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A Chat With Dan Rather (Part II)

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As promised, here is the second part of our wide-ranging and chatty interview with former CBS News anchorman and current HDNet investigative reporter Dan Rather. It was actually conducted earlier than part one, but we went back for follow-up on the recent headlines about Katie Couric and CBS, and, well, if it bleeds it leads! Dan's a pretty chatty guy, though, so we were able to get plenty more out of him — including why he thinks John McCain can win, why the press is no fan of Hillary Clinton, why the economy is Depression-era scary, and what his boss Mark Cuban could be doing better.

ETP: There seems to be so much going on in right now — not just the campaign, and the daily developments there, but also the economy, the housing market — let alone Spitzer! As someone who has been chronicling events in this country for decades, does it seem to you like this is an especially tumultuous time?

RATHER: It does seem that way to me. Not the least of the reasons is that this is the most interesting, I guess I would use the word exciting, presidential nominating season in my lifetime. 1968, that's when Gene McCarthy and Bobby Kennedy were challenging the Humphrey/Johnson wing of the party — that would be the only thing I can recall that would come anywhere close, and it doesn't come very close. So, that's one of the reasons, you see. But then also the country's at war, lest we forget.

Yes, indeed.

Not just in Iraq and Afghanistan, but in far-flung and not very well-noticed places such as the Philippines and Somalia. And then there is the economy which has already become for my mind the number-one issue in the campaign and I think probably will be, between now and election day — barring something catastrophic on the war front, which of course is always a possibility, or some tremendous breakthrough in the war — but the economy is front and center. And of all the headlines lately, the one that is most troubling to me — and I wouldn't be surprised if it wasn't to most people — is involving what's happening on Wall Street and the collapse of Bear Stearns which, as you know, is (or was) the number-five ranking big investment firm on the street. It's a tumultuous time, and a very deeply disturbing and concerning time. And in my lifetime, you'd have to go back to World War II and the Great Depression to find a time that was more worrisome.

Wow. It really does seem to have almost snuck up on people, this sudden shocking drop in the economy. That's my impression. Is that a fair impression?

Well, in a big continental country such as ours with a population of 300 million plus, it's very hard to generalize. But I do believe that it snuck up on most people, the depth and seriousness of it. And let me confess that in some ways it snuck up on me. That once this subprime debacle began to get clear, then, you know, the alert signs went up. But this fall of Bear Stearns shakes people's confidence from Wall Street to Main Street. But I do think that it sort of snuck up on most people. And there are no excuses. But one reason is that we were lied to and people dealt in sophistry at best and misled by big people in positions of power -- not all of them in government but some of them in government -- and some of the most respected areas of the financial world about what was going on, what was really going on as opposed to what they let us believe was going on. But, no question, I think it snuck up on people.

But the sneaking days are over. It's there on the front pages and there on the screens and on the radios for everyone to see and hear now. But I'm an optimist by both nature and experience, and I think that country will get through this, but I think it's just going to be painful. I don't think we've seen the worst of it. Sometimes I'm not very good at predictions, but it seems clear to me that, for example, with what's happening with home foreclosures and the pressure on the housing market, my guess is that we're only about halfway through this. And on a national basis, nationally, housing is off by about twelve and a half percent. And I figure it will go to twenty-five percent, so I figure we're about halfway through that. I don't think we've seen the last domino tumble on Wall Street. And, certainly for the next few months and perhaps longer than that, it's going to be painful for an awful lot of people.

You mentioned people in positions of power not being forthright, or lying outright. There are so many echoes in that elsewhere, especially with respect to the Iraq war, obviously. Do you see this as a pattern of how this administration has operated?

The short answer is yes. It isn't just this administration. But since they have the executive power of government, I think they have a lot to answer for. They've had the legislating power in Washington for a little while. But it isn't just this administration. You know, mark well that I say in some cases we've been lied to and in other cases dealt in sophistry that was misleading. But there are people in Congress on the other side of the aisle who either didn't know what they should have known and/or didn't fully express what they knew, and to that matter, give heed to an opinion as clearly as they might. But having said all that, what I constantly remind myself of — and I try to think about the war everyday — number one is how much the people, in many cases diplomats and others, are giving to try to carry out the mission in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere as best they can.

