At 86 — even he can’t believe that advanced number — Dan Rather seems more relevant today than he was during 44 years at CBS News, 24 of them anchoring the network’s Evening News.
On his News and Guts website, he posts thoughtful think pieces off the day’s news that often manage to be reassuring even when delivering a punch. “Hold steady,” is his message. “We’ve been through worse and we’ll get through this, too.”
In March, he sat down with five Marjory Stoneman Douglas students from Parkland to discuss their passionate commitment to ending gun violence.
His authenticity coupled with a seen-it-all gravitas, folksy humor and unabashed patriotism has earned him a huge following even among millennials, who may not know the eloquent older guy they’re following once anchored the Tiffany network’s signature broadcast.
He’s bringing his views on politics, news and the presidency to the Palm Beach Book Festival on April 14, where he’ll talk about his newest book, “What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism,” written with his longtime collaborator, Elliot Kirschner.
“I always look forward to coming to Palm Beach,” Rather said. “I don’t envy much, but I envy those of you who get to live and work there.”
It’s hard to understand how he finds the time to visit.
On Friday afternoons, Rather offers perspective and historical context to current issues and events on “Dan Rather’s America,” which streams on SiriusXM radio on the Radio Andy channel, curated by Bravo’s Real Housewives’ executive producer Andy Cohen. It seems a frothy frame for Rather’s sober, earnest tone until you learn Cohen spent 10 years as a CBS News producer.
Rather also streams periodic Facebook Live shows, even appears on podcasts from South by Southwest. On Tuesday nights, he interviews classic rock stars on his AXS TV show, “The Big Picture.”
Did we mention he’s 86?
This is an lightly edited version of a conversation held the day after Democrat Conor Lamb won Pennsylvania’s special election.
Palm Beach Post: You’ve been covering elections for decades. What do you make of Conor Lamb’s apparent victory last night in a district that President Trump won by nearly 20 points?
Dan Rather: There’s no way to analyze this without coming to conclusion that it is very bad news for Republicans. This is a district that Trump carried overwhelmingly and that Republicans held for a long time. Taken with other results around the country, it indicates that if the midterms were being held any time soon, Democrats stand a very good chance of taking the House.
But, I’ve learned that overnight is a very long time in politics….and a few months is an eternity. Things could change dramatically between now and November.
What interested me quite a bit is that, generally speaking, people vote their pocketbooks. When the economy is reasonably good, they vote for the party in power… That throws Pennsylvania into sharper relief. With the economy this good, a party could be expected to hold on to power. The problem is President Trump himself and his ratings hovering below 40 percent.
The decision factor was that many white women who had voted for Trump apparently were so grossed out by the President’s personal behavior that they switched over to the Democrats.
PBP: You never mention President Trump’s name in the book, although it’s pretty obvious you’re referring to him in some chapters. Is the book a reaction against his election?
DR: The book was not in direct reaction to Trump’s presidency. I didn’t start out to write a book and not mention his name.
I wanted the book to be broader and deeper than a diatribe against Donald Trump. I hoped it would be a book that people who voted for Trump would read. True patriotism is not partisan or ideological.
It has been suggested that I send Trump a book. I haven’t done this. I will say this very gently: He doesn’t have a reputation of being much of a reader, but there is an audio version of the book.
PBP: You take pains in the book to distinguish between patriotism and nationalism. How do you describe the difference and why does it matter?
DR: This attempt to confuse in the public’s mind nationalism with patriotism … predates Trump.
The heart and soul of true patriotism is … one loves one’s country and will literally die for the country but at the heart is that we’re proud of it but we recognize it’s not perfect. Patriotism is always striving to make “a more perfect union,” in the words of the Constitution. At the core of nationalism is a certain arrogance, saying … “we’re the best and always been the best.”
We know from history that extreme economic nationalism, in the ’20s, led to the Great Depression and a kind of tribalistic nationalism led to Nazi Germany. Nationalism is the hallmark of authoritarian governments.
If we ever descend to tribalism, we’re finished as a constitutional democracy. We’re not there yet but that’s the direction in which we’re headed. I do think that most Americans, despite their party, what they want to practice is patriotism, not nationalism.
PBP: When people feel entitled to their own facts and can find a media outlet to support almost any position and belief, some folks seem to feel journalism isn’t important. Is journalism in trouble or is this just one of those periodic episodes of press-baiting the country goes through?
