst elements of the community and called the 'Colored Broadcasting System.'"
Rather says that although he had grown up in a segregated society, he had no idea "of what it was really like to be black and live in terror and in fear."
"It changed me dramatically as a person. In place after place after place," says Rather. "There was viciousness against women, children, churches."
Rather also covered Alabama Gov. George Wallace's battle against the government to prevent black students from entering an all-white University of Alabama.
"I will not allow the University of Alabama to be desegregated," said Wallace, who tried to stop students from entering the building. "I will stand in the school house door and stop you. ... I stand here today as governor of this sovereign state and refuse to willingly submit to the illegal usurpation of power by the central government."
Looking back at the experience, Rather says, "We were covering this live. But we couldn't have live camera coverage on the campus. This setup by which we put this on television was so Neanderthal by television standards now. Nelson Benton, my colleague, would be there. I would be just off-campus on a telephone hook-up with him. He would describe for me what was happening. And then I, live to New York, would relay his descriptions by telephone."
"Television has many weaknesses, but one of the strengths of television is that it can put you there. You can see of yourself, hear for yourself, and make a judgment for yourself what the reality was," adds Rather. "And the reality was really ugly. And eventually the country, as a whole said, 'We can't abide this, we can't stand this,' and made changes."
In November 1963, Rather was assigned to covera journey that ended in tragedy.
"I was in Dallas, Nov. 22, for what we all thought would be a reasonably routine day," recalls Rather, who was waiting for the motorcade to pass by when suddenly it was clear something was very wrong. It was soon reported that shots had been fired at the motorcade.
"There was a clear panic," says Rather. "People were still on the ground, fathers trying to cover mothers and children, and the president -- a high probability he'd been hit, the possibility that he'd actually been killed. But we didn't know anything."
Rather dialed the hospital: "I just begged them to give me somebody, and eventually got a doctor and a priest, who just matter-of-factly said the president was dead."
CBS Evening News Anchor Walter Cronkite announced the news on television: "We just have a report from our correspondent, Dan Rather in Dallas, that he has confirmed that President Kennedy is dead."
"We had convinced ourselves that this kind of thing doesn't happen in America," says Rather "I didn't have any real doubts, but we were on the air for some long minutes before any official announcement that the president of the United States was dead."
Cronkite later reported: "From Dallas, Texas, the flash, apparently official, that President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. CST, 2 o'clock EST, some 38 minutes ago."
"After the initial hammer to the heart, and sledge to the psyche, the strongest feeling in my mind was what a terrible thing for the country. What a terrible thing for the Kennedy family," says Rather, of President Kennedy's funeral.
"Somebody said, at somewhere along the line afterward, 'We broke the story of the president's death before the official announcement.' I remember saying 'So what?' You know, the country matters. The Kennedy family matters. Where we go from here now, the future, matters."
Rather says his first impression of Vietnam from the air was "what an emerald, green, beautiful place it was." But when he set down in Tam Ky, it became a "green jungle hell."
"I really wanted to go to Vietnam. It's not a case of I just want to go. I've got to go," says Rather, of covering the Vietnam War. "I knew it was a story -- just that in your gut, this is going to be one of the defining stories of my time."
At the time, CBS was reluctant to send family men overseas, and Rather was married with two small children. But Rather insisted he be allowed to go, and met with his family to discuss it.
"So that's what brought me to having a family council - my children were very young - with Jean, and saying, 'Look, they've finally agreed to send me,'" says Rather. "And Jean said, 'You know, go because you've got to go.' And I called the boss back within hours, and said, 'I'm ready to go, and I can leave this afternoon.'"
Rather says he wanted to get into the field as quickly as he could: "I got there just as the American involvement was really beginning to explode."
In December 1965, just a few days after he arrived in Vietnam, Rather found himself in Tam Ky, in the middle of a fire fight. A Marine was hit in the crossfire.
