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Dan Rather interview (MJCCA Book Festival 11/19): 'I want to give readers hope'

Posted by RODNEY HO/ on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog on Sunday, October 29, 2017

On the surface, former CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather is known as that hard-hitting journalist whose primary mission has been to aggressively uncover the truth without fear or favor.

But peek underneath the hood and you'll find an idealist who grew up during the Depression and World War II, who has seen both the worst and best of America. At age 85, he still embraces key tenets such as freedom of the press, service, public education, the arts and science. And the current political environment drove him to write his newest book "What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism." ( You can pre-order here. Book comes out November 7.)

"I'm worried about a lot, but I'm an optimist by experience," said Rather in a 40-minute phone interview in advance of his sold-out appearance at the Marcus Jewish Community Center's annual book festival November 19. AJC's political reporter Greg Bluestein will moderate the program. "We're in a fairly dark valley in our national mood right now. But we'll get through it and come out on the other side."

The book is broken down by subjects such as empathy, inclusion, dissent and audacity. He said he wanted to send a message to his kids and grandkids that Americans have more in common that the cable networks and ideologically-driven websites want to make you think.

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"We're not a perfect union," Rather said, "far from a perfect union. It's our preamble: 'We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union.' We've been striving for 240 years. We can't blind ourselves to our faults. We need to learn from them. That's part of being a patriot. I'm very proud of our country. We have a great country."

He notes that patriotism is not the same as nationalism, nativism or even tribalism. "The question is, 'Can we hold ourselves together?' We're multi-racial, multi-religious, multi-ethnic. But if we end up a loose coalition of tribes, we won't have a the system of government we have. I'm not trying to get too preachy but we have to agree on some fundamental things."

Rather has nothing against political arguments but "in the best American spirit, we need to listen to each other's arguments and be civil about it."

And although he references many issues about our divisions today as Americans, Rather in his book never mentions Donald Trump's name - not a single time.

"I didn't want this book to be about our current president," Rather said. "I wanted it to be about the country. No president is stronger than the country. I wanted the context and the scope of this book to be something broader and deeper than that. I hope it will be worth reading down the road. It's not about today's headlines or even this week's news. I want to give readers hope and a sense of cultural and historical perspective that is sometimes lost in the havoc of today's headlines. A lot of people are short on hope these days."

Rather knows his influence on the American stage is not what it was in the 1980s and 1990s when being a nightly news anchor was still a big, big deal. Jeff Glor taking over on the "CBS Nightly News" was barely a blip on the news radar last week. Rather has remained active on Facebook, where he has an impressive 2.7 million followers. And he said the response from his posts led to his book.

"I'll soon be 86," he said. "I have no illusions. I'm not a political scientist. I'm not a philosopher. I'm a lifetime reporter. I've been very lucky to have in a few places and seen a few things. I'm not a wise person. I don't even consider myself a particularly smart person. I've just been around awhile."

I managed to get Rather to say one Rather-esque axiom when I asked him facetiously what the odds are that either Steve Bannon or Pres. Trump would read his book: "I would say slim to none. And slim just left town!"

We also touched upon a few current event topics:

Watergate vs. Russiagate: "There are some similarities... Keep in mind. The 1970s are a long way away. It was a different time, a different president and a different set of circumstances. The similarity is you have the present president fighting very hard to stop an investigation. Number two: once the investigation got under way, he has tried to discredit the people leading the investigation. The difference now is that there is no conclusive proof that you have a president in a widespread criminal conspiracy... Plus, Watergate was all domestic. There wasn't the factor of a foreign power. That's a big difference... The Nixon case resulted in a clear constitutional crisis for the country. We are not yet in a constitutional crisis. There's a possibility we could reach one if it's proven there was collusion in helping Russia in their efforts to meddle. Pres. Trump has indicated he'd like to get rid of Special Counsel [Robert] Mueller. My opinion is if he tried to fire Mueller as Pres. Nixon did to the prosecutor in his case, that could precipitate a constitutional crisis."

On Rather losing his CBS job after his "60 Minutes" piece regarding George W. Bush's National Guard service 12 years ago: "I can truthfully say, I haven't really thought about it any time recently. It's pretty much in my rear view mirror." (In 2015, he said, "I have a lot of wounds.")

On Glor, the new guy anchoring "CBS Evening News": "I don't know him. I did Tweet him wishing him well. He seems to have a solid reporting background. I wish him well. I still have many friends at CBS News. There's part of me that is always pulling for them... The whole business of network has changed dramatically since I was there. Changing anchors doesn't get the attention it once did. The audience has been so fragmented. And the news division has shrunken tremendously. There was a time when we had 60 to 65 correspondents and 20-some-odd bureaus staffed around the world. That's gone with the wind, a phrase that carries special meaning in Atlanta... Networks used to be committed to actual news gathering with their own people Now increasingly, they're more in the business of news packaging."

