Dan Rather, An Unlikely Essayist, On 'What Unites Us'

Nov 3, 2017
Originally published on November 3, 2017 5:41 pm

Dan Rather's career has entered a new phase. At age 86, he's again speaking to millions of people every day.

It's not at CBS, where he anchored the Evening News for decades — instead, Facebook has given him a new audience. That's where he writes essays about the news of the day.

Here's an excerpt of what he posted this past Monday, when members of the Trump campaign were indicted.

We are a nation of laws. President Donald Trump and all those around him who have not yet been named in an indictment have the presumption of innocence. As do those who have been arrested and not plead guilty. But what has unfolded today is the working of a very meticulous and seasoned prosecutor who is sending an unambiguous message. This is real. And a lot more is out there. The shockwaves coursing through Washington and the world are only beginning.

Make no mistake, Bob Mueller almost assuredly knows a lot more than he has let on. He also knows how to unfold a prosecution, to turn up the heat, send shots across bows, and build a case up the ladder. The fact that he started with such big names is telling. The hints at other knowledge, and other people, in the indictment is a serious clue that many more shoes are likely to drop. The plea deal that was off the radar suggests there are names and actions that the public has yet to give scrutiny, but the Mueller team has been hard at work ferreting out. And the president reportedly fumes about a narrative he cannot control.

Now Dan Rather has a new book — a collection of essays, called What Unites Us: Reflections On Patriotism. It's a topic that can make him quite emotional.

"Our founding documents contain some of the most beautiful and noble words ever put on paper," Rather says. "I recite them often and love them with every fiber of my being. We the people, all of us, are living together in perhaps the greatest social and governmental experiment ever conceived. We are being tested. How can we prepare ourselves for the moment? Are we up to the challenge?"

Interview Highlights

On patriotism being used as a political bludgeon, and if he thinks that can be changed

I do, though we need to look to our history at least a little. We've been through some really difficult times before as a country — and now we find ourselves in a period of, seemingly, chaos and havoc at the very top of the government, particularly in the executive branch. So what we've done is we've descended into extreme partisan politics and set-in concrete ideologies. But we're better than that.

And I remind myself and try to remind others that, you know, the country as a whole is stronger than any president, and that if we just lower the volume and say, 'Let's have civil discourse,' and to return, yes, to our core American values, take an attitude of, 'Listen, we agree on so much — we agree on the right to vote, we agree on the need for empathy.' There are fundamental things that we agree on, so concentrate on those things — and where we have disagreements, say, 'OK, we disagree about these things. Let's discuss them in a very civil manner, lower the temperature and talk to one another.'

On his mix of optimism and alarm about the nation

I do worry about that quite a bit. I recognize that my time to shape the world in even a small way is receding, but I keep coming back to one of my father's favorite words: 'Steady. Just hold steady. Do what you can.' You know, President John Kennedy asked, 'Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.' And if we just hold ourselves steady and say to ourselves, 'Let me do something today that helps my community, that helps my country,' we'll begin to crawl and claw ourselves back to a more reasonable state, and that way, going forward in the 21st century, we can have a better country than we have had, and let's face it — we have had a very good country.

On the impact he's had via Facebook that he could not have had at CBS

That's absolutely true, totally unexpected, and one of the great surprises of my life. Look, I was at CBS News for 44 years, 24 of them in the anchor chair. CBS News was part of my identity — I mean, "Dan Rather, CBS News" was just, in my own mind, almost my name. And when I left there, under those circumstances, I said to myself, when it was finally over, "I don't know what I'm going to do. I still want to work, I have a passion for reporting news, but is anybody going to hire me? Can I find anything to do?"

But to have this social media phenomenon happen — I do find it amazing and humbling. Granted, humbling is not a word usually associated with present or past television anchorpeople, but I do feel that way. I don't profess to understand it, but I am very grateful for it. You know, one of the things has happened to me with age — I think it may happen to quite a few people — is that I'm deeper into gratitude, humility and modesty than I've ever been. That may be damning with faint praise, but I have really learned the value of it. And I will say that, you know, part of what made this book possible was the, to me, still incredible response that we've seen on social media. And I see this book What Unites Us as an extension of that spirit, but one that's broader in its mandate.

Fatma Tanis and Melissa Gray produced and edited the audio of this interview. Patrick Jarenwattananon and Sydnee Monday adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Dan Rather's career has entered a new phase. At age 86, he's speaking to millions of people every day not at CBS where he anchored the "Evening News" for more than 20 years. Instead, Facebook has given him a new audience where he writes about the news of the day. Now Dan Rather also has a new book. It's a collection of personal essays called "What Unites Us: Reflections On Patriotism." There are chapters about inclusion, the vote and service. I asked him to read an excerpt of the first piece called "What Is Patriotism?"

