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October 2, 2009

Rather Not

Roy Meachum readers know that I valued my friendship with Walter Cronkite, begun because we shared space in Washington’s Broadcast House, when the building was going up. Over the years we both tended the relationship; on his part, by taking my calls immediately; no matter what was going on at CBS.


From Walter I learned Iran’s shah arrived in Egypt, the land I had just left, landing at Kennedy Airport the night before. Over the next months our conversations on Islam and Muslims led him to set an appointment for me to talk to Bill Leonard, then president of CBS News. By coincidence, I was in New York for the talks when Mr. Leonard announced Dan Rather was stepping up and my old friend down, as anchor of CBS Evening News.


Like most people in broadcasting, I had heard rumors that ABC was trying to lure Mr. Rather, to make him the centerpiece of improving its news division; they did not in the least bother me, although I was fiercely loyal to CBS, which created an opening in television seven months after I left the Army—as shown in a framed Washington Post ad at the top of the stairs on North Market Street. That’s when I met Walter.


Dan Rather inspired neither professional admiration nor personal regard when I first encountered him – in a taxicab ride from National Airport when he reported to the CBS bureau, still in Broadcast House. It was shortly after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which media historians consider the event that brought television of age, largely because of both the journalistic finesse and emotional response of my old friend.


With the assassination, Walter Cronkite captured the grief and the heart of Americans and never let them go. In the Dallas bureau at the time, Mr. Rather demonstrated he was ready for a move up. He was reassigned to Washington and the White House.


I can no longer recall what I was doing in New York that day, weeks after President Kennedy was killed; probably something at the network’s headquarters, still at 485 Madison Avenue. In any event, all alone, I was recruited by a taxi driver at National Airport, to sit beside him in the passenger seat, while he trolled for more customers. Two men settled in the back and announced they were going to Broadcast House; they never heard I wanted the same address.


Because of his recent exposure on news programs, I recognized Dan Rather; the other man I didn’t know, but the tenor of their conversation left no doubt in my mind he was the correspondent’s agent. They ignored the driver and me and continued a dialogue that had much to do with the younger man’s ambition, which his companion tried to calm down. Given the shot, Mr. Rather was determined his manager get everything he felt due, including a clear shot, eventually, at the anchor on The Evening News. In the process, he brought up various names, which he dismissed with biting criticism, including my friend Roger Mudd.


Their conversation scarcely paused as the taxi pulled up before the stairs that climbed to the receptionist’s desk presided over for years by a grumpy but sassy Marie, born to a Georgetown Irish family. They noticed I was going inside but dismissed me as less than important. I was.


But the impression made by Dan Rather was indelible; I never trusted the man with such raw ambition, the determination to achieve at whatever cost to other human beings. His replacement of Walter, in 1981, I accepted at the time as part of the system that shoved people aside at 65. My friend was close to the magic age.


Over the years I learned of the manipulations and artifices that had gone into the switch. I had come away from the conversation with Bill Leonard not impressed, understanding he would do whatever to hold on to his position; he was a former reporter. All during our talk, I understood his comments were meant to be relayed to Walter; in general, before the announcement of the replacement anchor, that’s how I was handled at CBS.


I never watched Dan Rather’s shows, except when I had no choice. I noted and remembered his occasional idiosyncrasies, such as his insistence that he was being stalked by some street person nobody else saw. He pushed the envelope on various stories, I was told, until he went overboard and stuck the network’s nose out in the wind with a wild-eyed version of how George W. Bush tried to evade combat, in Vietnam. As readers know, I never cared for Mr. Bush, thinking always that he was a leading contender for worst president in history. But from what I read, I knew Dan Rather had gone too far, in alleged facts that could not be verified. He was eased out of the position, already a very wealthy man.


On the other hand, Mr. Rather appeared on the network for months in his former role, as a correspondent for “60 Minutes.” During the peak of his influence, he vetoed all the network’s attempts to use Walter Cronkite who vanished from the air, like that.


When the network and its principal officers were hit by a $70 million lawsuit two years ago, as you understand, litigant Dan Rather received absolutely no sympathy from me. I didn’t rejoice when the Appellate Division of the New York Supreme Court dismissed entirely his attempt to gouge more money from the employer who had made him rich. I cried not even crocodile tears from the man who zapped my old friend.


Walter Cronkite, unfortunately, didn’t live to witness how the court dismissed unanimously claims and pretensions by the man who did him in, professionally at least. He died two months back.


I am convinced; however, my old friend knows and is smiling beneath his grayed mustache, as am I.


Yellow Cab
The Morning News Express with Bob Miller
The Covert Letter

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