The other thing about the war is that whatever and however one thinks about how we got into it, whether we should have gotten into it, the hard fact is we're there. And what the military calls an exit strategy is still not clear, if indeed it exists. So it's version of, look, it is what it is, we are there, we're in this and putting our blood and other treasure constantly into it. And what and how do we deal with the situation as it is. And whomever wins the presidency, the next president is obviously going to face some very large and — for the country — extremely painful decisions about the war, about the economy and a number of other things. But on the war, I just try to keep myself focused on it's — there's little to be gained by arguing how we got into it, why we got into it, should we have gotten into it. It's always more of a concern from a historical standpoint: what we could learn from it. But the biggest question is, what do we do now? Where do we go from here?

With that in mind, do you think McCain's close alignment with the Bush administration on the war will ultimately or hinder him in his quest for the White House? And do you think that it should?

Well, you asked me what I think and I don't mind telling you what I think but you've got to completely italicize: This is my opinion.

Absolutely.

That while I do think the economy has become the number-one issue and probably will remain the number-one issue through the number of elections, barring some unforeseen great change in the overall war situation. That the war is there in people's minds and it will be a factor in another election. So having said that, the economy is in the fore but I wanted to raise the issue - whether it should or not, the war will be a factor. And since Senator McCain is not only been in Congress for a very long time, he is also a war veteran, a war commander - he really commanded. He, at least once, commanded a fairly large squadron. It's hard to see how it's going to play out. But I'm not one who believes that necessarily McCain will be at a disadvantage when discussing the war. Have in mind that in the 2004 election, the dominant issue that had Republicans and President Bush prevailing was, 'Whom do you believe is best to protect you?' And I would be very surprised if Senator McCain doesn't run a part of his party's campaign of that general theme once again.

You certainly can argue that being so closely associated with the Bush administration, and indeed being a part of the same party as the administration and being a supporter of going into Iraq — all of that — will be taken into great consideration. And also, it will be a consideration that McCain's argument that — "Yes, I was for the war, I was for going in but that I did speak out at a very early time there weren't enough troops there," "I did support the surge even before the surge came into being," that whole line, I think he can be effective with that and I recognize that may be sailing against the wind in terms of present punditry but number one, I think McCain can win. That's not to say I think he will win, but I think he can win.

I don't suppose you would say whether you think he should win?

No. It's not my place to say that.

You can't blame me for trying.

But that his support of the war I know is seen by people who feel strongly about what is happening with the war — and who doesn't feel strongly about it? — that there is a large segment of the voting population that sees McCain's support of the administration and support of the war as a total minus. That there is at least as large a segment of the country that sees him as a war hero in Vietnam War, and if not a hero, certainly someone who sacrificed mightily for five and a half years in a North Vietnamese prison camp. They see the fact that he has extensive military experience. He graduated from naval academy and going on to being a base fighter pilot which is an extremely difficult accomplishment.

When we talk about the people who are going to swing the election one way or the other — that is, independents and/or swing voters, so to speak: two different groups - some people are genuinely independent, others tend to vote for one party or another but can be swung over — I'm not convinced that they will hold McCain's support of the war against him. Indeed, they may see it as a plus and going forward — before us we do have a real and present danger, in the form of radical violent Islamic militants, that a factor going in to their making up their minds, will again be, "Well as we going forward who is best qualified to lead the country as we continue to challenge this threat?" Again, I just hear a lot of people saying "Look, it's a democratic era, particularly with the economy going the way it's going, it's a good cinch, that the Democrats - whoever they nominate - are going to win in November." I do not subscribe to that. I think McCain is a strong candidate and I think he can win.

Do you think that part of that lies in the fact that he is often portrayed so rosily in the press? You know, you sort of described his military record. Most people - when he's being spoken of everybody does make a point when they are criticizing him, before doing so, makes the point of saying, "but he's a war hero." Do you think that even the act of disclaiming like that sort of creates a predisposition towards gentleness with him on the part of the press? Rachel Maddow on MSNBC called it a "romantic notion" of McCain. So do you think that he's getting an advantage from that?

