Negative press commentary on anchor Dan Rather’s retirement Wednesday was less than surprising. Cartoonist Gary Trudeau’s rather-Rather newshound in Doonesbury depicted the way most people in the news business regarded the man who “stole” Walter Cronkite’s job.
His ego and ruthless need to dominate, shared by both Mr. Rather and Mr. Trudeau’s pen-and-ink character, could easily explain why no one from CBS News appeared on the program that defended more than celebrated his 24 years in the network’s catbird seat.
They were the reasons why, although reputedly left wing, journalists’ cheers thundered right along with those from Republicans on the far right. Years ago the nation’s middle moderates voted with their remote controls to put out to pasture the recently deceased.
When Mr. Rather’s calculated tactics ousted Walter Cronkite, in 1981, the “tiffany of the networks” stood on the very top of the television news mountain. Mr. Cronkite had deftly swiped NBC’s bragging rights through a combination of on-air warmth and first-rate professionalism.
The former Kansas City Star reporter and UPI war correspondent wrote the book of standards and ethics for the new medium, which his successor flagrantly trampled “many a time and oft” long before his arrogant defense of an indefensibly flawed report on the president’s Vietnam War record.
Frankly, the man’s personality and pretensions created an aversion in me his first night in Washington.
Returning from a trip to Manhattan’s 485 Madison Avenue, CBS’s legendary headquarters during broadcasting’s golden age, fate put me in a National Airport taxi with the future anchor and his agent. Based on his reporting about John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the network’s Dallas correspondent had received promotion to the Washington bureau.
By that time, Walter Cronkite had been based in New York some nine years; his first assignment made him host on CBS’s first answer to television David Garroway’s highly successful “Today” on NBC.
The day his show debuted, The Washington Post had an ad showing our two heads on stick bodies; I was shown handing over a clock to my friend who was taking over the early two hours that had been “Roy Meachum in the Morning.”
At one point, Walter and I had shared desk space in what became the janitors’ locker room when the new building was complete. I belonged early to what became Walter’s millions of admirers, in and out of the journalism trade.
What I heard drifting over from the backseat in the taxi that night offended my sense of loyalty for the man who had always been generous to his younger colleagues, including me. In the snatches of dialogue I could decipher, Mr. Rather was laying out his demands to the man responsible for getting him what he wanted.
The demands the two discussed seemed neither fair nor generous, but what struck me the most was the raw ambition and ruthlessness they revealed. In the event, the Texan appeared to possess more guts and drive than common sense. After all, he sounded off in the taxi assuming his pitch to his agent would have no meaning for the only other passenger, me. He acted surprised when I got out and walked up the stairs of Broadcast House, which contained his new desk.
It took almost 18 years but – as all the world knows – Mr. Rather got his way, which included much more than he could have expected that late autumn night in 1963.
What has never been reported and remains still the stuff of backroom stories was how the manager sold CBS on the fantastic notion that they were close to losing his client to ABC. The price for keeping Dan Rather around “Black Rock” – the network’s new Mecca – was Walter Cronkite’s head. Not literally, of course. But damned near.
Since the distinguished anchor and ratings champ would turn 65 that year, the Rather forces argued, he would almost certainly retire, or worse, very shortly. Who would the network have to replace Walter? The obvious choice would not be available, not if he were working for ABC.
Ironically, the decision to retire “America’s most trusted man” came from Bill Paley; within a few months of 80 that March, the network’s founder had no intention of stepping down himself, hanging on until well on his way to 90.
As sudden as it was cruel and unfair, the announcement of Walter’s dumping found me in New York where I planned to continue conversations with CBS News President Bill Leonard analyzing Middle Eastern events. As he did for many others, my old friend had created the opportunity for me. His banishment also pushed the conversations off the table.
Ever a professional and a gentleman, over the past two decades, Walter Cronkite treated questions about his successor with grace and propriety; to his close circle, I was told, he made very clear his bitterness at being so rudely shoved aside.
In the event, on CNN this week appeared that very familiar face now trimmed in noble gray, appropriate for his 88 years, and finally he could say what everybody in the news business has recognized for years: something other than a murky journalistic record must have gone into his successor’s long tenure, particularly given his low regard among viewers, as measured by ratings.
Once the momentum from the Cronkite years ran out, The CBS Evening News wallowed in last place among TV network news shows.
Walter Cronkite strongly advocated to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that Bob Schieffer, Dan Rather’s “temporary replacement,” would be an excellent choice to sit in Walter’s old chair on a permanent basis. I couldn’t more agree.
But anybody other than that dark and angry man in the taxi that night would be a welcome change for me.