DAN RATHER: (Reading) Our founding documents contain some of the most beautiful and noble words ever put on paper. I recite them often and love them with every fiber of my being. We the people - all of us - are living together in perhaps the greatest social and governmental experiment ever conceived. We are being tested. How can we prepare ourselves for the moment? Are we up to the challenge?

SHAPIRO: Did that make you emotional just now?

RATHER: Yes and without apology.

SHAPIRO: The book does feel very personal. And in it, you acknowledge that you came of age in a very different time. And one of the things you say is that your love of country may seem anachronistic in today's more jaded world. Today it so often feels as though patriotism is used as a bludgeon to hurt political opponents. Do you think that's reversible?

RATHER: I do, though we need to look to our history at least a little. We've been through some really difficult times before as a country, and now we find ourselves in a period of seemingly chaos and havoc at the very top of the government, particularly in the executive branch. So what we've done is we've descended into extreme partisan politics and set-in-concrete ideologies. But we're better than that.

And I remind myself and try to remind others that, you know, the country as a whole is stronger than any president and that if we just lower the volume and say, let's have civil discourse and to return, yes, to our core American values, take an attitude of - listen; we agree on so much. We agree on the right to vote. We agree on the need for empathy. There are fundamental things that we agree on. So concentrate on those things. And where we have disagreement, say, OK, we disagree about these things; let's discuss them in a very civil manner. Lower the temperature, and talk to one another.

SHAPIRO: In these essays, even though your optimism comes through, your alarm comes through as well. On the subject of empathy, you say, I worry that our nation today suffers from a deficit of empathy. On the press, you say, we have more people talking about news and less original reporting. On courage, you say the nation has careened into an existential crisis. I know you describe yourself as an optimist, but do you worry that you will leave the world in worse condition than you found it?

RATHER: I do worry about that quite a bit. I recognize that my time to shape the world in even a small way is receding. But I keep coming back to one of my father's favorite words, steady. Just hold steady. Do what you can. You know, President John Kennedy - ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.

And if we just hold ourselves steady and say to ourselves, let me do something today that helps my community and helps my country, we'll begin to crawl and claw ourselves back to a more reasonable state. And that way, going forward in the 21st century, we can have a better country than we have had. And let's face it. We have had a very good country.

SHAPIRO: You left CBS under circumstances that you would not have chosen after a 2004 report about George W. Bush's military service was called into question. And in hindsight, I wonder whether you feel that now on Facebook you are able to use your voice and have an impact in a way that you would not have been able to at CBS.

RATHER: That's absolutely true - totally unexpected and one of the great surprises of my life. Look; I was at CBS News for 44 years, 24 of them in the anchor chair. CBS News was part of my identity. I mean, Dan Rather, CBS News, was just in my own mind almost my name. And when I left there under those circumstances, you know, I said to myself when it was finally over, I don't know what I'm going to do.

I still want to work. I have a passion for reporting news. But is anybody going to hire me? Can I find anything to do? But to have this social media phenomenon happen, I do find it amazing and humbling. Granted, humbling is not a word usually associated with present or past television anchor people.

(LAUGHTER)

RATHER: But I do feel that way. I don't profess to understand it, but I am very grateful for it. You know, one of the things that has happened to me with age - I think it may happen to quite a few people - is that I'm deeper into gratitude, humility and modesty than I've ever been. That may be damning with faint praise.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

RATHER: But I have learned - I have really learned the value of it. And I will say that, you know, part of what made this book possible was the, to me, still incredible response that we've seen on social media. And I see this book "What Unites Us" as an extension of that spirit but one that's broader in its mandate.

SHAPIRO: Dan Rather, I know that millions of people tuned in every night to hear what you had to say, and hearing your voice will be powerful for many of them. While you have their ear, is there anything you would like to tell them today besides buy the book?

(LAUGHTER)

RATHER: Well, I do want to say that. Forgive me if you must. There's a lot to be concerned about, a lot to shake us. But it's an essential part of the American character to, when the pressure is greatest, when they heat is hottest, to be steady. When we were attacked by the Japanese and faced with a huge, unprecedented world war, we were steady. When 9/11 - when we were attacked at 9/11, the country pulled itself together. We were steady. So just a gentle reminder that it's very much a part of our history and a part of our national character to be steady. And now is a time when we need it as much as we ever have.

SHAPIRO: Dan Rather, it's an honor and a pleasure to talk to you. Thank you very much for joining us.

RATHER: Thank you, Ari. Thanks a lot for having me.

SHAPIRO: His new book with Elliot Kirschner is called "What Unites Us: Reflections On Patriotism."

(SOUNDBITE OF LITTLE PEOPLE'S "MOON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.