Well, what a good question. And the straight answer is: they don't think so but probably. He has a lot of things going for him with the press not the least of all is that he has a long record of being accessible to the press, of being friendly with the press — challenging, criticizing when he thinks it's called for to his advantage, but he has developed a lot of good contacts in the press and he's done it the old fashioned way: he meets with reporters, he travels with reporters, he's accessible when he travels with reporters and that does make a difference one way, and I will argue that is shouldn't make a difference, but it does make a difference. Do I think that there is in some ways a romanticized view of him? The answer is, yes. But who would argue that there isn't some of the same thing in a different context with Barack Obama?

I would agree, absolutely.

So it's hard to criticize McCain for - if it's only (I don't happen to think it is only) but if it is only because he sees good relations with the press in general and to reporters and various reporting organizations as to his advantage, that who can blame him, if that's all it is? But I don't think that's all it is. I think he genuinely likes the reporters. Not every reporter but he genuinely likes reporters. I think he understands the role of the press in a free society and that comes through — and yes, because I am a journalist, I may particularly like that — but that's not a bad characteristic to have as a president. But yes, I think it works to his advantage — but frankly the coverage of the campaign started so early and has been so long — heaven knows it's been long — and then so intense that none of three candidates still standing has any place to hide and whatever McCain's flaws, real or imagined or made up, are going to come to the fore whether one subscribes to his view that the press in some ways has a romanticized view of him or not. And that's true of the other two as well.

I'm going to flip that because I like the way you expressed that: "None of the candidates has a place to hide." I think that there is a fairly good argument to be made that Barack Obama has lately come under a level of scrutiny that he had not been subject to before, and you sort of seen that, really come into sharp relief with the "bitter" Penn comments and certainly in the Jeremiah Wright incident. As someone who has been watching these campaigns for so long, I'm interested in your perception of how the press has treated Obama and how you think the press has grappled with the issue of race in the campaign.

Well, first of all, the coverage of Obama has toughened up in recent times. I would say beginning just before Texas, Ohio, and picking up since then. It was inevitable that this would happen. And even if he had closed the deal, even if he had sealed the nomination well before then, with this election turning out the way it has, sooner or later the coverage would dig deeper and turn up things that need to be questioned, such as, his relationship with the pastor, his relationship with Tony Rezko — those kinds of things. It was inevitable that they were going to come up. As for race, again, it was inevitable that we've reached the place that we are now and going forward, race is going to be discussed more in the campaign, it's going to be more evident in the coverage of campaigns, however they develop because questions concerning race — how we as a nation, a people, a society deal with race — are deeply a part of who we are and what we are. And when you have someone of African-American heritage running to get the nomination — I'm not saying he is going to get the nomination — but right now, it is showing in his direction — this is all inevitable. I've used the word about fifteen times!

I remember hearing it a few months ago in relation to Senator Clinton. I'm interested in your perception of her press coverage. I am one of the people who do think that the press tends to apply a different standard to her.

Oh, I would agree with that assessment overall, which is, that the press coverage with her was more questioning and tougher on her for a while — I would say, for a long while — than it was on Obama. But, you know, when you have a race as long and winding as this one, things do tend to even out. That doesn't mean they get absolutely even, but they tend to even out and balance out. And we're in seeing it unfold in press coverage now. Yes, the coverage on Hillary Clinton was tougher than it was on Obama. Among the reasons, Obama was somewhat, something, someone new, fresh...less known about him. And also, lets face the fact that Hillary Clinton has been a high profile in American politics for a long time and already had accumulated a long list of opponents, if not enemies. That old saying - that cliché that as you go along your friends fall away and your enemies accumulate. It stands true in politics and it was true for Hillary Clinton. The coverage was tougher on her in the beginning for a long time, but now we are seeing a leveling out of that. And whether Obama or Clinton wins the nomination, I think you'll see that in some of the campaign coverage, when it's one-on-one as you will, as we go into the fall.

But on race — let's back off on what we call in television a "wide shot." Our beloved United States of America is a whole new thing in history. We're still a young country, and one of the things that has made us a completely new thing in history is both the idea and the ideal that we can develop a country, a huge continental country, that is multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-racial, and hold it together in unity behind a constitutional republic based on the principles of human democracy. And the reason why race is so important to discuss — it's going to be an important factor in the campaign, it's an important factor of American life — is because we're still trying to perfect this experiment, while recognizing we can never bring it to perfection. We're still engaged in that experiment. And lo and behold, against all odds, against what everyone else in the world said was impossible, here we are well past 200 years old and we're still alive and thriving and trying to move forward. So it's in that overall context that you see good things written and said and debated about race in this political campaign.