"This young Marine was hit, hit very badly. They needed help getting him out, and naturally I helped," says Rather, who vividly recalls his emotions as he helped carry the wounded Marine from the battlefield.
"It doesn't take much imagination to know what I was thinking," says Rather. "I see this young man much younger than I, cut down ...You say to yourself, 'My God, this is somebody's son, this is somebody's brother, somebody's husband.' But when you're there, if you let your emotions for a second out of you, then you're not going to be able to do what you need to do."
"Very few people in a lifetime get to see this as an observer," adds Rather. "Your role is to show them and tell them as best you can what it's like, what it's really like, as opposed to what someone may imagine it's like, or what someone's telling them it's like."
Of seeing soldiers in combat during the war, Rather says: "A lot of people believe that what soldiers fear in combat is death. Well, they do fear that, but that's not the big fear. The biggest fear is that they will somehow let their comrade down."
Of the many stories Rather, one stands out in particular. It was a mission to recover the body of Sgt. Rudolph Nunez, of the 1st Infantry Division. Rather was overwhelmed by the determination of the unit to find Nunez, despite the fact that the young soldiers put themselves at grave risk to do it.
"We didn't go there as journalists with antiwar sentiment. With the country at war, my country at war, I want the country to win, whatever the definition of win is," says Rather. "But I was increasingly struck by the difference between what was being said in Washington or Saigon about what was happening on the ground ... and what the reality was."
"The reality was, it was a minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, day-by-day death struggle," adds Rather. "This was in some ways the beginning of the difficulties between the press and the government."
Rather covered the White House for 10 years, and that included the last part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's elective term.
"He preferred to deal person to person, always feeling that if he could just get one on one with you, he could get you going his way," says Rather.
"Once or twice he called me when I was at my in-laws' house in Texas. You know, you always want to be at your best with your in-laws. They all want to know, 'Well, what'd he say?' And you say, 'Well, frankly he took a big chunk out of my backside,'" Rather remembers.
Rather says one of the more interesting campaign events he covered was the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. Rather was knocked down while reporting from the convention floor. "Don't push me," Rather said from the convention floor. "Take your hands off me unless you plan to arrest me!"
"I'm sorry to be out of breath, but somebody belted me in the stomach during that," said Rather, in his report. "What happened is a Georgia delegate, at least he had a Georgia delegate sign on, was being hauled out of the hall. We tried to talk to him to see why, who he was, what the situation was, and at that instant the security people, well as you can see, put me on the deck. I didn't do very well."
When President Nixon was elected in 1969, Rather and other reporters felt pressure from the White House. "Either you report it our way, or we make you pay a price," says Rather.
On June 17, 1972, a team of seven men broke into the offices of the Democratic National Committee, in a high-rise complex called the Watergate. The story broke slowly at first, but questions about who may have authorized the break-in and why gained momentum. And before long, there was a trail leading up to the White House door.
"From the moment that we began aggressive reporting about, relations between President Nixon and the White House, myself and CBS got progressively worse in a hurry," says Rather.
In March 1974, Rather reported on President Nixon's trip to Houston, Texas, Rather's hometown. "By this time," says Rather, "President Nixon was beginning to get cornered by the facts."
President Nixon held what was billed as a news conference, but Rather recalls, "It was designed to be not a news conference. It was designed to be a political rally in support of the president."
In that atmosphere, when the president called on Rather, "there were some cheers, but there were a lot of boos."
Rather: Thank you, Mr. President. Dan Rather, CBS News. Mr. President ...
Nixon: Are you running from something?
At that point, Rather says, "I was thinking at the time, you know, don't let him throw you off. ... And that's when I said what I did."
Rather: No sir, Mr. President. Are you?
"What I meant was, let me get on with my question. That's what I'm here to do. And I think it's fair to say, there was some hell to pay after that," recalls Rather, of his exchange with President Nixon. "My only regret about it, that whole thing, is that everybody remembers that exchange where I wish they'd remember the question I asked."