DR: The state of the press is almost always in trouble in some way. It’s the nature of what we do. Journalists who need a friend better get a dog.
Journalism at its best is an integral part of our checks and balances, it knocks on doors and says, ‘What’s going on in there?’ We make our mistakes — heavens knows I’ve made my mistakes — but journalism is a kind of crude art.
My central point is that there are some political forces … that are trying to move we Americans into a post-truth political area, where truth is beside the point. Part of that is to say there is no such thing as a true fact, that there are alternative facts. In order to move us there, they have to attack and discredit the fact finders in the press.
President Trump has done something unprecedented. He said “these people (the press) are enemies of the people.” We’ve never had a president that did this. We’ve never had such an unrelenting attack on individual journalists and on journalism.
This is dangerous and here’s why: A free and independent press is the red, beating heart of democracy. If you can’t have a free press as a counterbalance to power, we won’t have the country we have.
PBP: From your long and unique perspective of reporting news for decades (“more than 60 years,” Rather interjects) should we be worried about the state of our democracy? Should we be frightened?
DR: I am worried and I am concerned but I’m not frightened. Fear isn’t in the American character. We need to hold steady; that’s a whole chapter in the book. If we emphasize those things that unite us and don’t listen to voices of those who try to exploit us, we’re going to be all right.
We’re going to be all right if we hold true to our basic values. There’s a difference between worried and concerned and throwing up your hands and saying, “there’s nothing I can do.”
I’m an optimist. I think we’ll come through this all right because most Americans love their country.
PBP: Unfettered from the anchor desk, you seem to be having fun these days, with the new book, with your News & Guts website and interviewing classic rock stars on the Big Interview. A lot of your fans are millennials. What is this discovery by a new generation like for you?
DR: This is one of the most satisfying times of my career. I’m 86, it’s hard for me to say that, to have this happen at this stage of my career, I’m prayerfully grateful for it.
I try to not to take myself seriously but I take my work seriously. I was slow to come to social media, I didn’t want to do it. but my grandchildren and children and the young people at News and Guts said, if you want to be relevant, it’s not a choice.
I started very small, but we found we had an audience. The record shows I’m not the smartest guy around, but what I have to offer is some experience and some historical perspective and some steadiness. What we try to do is to report things with context and perspective.
(During decades of political reporting, Rather is famous for coming up with countrified, sometimes slightly salty metaphors to liven up election coverage. The long list includes “His support is shakier than cafeteria Jell-O,” “Don’t taunt the alligator until you’ve crossed the creek,” “This race is about as hard to call as a deaf hog up a sassafras tree.” During the interminable 2000 Bush/Gore election when it all came down to Florida and Palm Beach County, at one point Rather quipped, “You put Florida in, you put Florida out. You put Florida in; then you shake it all about.”
PBP: Your metaphors would make Mark Twain jealous. Are they a product of being a loquacious Texan or do you find them and file them away for future use?
DR: It’s a combination of both. I grew up around people who talk this way. Texans like colorful language. I’m the son of a pipeline ditch digger, a job I did when I was 14. When you’re doing manual labor, you’re looking for diversion. There’s only so many times you can say it’s hot as hell. It becomes a bit of a game, so you say it’s hotter than a Laredo parking lot.
If you’re the anchor at election night, you’re on air for 15, 16 hours. Instead of always saying, “this is a close race.” you say, “This race is as a tight as a tick” or a candidate is “racing through Georgia like a tornado through a trailer park.”
IF YOU GO
WHEN: Saturday, April 14.
WHO: Author and journalist Dan Rather, who speaks at noon.
Other authors appearing include poet and young adult author Kwame Alexander, W. Bruce Cameron, author of “A Dog’s Purpose (made into a 2017 feature film starring Dennis Quaid); Kirstin Chen, author of O, Oprah Magazine pick “Bury What We Cannot Take;” Mira T. Lee, whose novel “Everything Here is Beautiful,” was a top Winter 2018 pick by more than 30 news outlets and Joseph Finder, best-selling author of 14 suspense novels including “Guilty Minds.”
WHERE:Palm Beach County Convention Center, 650 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach
ADMISSION: $75 for all-day pass.
FOR MORE INFO: palmbeachbookfestival.com