I've heard that a lot of people in the press have learned to dislike Hillary Clinton because of their dealings with her, not just with this campaign — which has had its own problems — but over the years. Has that been your observation?

Well, first of all, yes I do think at least to a certain extent that it applies. Is it fair? I don't know but it's life. And I would be careful here because there are differences from individual to individual. For example, we talked about McCain. McCain for as long as I've known him — and I've known him for a very long time, 28 - probably 30 years, maybe more than that if we included the time he was in Congress — but nonetheless, for long periods of time, Senator Clinton was not as accessible as would be ideal for press people. Like when we had layer upon layer of public relations, publicity, aids between the press and her, very difficult to get direct contact, but I'm talking about the press in general. And over a long period of time with people who cover politics year in and year out, this caused some frustration. Do I think this was a factor in how her press coverage developed this year? The answer is yes.

Now, I may be about to get myself in trouble — rare as that is for me —

Go right ahead, I'm taping!

[Laughs] — but, Senator Clinton in person is a very personable candidate. She's very personable, period. She's a good listener, she looks at you in the eye when she listens, that she has a sense of humor. And as, I would say after Iowa, when they began to change the campaign's — her campaign's handling of the press, I think more of that has come through. I'm not a close friend of hers, I'm not intimate with her in person in any way, but it's just simply true and we see it when you put her one-on-one with people and in small groups of people or, for that matter, large groups of people where there is nothing between her and the populace, the voters and/or the press — she's very effective.

But, now we talked about the people who have been covering politics for a long time. The problem for her was, and to some extent, continues to be, that over the years having gone through these periods, sometimes very long periods, when she was not very accessible...reporters remember. And particularly with reporters who have been covering her for a long time, you know, slights - even what might be considered insults - those things accumulate and they do build. Now, when a fresh opponent comes on, a fresh candidate comes on such as Obama, and let me say, I don't know a lot about Obama's press operations - I have not covered him to any great extent, but you know he hasn't been as accessible as would be ideal for reporters, to say the least.

Right. I've seen those reports.

Now we're back to seeing this as a scientist would, looking at something with a glass, that advantage McCain, because McCain has a long history - if you want to talk to McCain, you can talk to McCain. And, you know, if you need to see McCain you can see McCain. He doesn't have Senator Clinton's history. And she and no supporter would argue that, "look, she was first lady," and I agree with that. But McCain's accessibility, friendliness towards the press, willing to joke with the press, willing to have a beer with reporters in small or large groups or one-on-one — it builds up capital between the press and McCain, the kind of capital Senator Clinton has not had.

I wanted to ask you about something you said earlier, about your friends falling away and your enemies accumulating, because I think I've read you quoted as having said that before, I think in that New York magazine piece - am I right to say that?

I don't know but I wouldn't doubt it. You know, it's a cliché because it's been used all my life and well before then and I'm not sure who even originally said it. But we were talking about politics and I do think it particularly applies in politics.

I think we were talking about it in terms of Hillary Clinton. But it made me think of that New York piece, and your lawsuit against CBS, and about that "48 Hours" anniversary party you weren't invited to attend, and that was sort of something you had been invested in and had friends there. So, are those the times when you question, when you are confronted with the emotional aspect of this — when you are confronted by the people you worked with at CBS and the memories that you had there — and forgive me if I'm overstepping in asking this, but...
There are no bad questions, there are only bad answers. And that's something I specialize in: bad answers.

Oh, I don't think so.

Well, number one, I have many, many friends at CBS. How could I work there for 44 years, and not have friends there? I have a lot of friends there. I'm in touch with many of my friends but because I work a lot, I'm not in touch as much as I'd like to be. But they know who they are, and I know who they are, and the relationships there are solid. I don't go around even thinking about it. They know they can count on me and I know I can count on them. And that's number one. Number two: Obviously - I think it's obvious - I have many fond memories of my time at CBS and I realize how lucky and blessed I was to work there, to use those over-used words, but I think they are apt. That, you know, I was a believer - a true believer - in the CBS ideal. But, I'm so engaged with what I am doing now - I am 24/7 into this challenge and opportunity and responsibility I have at HDNet that I don't walk around thinking about these things that I've just described to you. I don't walk around thinking that. I know who my friends are, and I know where they are and I know I can count on them and they know they can count on me, so I don't have to process that every day. But I am focused on what I have to do almost all of my time - other than family time and the time I have to spend with the lawsuit - which is surprisingly little - yes, surprisingly little - which isn't to say, that it doesn't require time. I travel a lot now. I am passionate about what I am doing now...I'm happy. I'm happy partly because I'm working a lot, working hard - which I love to do - and, that I feel that in our best weeks, we're really doing good journalism. And just, that excites me. And that's the way my life goes.