Rather: How can the House meet its constitutional responsibility, while you, the person under investigation, are allowed to limit their access to potential evidence?
Rather says it was an important question.
Nixon: I am suggesting that the House follow the Constitution. If they do, I will.
"In the end, President Nixon couldn't reconcile what he had been telling people had happened, with what the special prosecutor was developing in the way of facts and first-person eyewitness testimony," said Rather. "And that's what led to his resignation.
Nixon: "Therefore, I shall resign the presidency, effective at noon tomorrow."
During his broadcast, Rather said: "There is no joy in this for anyone - no decent thinking American could take any joy out of this."
In 1975, Rather says Mike Wallace asked him to join 60 Minutes, which later became the most successful broadcast in television history. "We did develop a reputation for doing investigative pieces," says Rather. "It was always about the story -- is this a good story?"
And on March 9, 1981, Rather became anchor of CBS Evening News.
"Once I was told by a high-ranking CBS executive, 'Dan, you're a good reporter, but I don't think you're an anchor. And I don't think you'll ever become one," recalls Rather. "I remember walking out of his office saying, 'Well, you know, nobody ever said that to me.' And yeah, maybe I shouldn't be proud of it. I said, 'I'm going to set out to show him I can be.'"
Long-time anchor Walter Cronkite concluded his last night as anchor of CBS Evening News with this statement: "And that's the way it is Friday, March 6, 1981. I'll be away on assignment, and Dan Rather will be sitting in here for the next few years. Good night."
"I had been told that the first person after Cronkite is going to get his head blown off. Nobody succeeds Walter Cronkite," says Rather. "And what was on my mind was, accept that you have some shortcomings as an anchor and go into this as something new to learn. And try to stay true. Try to be with what brought you."
Rather says what got him the job, and what brought him to the job, was field reporting: "In my own mind, it was REPORTER -- anchor second."
"I was sure glad when that Monday was over. I remember after, mentally -- well, the first night's over," says Rather. "Now, let's take a deep breath, suck it up and get to work."
As anchor, Rather covered the assassination attempt on President Reagan; the royal wedding of Prince Charles and the Princess Diana of Wales; the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger; and Iran-Contra.
In January 1988, Rather interviewed then-Vice President George H.W. Bush. "My determination to be a reporter-anchor, not just a hothouse-plant-in-a-studio kind of anchor, created 'trouble,'" says Rather.
"Iran-Contra was another case of people wanting to keep secret things that citizens had the right to know. The question was whether the top echelons of the United States government had sent some of our very best advanced weapons to the mullahs in Iran, the same people in Iran who'd taken our fellow citizens hostage, who were committed to our destruction."
"Get the money from these death-to-America mullahs for the weapons and then use the money for a secret war they were trying to run in Central America," says Rather. "That's a story. That's something people deserve to know about."
Rather says then-Vice President Bush "had some knowledge of getting some of our most technologically advanced missiles to the Iranians."
In response to Rather's questions, Bush said: "I thought I was here to talk about my views on education, or on getting this deficit down."
The interview, which was live, became heated. "I can be faulted for, maybe I pressed too hard. Maybe I didn't press in the right way," says Rather, looking back at that interview, which made headline news: "Bushwhacked!" "Slugfest."
"About last night's interview with George Bush, trying to ask honest questions and trying to be persistent about answers is part of a reporter's job," said Rather, on CBS Evening News.
"I was news president then. Did I think it was disrespectful? Obviously, you don't want to be disrespectful," says Sir Howard Stringer, former president of CBS News, looking back at the controversial interview. "The tension between administrations and reporters should be acute. It's in the nature of journalism."
Of Rather's role as anchor of CBS Evening News, Stringer says, "Dan in essence, his personality resists the idea of anchor. The pursuit of the story was of paramount interest. Anchor, in some way, feels like a more passive role. The very word says stuck at the bottom of the sea."
