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Anchors away

Dan Rather's two biggest contributions to American history are his direct assists to the elections of both President Bush 41 and President Bush 43

Issue: "Curt Schilling: Never hide," March 19, 2005

"I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind." -Ecclesiastes 1:14

By most accounts, Dan Rather, who retired as Mr. CBS last week, is a kind man, an excellent boss, and jovial company. But he will soon be largely forgotten, as John Chancellor and Frank Reynolds were, even though he anchored the CBS Evening News for 24 years. Not that this is unusual-almost all public figures are forgotten almost as soon as they are gone from the stage.

Oh, media historians will rummage through a bin of Rather anecdotes: hurricanes and the Kennedy assassination. Roughed up at the Democratic convention in 1968 and verbally roughing up Richard Nixon. Mugged in 1986 by an assailant muttering, "What's the frequency?" and referring to the anchorman as "Kenneth." Interviewing Saddam Hussein and not asking the tyrant about his crimes.

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But Mr. Rather's two biggest contributions to American history are his direct assists to the elections of both President Bush 41 and President Bush 43. First, on Jan. 25, 1988, he tried to ambush George H.W. Bush over his alleged role in Iran-Contra, and the then-VP Bush beat him like a bongo drum.

Then, during last year's George W. Bush campaign, Mr. Rather messed up with his "Rathergate" story that purported to document Bush misconduct while in the Texas Air National Guard. Even after independent researchers found the documents to be forgeries, the anchor clung to his fiction that the documents could be authentic. This bald partisan assault on the president immunized Mr. Bush from further sneak attacks on the Guard issue and helped him gain another four-year lease on the White House.

So Mr. Rather left the anchor desk this week much as his first nemesis Richard Nixon left the White House-resigning rather than formally being forced out. This is not the end of an era but perhaps a recognition of what long ago ended. From the 1960s through the 1980s American television anchormen achieved stature not because of intellect or achievement, but because they were one of the few things a divided country shared in common. The three networks had between them the whole of the American audience, and as a common touchstone the anchors (Brinkleys and Brokaws, Chancellors and Cronkites, Reynoldses and Rathers) lived on a platform that seemed almost as important as the presidents of those years.

Now we know better. They just read the prompter.

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