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Dan Rather, at 92, on a life in news

Dan Rather, at 92, on a life in news
Dan Rather, at 92, on a life in news 08:27

It's been almost 20 years since Dan Rather signed off from the anchor desk here at CBS News. Of the so-called "Big Three" TV anchormen back in the day, watched by some 50 million people a night, Rather was there the longest, almost a quarter-century.

In his 44 years with CBS, Rather held every post a network reporter could: bureau chief, war correspondent, foreign correspondent, White House correspondent.

But in 2006, a little more than a year after he stepped down from the anchor desk, Rather left CBS itself. "Dan Rather, CBS News, became sorta all part of my name, a part of my identity," he said.

This is the first time he's appeared on this network since: "Without apology or explanation, I miss CBS. I've missed it since the day I left there."

Veteran newsman Dan Rather.  CBS News

Even at 92, how and why he left still stings. He said, "In the heart of every reporter worthy of their name, Lee, there's a message that news, real news is what somebody somewhere — particularly somebody in power – doesn't want you to know. That's news."

And that's what got him into trouble.

In 2004 Rather filed a report for "60 Minutes II" that questioned George W. Bush's service record in the Texas Air National Guard, reporting on "new documents and new information" about the president's military service. But the documents on which Rather and his producer based their reporting could not be later authenticated.

On September 20, 2004, Rather broadcast an apology. "It was a mistake," he said. "CBS News deeply regrets it. Also, I want to say, personally and directly, I'm sorry."

Asked if that was his lowest point, Rather replied, "Of course, it was the lowest point. I gave CBS News everything I had. They had smarter, better, more talented people, but they didn't have anybody who worked any harder than I did."

Dan Rather and Lee Cowan in 2001. CBS News

I'd only been at CBS a few years by then, during which Dan Rather had kindly and unexpectedly taken me under his wing. He made me feel welcome.

Minus the suspenders and his cigars, Rather remains just as I remember him: an intently curious, thoughtful, well-read skeptic, who wants nothing more than to wear out his shoe-leather chasing the next headline.

Asked what made him want to become a reporter in the first place, Rather said, "I've never quite known the answer to that question. All I know is, it's the only thing I ever wanted to be, was a reporter. I get up every morning and as soon as my feet hit the ground, I say, where's the story?"

"You still do that?"

"I do."

"And it doesn't matter how big or small the audience is?"

"No," he replied.

After CBS, Rather continued to report from all over the world for several news broadcasts of his own. He wrote books, became a sought-after voice on presidential politics, and found a new younger audience on social media. "You either get engaged and you get engaged on the new terms, or you're out of the game," he said. "I wanted to stay in the game."

Asked to rate where journalism is today, Rather … paused.

"Let the record show that I paused!" he laughed, before answering: "The people who are practicing journalism today are so much better than those of us who came up at another time. They're better educated, they're more knowledgeable about the world. They wanna do the right thing; they're doing the best they can."

In his time, he knew his best wasn't to try to be his predecessor, Walter Cronkite; instead, he tried to be the best Dan Rather he could be … which came with price tags, some professional, many of them personal.

1968: CBS News' Dan Rather gets roughed up while trying to interview a Georgia delegate 01:18

In 1963, while the nation mourned the assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Rather didn't have that luxury. "I didn't take time to grieve," he said, "because I said to myself, it's my professional responsibility. I remember calling my wife Jean, who was in Houston at the time of the assassination, and she had cautioned me: 'Dan, sooner or later, you're going to have make room for your own emotions.'"

Rather also led CBS' coverage of the civil rights movement. Those were the days he thought might define him as a reporter.

But then came Vietnam. "There's a great misunderstanding of what soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen are afraid of in war," he said. "They are afraid of dying, of course, they are. But that's not what they're most afraid of. Fighting men and women are most afraid of letting down the guy to their left or the woman to their right. Race was rarely even thought of. There's a saying among the troops: 'Same mud, same blood.' And that's the way it was handled."

CBS News
CBS newsman Dan Rather reporting while under fire in Vietnam in 1966. CBS News via Getty Images

Being a hard-charging reporter doesn't mean being a heartless one – after 9/11, Rather's raw emotion reflected what we were all feeling in an appearance on "The Late Show With David Letterman," when Rather recited lyrics to "America the Beautiful."

The Late Show with David Letterman
Dan Rather, anchor and managing editor of the "CBS Evening News," is comforted by "Late Show" host David Letterman during a break, after Rather was overcome with emotion while discussing the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, September 17, 2001. This was the first broadcast of "The Late Show with David Letterman" following 9/11.  John Paul Filo/CBS via Getty Images

That was all long ago. These days, you'll find him under the shade of a stately old oak, not far from his home in Austin Texas. The Treaty Tree, as it's called, has outlasted Spanish conquests, the Civil War, even urban sprawl.

And in its tangled branches Dan Rather sees himself. "You couldn't survive nearly 600 years without having very deep roots," he said.

Lee Cowan and Dan Rather in Austin.  CBS News

He spent his career trying to put the world in context for others – penning the first draft of history in his reporter's notebook. Dan Rather knows more than anyone that the final draft, though, is up to others – and that's how it should be.

"The closest you can do about legacy is not think about your work," he said. "Think about what you did as a person. Those important questions of, who am I? Why am I here? What can I contribute? Those are the important questions, not how well one did or didn't do as anchor or managing editor of the 'CBS Evening News.'"

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Story produced by Sari Aviv. Editor: Steven Tyler. 

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