"You are there to be reassuring to be stable, and firm. The authority figure," says Stringer. "Whereas Dan comes out of that reportorial tradition, which means, 'Take me to the front. Show me where the danger is. Give me a door to knock down. Give me a story to find.'"
Rather also reported on . He followed his instinct and knew it would be a big story.
"You could hear these voices of the young. This was a true people's movement, led by students. And you know, it came so breathtakingly close to succeeding," recalls Rather.
"But day by day, you could feel the pressure of the government beginning to inch in. Having to get increasingly tougher with the people in Tiananmen Square. And they also were having to get increasingly tougher with the press."
Rather says representatives from the Chinese government appeared at the hotel where CBS set up shop, to shut them down. "It was whispered to me, you know, back-pedal for time. Think of anything. Keep 'em talking," recalls Rather, who says that Susan Spencer had pictures of some of the toughest crackdown to date and was sending it up on the satellite.
"Eventually, they said, 'Enough already. Even though you may be broadcasting live, even though the world's gonna see it, I'm here to pull the plug, and we're gonna do it now,'" says Rather.
"And it went to hash, and that ended the live broadcasting from there. And when they shut off live television, I think any reasonably intelligent person who had been following the story knew, it was only a matter of time until they would move in and end what was happening in Tiananmen Square."
Rather was also a correspondent for 48 Hours, when the show first started in 1988. It went on to be one of the longest-running news magazines in television history.
"How can you be an authority on things if you don't sometimes get out of the windowless room on the West side of Manhattan, grab a pencil and notebook, get a camera crew and go cover something," says Rather, of his experience on that show.
"I don't think it was an error to be true to myself and be true to the audience and say just because I'm moving from the anchor chair, it doesn't mean that you stop being a reporter. I didn't do that, and for that at least, I'm not sorry."
While serving as anchor, Rather reported from Baghdad, andafter Iraq invaded Kuwait.
"I was in bed, after midnight, and there was a knock at the door. And there were two people in uniform, one with an automatic weapon and a guy said in broken English, 'Come with us,'" recalls Rather, of his interview with Hussein.
"There is nothing like seeing the person in flesh. A grip of his handshake and the look in his eye. He has what the military calls command presence," he remembers.
Rather says he interviewed Hussein for more than an hour: "As soon as the interview ended, he wanted to give me a tour of the palace. Mentally, I'm saying, 'The last thing I need is a tour of the palace. I want to just get this videotape out of here.' Finally I said, 'Look this is interesting, I can hear the history of Iraq as told by Saddam Hussein for a long time. And this is a lovely palace, but I've got to go.'"
In October 1986, Rather was assaulted on a street in Manhattan. "I get blamed for a lot of things, but I can't be blamed for this," says Rather. "I was walking about Park Avenue, and things happened very suddenly. Fair to say, I got the hell beat out of me, by someone I didn't know."
Police asked Rather if anything was said to him during the attack. "I vaguely remembered at one point, it was, 'What's the frequency,'" says Rather. "And then, I thought, somebody had addressed me as Kenneth. And that got compacted into, 'What's the frequency, Kenneth?' And the next thing I knew, it was all over the news."
Rather later found out that R.E.M. had written a song about it. "I sort of said, 'Damn, you know, here we go again. But then, I listened to that song and got it in perspective," he says. "I had reached a point where I thought, 'Well, it may never be explained,' although always there was a small part of me that thought, 'Someday, we'll know what happened.' And someday, we did find out what happened."
In September 1994, a North Carolina man was charged with murder in New York City for the death of an NBC stagehand who was shot outside a Rockefeller Center studios. Police arrested William Tager, 46.
"And the authorities have clearly established that he was the person who'd attacked me. He knew some details of the attack that only he and I knew. And when they separately interviewed us, they matched up the stories and, no question that he did it," Rather recalls.
