09/24/2007 01:33 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Rather Unbound

If I were to underline one thing about Dan Rather's $70 million suit against CBS, it's the theatricality of it, which is also the key to understanding Rather himself.

Almost all anchormen come in the "cool" style. Theirs is an art of control, which suited the corporation because if you wanted control of television you had be controlled on television. Not Rather. On the air he was emotional, volatile, melodramatic. In delivering the news he was never far from a meltdown or misty-eyed moment. This was always odd for network television, and it ended in disaster for CBS.

He also had strange conceits about himself. The most important of these was that Dan Rather, face of the brand, living on Park Avenue and making $6 million a year, was not in fact a man with a glamor position in the media hierarchy, but a hard news, investigative reporter making that extra call to nail down a key fact after everyone else has gone home to watch the game.

Somehow--it was never explained how such a screwy thing happened--he had wound up doing this anchorman job, reading the news every night to the nation, guiding Americans through wars, elections and disasters, forming an intuitive bond with the audience, and representing the people of CBS News as their presenter and champion.

But it wasn't the real him! He kind of regretted that his loyalty to CBS ran so deep that he had to be the public face of its news division and follow in the tradition of Murrow and Cronkite, for it took him away from who he really was and what he really did for a living. The real him was simple: "Dan Rather, reporting." Not a prince of news, or the anchoring intelligence for the big broadcast, not a corporate figure or boss type at all, but a hustling correspondent out in the field who will drop everything for a story and always make the extra call.

* * *

All images of purity that have moral power in American journalism come down to the driven reporter who will not give up until the news comes out. Rather certainly knows this. Last Thursday on Larry King Live (I watched) he was saying, "I have 57 years as an American journalist and I invite anybody to check my record as to whether I'm a reporter or just a 'talking head.'" As Howard Kurtz wrote the next day: "He's not giving up. He feels he has been wronged. He wants to prove it."

The world may call it a lawsuit (and here's the court filing as a pdf file.) In his mind, he's got a "team of people" on the story, subpoena power, and no one can tell him when to pack it in because he's funding the project himself. With nothing to lose, he is free to re-report the Killian Memos story, starting with the mystery man he mentioned on CNN, a shadowy private investigator hired by CBS who may have come into an inconvenient truth:

They had tens of millions of dollars and a lot of time and they said we didn't even investigate whether the documents were true or not. Now, we now know that an investigator was hired by CBS -- what I call a mystery man -- who wasn't even mentioned in the report, had looked into it.

He's intending to do this over, not only Rathergate but the real story of Bush in the Air National Guard. It's not about about one man's legacy, or the money, he said Thursday night. It's about reporters who won't cave in to big government and big corporations. Despite all the obstacles they find--"Larry, sometimes within their own company"--they deliver the truth because our democracy depends on it.

That notion needs a hero. As he told King "Somebody sometime has got to take a stand and say democracy cannot survive, much less thrive, with the level of big corporate and big government interference and intimidation in news." Rather is not thinking about how to win a lawsuit; he wants to break a big story: not only collusion between Viacom and the Bush Administration during the crisis in 2004, but the reason for the collusion: his original story was sound, the documents genuine, the charges true!

* * *

I'm with those who think he is crazy. When your own document examiners won"t back you up, and your story is about the documents, you have no story. Mary Mapes, Rather's collaborator back then, refuses to recognize that the experts she had relied upon fled the scene. In her commentary on the lawsuit for the Huffington Post, she writes as if none of that had ever happened. Her post is delusional, scary. And I think it's deeply sad that so many Huff Post readers were cheering her on in the comments.

Language Log's Geoff Pullum speaks for me:

Grow up, people. You humiliated yourselves on national TV by accepting documents that could be spotted as forgeries as soon as they were released in facsimile. You were had. You were patsies, you were careless, and you caused enormous damage to the reputation of CBS. You ruined the case for GWB's military irresponsibility and mendacity... You messed up. Deal with it.

As Dan Gillmor says: "The journalistic standard, not just when making a major claim against a sitting president in the middle of a campaign but for all reports that can damage people's reputations, is not whether the other side can prove the documents are fake. It's whether the journalist can persuasively show that they are authentic. CBS failed, miserably, in its duty."

Rather on Larry King proved that he does not grasp Gillmor's point. "Nobody to this day has shown that these documents were fraudulent," he said. "Nobody has proved that they were fraudulent, much less a forgery, which they're often described that way. The facts of the story, the truth of the story stands up to this day."

Please understand: I have no doubt that George W. Bush benefited from favoritism during his service in the National Guard. Those who think that story should have been brought before the American people should be angry at Dan Rather and Mary Mapes for blowing it, big-time.

But theatrically--and in no other way--this suit makes sense for Rather. It puts him back on the big stage as "Dan Rather, reporting." I think he's already written the key scene, where a major wrong is put spectacularly right.

KING: When you have a lawsuit like this, there are major -- there's depositions. A lot comes out.

RATHER: Right.

KING: They've got the chance to question you.

Is there anything...

RATHER: I welcome it.

KING: You're not worried about anything?

RATHER: Well, you know, I'm not going to sit here and tell you I'm not worried about anything. But I'm the person who stepped forward and said, OK, I'm ready to go under oath.

KING: Yes, you did.

RATHER: I'm ready to be deposed.

The question is, are they?

Theatricality: without it you cannot hope to understand Dan Rather.