That sounds pretty good.

Well, it is pretty good. And — as I'm fond of saying — I can be dumb as concrete about a lot of things, but I'm at least smart enough to know how to look at things. For me, at this age and stage of my life and career, to have this opportunity &mdash this challenge and yes, this responsibility of doing this weekly news program, for HDNet...I may be dumb about a lot of things, but I'm at least smart enough to know how lucky I am to be doing this.

Well, talking about being dumb about things, I wanted to tell you to tell HDNet to put your stuff online faster! When you were on "The View" talking about the FEMA trailer report that you did, I went to the website to look for it so I could link it to my post, and it wasn't up yet. So...hopefully...

Well, this is an area that concerns me. I do spend time thinking about that and trying to improve it. And just let me say I'm very sorry that happened because the ongoing FEMA investigation which, we broke a lot of that story at the very beginning and then stayed on it - and we continue to work on it, and I want us to have the widest distribution we can have, and we can't have as wide a distribution as is our potential until/unless we get a better presence on the web. And we don't have that right now and we should have it.

And embeddable video. That's the way it goes. Send me your embeddable clips!

Tell Mark Cuban!

I will!

But don't tell him I told you to call. He'll shoot me! [Laughs.]

We'll both make sure he gets a copy of this! I actually did want to mention that because this is about distribution and getting the message out there — we're not living in a three-channel universe anymore...

Absolutely.

We are living in a click-on-this universe. I guess to that end, quickly - what's your news consumption like? Where do you tend to get your news... and do you watch any of the newscasts - the three newscasts? You know which three.

Well, as for what I do generally: I read newspapers. I read newspapers constantly. And part of my morning routine - insofar as I have one - because I travel a lot and the routine changes - but, I guess in that way, I am old fashioned -- but I like to read newspaper and I read every newspaper I get my hands on. And I do have a sequence of newspapers that I read in the morning. But that also includes going to their online sites. It's not unusual at night, beginning 9 - 9:30pm New York time and working on 11:30pm -12:00am at least - going on and sort of getting, what I would call a preview of what's in the morning papers and sometimes more than a preview. But I read newspapers. I listen to radio. I love radio. I watch television news but increasingly, I watch short periods when I can - in an airport I'll watch, in a hotel room -- I think it's fair to say I am all over the line but I try really hard to stay up with at least the headlines and when I read the papers in the morning I tend to read them pretty thoroughly - at least, to be honest - at least the first section of the paper and the sports page. My wife thinks I spend too much time reading the sports pages and she's probably right, but nonetheless I do.

As for the three evening newscasts, the pattern of my day is that I don't get to see them very often. I have - I do see them time to time - I tend to see them for the first block, maybe the second block - which is to say, maybe for the first seven to eight minutes - sometimes I watch them all the way through. But number one, I don't see them that often in any form. And number two: front to back, beginning to end, I don't watch any of them very often.

I guess, probably when you said there was no bad questions, maybe me asking whether you have a favorite amongst the three may be pushing it?

That would be pushing it.

I figured. But I thought I would ask. Alright, I have one last question to ask you and this actually comes from a friend of mine who got very excited when I told them I was interviewing you and he said, "Can you ask him what his favorite cartoon impression of himself is: is it The Simpsons or The Family Guy?" So I want to settle that age-old debate.

[Laughter]. Oh. Close call but - The Simpsons.

All right, well, I'll link to the clips so readers/viewers can judge for themselves.

[More laughter.] Okay! Thanks Rachel, I'm glad I talked to you — stay in touch.

Likewise! Thanks so much.

Family Guy here,Simpsons here. Many thanks to Dipayan Gupta and Alana Samson for the transcription assistance.