Rather adds: "I was very lucky and blessed that he didn't kill me that night."
Of some of the hard-hitting stories he's had to cover during his career at CBS, Rather says, "One way a reporter in this country should be judged is how well he or she stands up to the pressure to intimidate."
"I remember the first time someone accused me of being an 'N' lover. There was a lot of that during the '60s when I covered the civil rights movement," says Rather. "Then you move forward from civil rights to the Vietnam War. 'We're gonna hang a sign around you which calls you some bad name: anti-military, anti-American, anti-war.'"
Then, Watergate happened, and Rather says that "was the first time I began to hear the word liberal as an epithet thrown my way."
"People who have very strong biases of their own, they come at you with a story. If you won't report it the way I want it reported, then you're biased," says Rather. "Now, it's true about me, for better or worse. If you want to see my neck swell, you just try to tell me where to line up, or what to think, and mostly what to report."
His philosophy? "Pull no punches, play no favorites," says Rather.
On Sept. 8, 2004, Rather did a report for the Wednesday edition of 60 Minutes which raised questions about President George W. Bush's service in the Texas Air National Guard. Included in the report were documents that purported to show that Mr. Bush received preferential treatment.
But after further investigation, CBS could no longer vouch for the authenticity of the documents. Rather apologized for the report: "I want to say personally and directly, I'm sorry."
"We should have been more rigorous in trying to establish the validity of the documents," says Rather, adding, "First and foremost is that four people lost their jobs over it. And I never have them far from my mind. I regret every nanosecond when I let anybody at CBS News down, and even more, when I let the audience down. It's painful to me."
An independent panel looked into the matter and concluded mistakes were made in the competitive "rush to be first on the story," but found no political bias.
"I suppose, on one level, there's a continuity between this story and Dan's experience. Because the story of Dan's journalistic career is one of pursuit of a story. And this was pursuit of a story," says Stringer, former president of CBS News, and now chairman and CEO of Sony Corp of America.
"You could say that playing it safe would have had Dan always be an anchor man, and never get attached to dangerous stories. But he's inclined to be lightning," Stringer adds.
"I have my weaknesses," admits Rather. "I've made my mistakes, but the one mistake I've tried hard not to make is to say, 'OK. I know which way the wind is blowing, and I'm gonna tailor my reporting to fit that.' Ain't gonna do that. Haven't. Don't. Won't."
"Time has a way of introducing wisdom to someone's legacy and history," says Stringer. "You'll remember Dan for all those images of Dan on the front lines of every major story since the Civil Rights crisis - and being committed to the telling of those stories. That legacy will be a window into broadcast journalism that will become more valuable as time passes."
Of his years as anchor of CBS Evening News, Rather says: "It's gone by so much faster, more than I ever imagined it ever could. My only thought is how lucky I've been and how blessed I've been. And you can't do it for that long and love it as much as I have loved it, and do love it, and not have some sense of, 'I'd like to have another day, another week.'"
"Looking back on the anchor years, it's gone by so much faster more than I ever imagined it ever could," Rather says.
On March 9, 2005, Rather signed off the air as anchor of the CBS Evening News by saying, "And, to each of you, courage."
"I look back on the time at CBS News as a time when I was very lucky, and mightily blessed," Rather says. "Forty-four years I had there were magnificent for me."
"To those who watched and listened and stayed loyal over the years, the CBS core audience, you know, I say thank you," he says.
"I think Dan would like to be remembered as somebody who made a difference," says Stringer. "I've never seen anybody as comfortable in the field. It's an extraordinary body of work."
"I would, when I walk down the street, like for people to say: 'There goes a real reporter,'" Rather says.
"Time moves on, and you move on. What's changed is the location where I'm working, but the nature of the work doesn't change," says Rather.
"Right now, I want to get onto the next thing, flat our, full out, full throttle," Rather says. "I believe my best work is ahead of me, I hope my best work is ahead of me."