The economy and the president: I noted to Rather that the economy since Trump took office has remained solid. "By any reasonable analysis, part of the credit for what's happening should go to his predecessor however you view him. Some of the momentum from Obama has carried over. I do think that the election of Pres. Trump and the prospect he was going to make some major tax cuts for wealthy people, for corporations, he deserves credit for that. But there's a long way to go. If the economy stays up or gets better, a lot of people won't want to hear this but he'd be hard to beat in 2020. On the other hand, if the economy takes a nosedive, he'll pay the price for that. My experience in politics is people vote with their pocketbooks... Presidents usually get more credit than they deserve when the economy does well and tend to get more blame when the economy goes down. He has less power over the economy than most people seem to believe."

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 04: Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) talks to reporters after attending a Senate bipartisan lunch in the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill February 4, 2015 in Washington, DC. Senators from both parties said they did not talk about current legislation during the lunch and said they plan to continue the bipartisan lunch once every month. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

On Republicans seeking re-election not criticizing Trump vs. Jeff Flake, Bob Corker, John McCain: "That's difficult. I want to state this accurately. President Trump is trying to consolidate and expand his base. And he and [Steve] Bannon are working in concert to do that, to rebuild the Republican party along the lines of their vision, which you could call economic nationalism. Some people call it white nationalism. And they're openly challenging some of the people in their own party: basically get in line or get out. Right now, they're pretty successful with those speaking out as a matter of conscience.... I do think a lot of Republicans who have not yet spoken out probably share their views. Because of the president's personal conduct, history will judge whether they made the right call or a bad call."

Where's the empathy? "A lot of people confuse compassion with empathy. They're two different words. I think there's a lack of empathetic thinking particularly in the upper tiers of government because they're so out of touch with the heart and soul of the country as a whole. I would say Democrat and Republican as well as the president. Whether you like the president or not, he doesn't speak very often in very empathetic tones.... This is a very empathetic country. Look at the recent hurricanes. You saw scene after scene of people demonstrating empathy to their neighbors regardless of race, creed, religion or ethnic background. It was heartening and inspiring to see that. That's in the best tradition of this country. That's a far cry from what you see in the White House and Congress or the average state legislature."

The power of Roger Stone, an advisor to the President : He actively urged Donald Trump to run. He's been an integral part of the rise of Trump and the election of Trump and remains so. Roger Stone formulated Stone's rules. One is to never admit you're wrong. Always attack anyone who raises questions about you. Attack, attack, attack. Never explain, never apologize, always attack. I'm really disappointed in the whole business of how the telephone call to the grieving mother of a soldier killed in Niger. The president didn't intend to make her feel any worse. Once it happened, most decent people would have said, 'Look, I made a mistake if she misinterpreted what I said. I'd call and apologize if I added to your grief in any way.' If you subscribe to Stone's rules, you attack instead. Stone remains a bigger influence on Trump politically than any other single person."

The Briscoe Center for American History and the Moody College of Communication  recently created a website focused on his career: "I'm very appreciative and grateful. I watched the presentation they put on. Quite frankly, it was surreal and also a humbling experience because I looked up and said to myself, 'Wow. There's so much that I could have done more, that I could have done better.' ... I'm always aspiring to be a great reporter. I'm not there but I'm trying."

**FILE**In this file photo supplied by CBS, Dan Rather stands outside the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas in June, 1967. The building is where assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was hiding when he shot and killed President John F. Kennedy in 1963. CBS will televise a one-hour prime-time tribute to Dan Rather on March 9, the night he leaves the evening news anchor chair. He's been on the scene for big stories ranging from the Kennedy assassination to the Iraqi elections last month. (AP Photo/ CBS)

The recently released FBI files about the JFK assassination: "I'll be surprised if there aren't at least some interesting tidbits in it. Keep in mind, they have not released what I think are the most interesting 300, 400 pages. I don't believe that there's going to be anything in there that will dramatically change the conclusions that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone... I just consider it true that Oswald was the lone shooter. But I'm still open minded... Oswald made a trip to Mexico City before the assassination. He also spent time at the Cuban embassy and the Soviet embassy in Mexico. We don't know much about those. If there's anything in this new material that sheds new light on that, that may be the most interesting part of it."

"What's the Frequency, Kenneth"? "I recently did a program for Mark Cuban's cable satellite network AXS and I interviewed Michael Stipe and two other members of R.E.M. [It airs November 28.] They recorded that tune, 'What's the Frequency Kenneth.' During the course of the interview, we discussed that. It happened in the mid-1980s and until I did that interview, I hadn't thought about it in years."


Dan Rather at the MJCCA Book Festival

7:30 p.m., Sunday, November 19

$30 for member, $35 for community $75 includes VIP seating, copy of Rather's book "What Unites Us" (Sold out)

Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta

5342 Tilly Mill Road, Dunwoody


About the Author

Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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