on Mon Apr 30 16:52:26 2012
Dan Rather: Mitt Romney has ‘good chance’
By MJ LEE | 4/30/12 7:53 AM EDTDan Rather’s long and storied journalism career of more than 60 years spans 11 presidents and, in a new memoir, the veteran TV anchor is offering his candid take on each occupant of the White House, including a “snappy and downright standoffish” Dwight Eisenhower, a “scripted and on message” Richard Nixon, as well as a president whom Rather describes as someone with “little curiosity about anything other than baseball” — George W. Bush.
In a wide-ranging interview with Politico ahead of the Tuesday release of “Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News,” the former “CBS Evening News” and “60 Minutes” host discussed his views of the administrations that he has gotten to know over the decades — and sets odds on the current presidential contest.
Rather, who landed in hot water in 2010 for saying that the president “couldn’t sell watermelons if you gave him the state troopers to flag down the traffic” — a comment that was construed by some as racist and that he eventually apologized for — says he believes that President Barack Obama is a much more effective campaigner than a president, and that a failure to regain his ability to be engaging and persuasive as he was on the campaign trail in 2008 could cost him a second term in the White House.
“I have no idea what kind of president Gov. Romney will make, but I do think [that] … he has a good chance of becoming president,” Rather said in the interview. “President Obama is even money at best at this particular time … his odds right now are 50/50 in my book.”
Rather’s book, which Politico received an advanced copy of, also highlights some of the defining moments of the author’s career, including the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, his reporting of the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in 2004 that rocked the country and caused internal strife at CBS, and his highly publicized ouster from the network following the airing of a controversial “60 Minutes” report about what Rather refers to as Bush 43’s “dereliction of duty from Vietnam.”
The 80-year-old news anchor, whose deep voice and slight Southern accent are instantly recognizable, says as far as American presidents go, his personal favorites are Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton.
“When you spoke with them, even for a short time, they gave you their full attention. So many politicians — and this includes some presidents — you can be talking to them and they’re looking over your shoulder to see who else is in the room,” Rather told Politico.
He continued, “With both President Ford and President Clinton, for whatever time they gave you your attention, they were in the moment with you. With either one of them if you decided to go out and have a beer, and you weren’t going to talk about politics or foreign policy — you were just going to talk about football and women — you could have a real conversation with them about any of those things.”
The Texas native also elaborated on his views of another past president he followed closely.
“Richard Nixon was smart. Very intelligent. If you had given all presidents SAT tests … Richard Nixon would be right there at or near the top,” Rather said. “But of course the historical question always is, well, to be such a smart person, how could he have done what he did?
But the president who is most prominently featured in “Rather Outspoken” is Bush. Rather’s coverage of the 43rd president’s service in the Texas Air National Guard, which aired on “60 Minutes” in September 2004, eventually cost him his job at CBS — a network where he worked for 44 years.
After pushback from some senior executives at CBS, the network greenlighted the airing of an episode that accused Bush of avoiding military service in Vietnam by using family connections to secure a spot in the “champagne unit” of the National Guard. A significant portion of the reporting relied on what have come to be known as the Killian documents, which Rather’s critics denounced as lacking in authenticity. Met with criticism, the network — and Rather — were forced to apologize.
“In what has become the prevailing public view, I lost this round, big time … We stand accused and convicted of sloppy and irresponsible journalism,” Rather writes in the book. “All I ask is a chance to set the record straight and to present what I hope is a convincing argument that a lot of what you know or think you know, is wrong.”
As he lays out the details of his investigation of Bush’s “highly irregular military career,” Rather’s criticism of the former president seeps through repeatedly. He refers to Bush in the book as “a young man born of privilege” who “seemed to have little curiosity about anything other than baseball” and “gamed the system to evade going to Vietnam.”
Asked during the interview whether with some years of hindsight, he would go as far as to call his fellow Texan dishonest, Rather paused, before saying, “Well, let the record show I paused.”
“His record is his record and people have to decide for themselves whether they’d classify him as a dishonest person,” Rather said. “I’m just going to say that about his National Guard service and the lack of service, that a long continuous overt effort has been made … to hide the truth about it. That’s about as far as I can go.”
As he chronicles the administrations he’s encountered over the years in the memoir, Rather also grades former presidents and their relationship with the press, as well as how successful various White House press offices were at working with reporters.
Eisenhower, for example, is referred to as “our last president who was not press-centric”; John F. Kennedy — who was so image-conscious that he hired Grace Kelly’s favorite photographer to take pictures of him from every direction to find his best camera angles (Kennedy was “counseled never to be photographed straight on … because his eyes were set too close”) — is remembered as having been “extremely accessible” to reporters; Nixon, on the other hand, utterly distrusted the press and “sought to manipulate and control the media.”
And how do Obama and his press shop rank? Not good, Rather said during the interview.
“I don’t understand what has happened since he has become president,” he said about the accessibility and quality of the president’s interactions with the media. “You contrast the way he handles the press today and how it was handled in the campaign and some of the policies — for example, handling freedom of information requests — seems to have gotten more difficult in the Obama administration. And let’s note that’s saying something because it was very difficult in the George W. Bush administration. The Barack Obama that I thought I knew … I would have expected him to go the other way.”
One of the former first ladies who makes a brief appearance in “Rather Outspoken” is Hillary Clinton. At the end of Bill Clinton’s second term, Rather’s last question to the president in an exit interview was about the Monica Lewinsky scandal, which the president allegedly did not appreciate.
“I think one reason President Clinton didn’t like the question was because he either had been warned by Mrs. Clinton, ‘Don’t you dare talk about this’ or something, or he feared that when she found out about it, that she’d give him hell,” Rather told Politico.
As for whether he believes the former first lady will make another bid for the White House in 2016, Rather said, “I’ll be surprised if she doesn’t. Overnight is a long time in politics. A week is forever, and we’re talking about something four years down the road. But … I’d be surprised if she doesn’t make a run in 2016.”
Today, Rather hosts “Dan Rather Reports” on HDNet, a network founded by businessman Mark Cuban. And despite going through a bitter lawsuit against his former employer that was eventually dismissed by the court — one of the low points of his life detailed in the new book — Rather insists he still has “great loyalty” to the network.
An avid newspaper reader, Rather says he pores over the pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal every morning. But as far as TV news goes, the former “Evening News” anchor admits that he watches CBS “more often than others.”
“I think he’s doing terrific. And I’m saying that as objectively as I possibly can,” Rather said of Scott Pelley, who now anchors the program. “He has a real passion for covering the news and he has paid the price … If they stick with him, if CBS sticks with him, I think they’ll get the benefit of that.”