Dan Rather began his career in the ‘50s as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle, the Associated Press, and for several Texas radio stations, before moving on to TV stations in Houston. Generations have watched him cover major world events as a news anchor with CBS Evening News. From there, he moved on to one of our favorite programs at PopMatters, 60 Minutes, until a little matter about George W. Bush stuck in his craw. (But then, what about George W. Bush doesn’t stick in anyone’s craw?)
Anyway. Dan left 60 Minutes on a matter of principle, and parachuted gracefully into his latest program, Dan Rather Reports on AXS-TV in 2006 (see video, below). Most recently, the pre-eminent journalist has made time to pen his memoir, Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News (Hachette, May 2012), one book on the shelf of many written by this seemingly tireless man.
Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News
(Hachette; US: May 2012)
What We Saw: The Events of September 11, 2001, in Words, Pictures, and Video
CBS News, Dan Rather
(Simon & Schuster; US: Aug 2011)
The American Dream: Stories from the Heart of Our Nation
(HarperCollins; US: May 2002)
Deadlines and Datelines: Essays for a New Century
(HarperCollins; US: May 2000)
And finally, after more than 60 (!) years in journalism, for which he gathered numerous Emmy and Peabody awards and great respect from his viewing pubic, Dan has reached the apex of his career: he is now with us at PopMatters. “Turn the lights down, the party just got wilder,” says Dan. Well, actually, he said that in an entirely different context—something to do with Election Night 2000—but that’s the spirit in which he tackles PopMatters 20 Questions.
All kidding aside, we’re quite pleased to have this buttermilk-swiggin’, tobacco juice spittin’, Jimmie Rodgers-style yodeling, prolific, compassionate and accomplished news reporting man with us at PopMatters.
PopMatters 20 Questions
1. The latest book or movie that made you cry?
It’s been a long time since any movie made me cry. I think it was A Wonderful Life, when I was watching it around Christmas time, maybe 40 years ago or so.
Books? I can’t remember one ever actually bringing me to tears since the time I read Old Yeller, when I was pretty young. A number of books have made me want to weep, however. A current example: Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan. When he describes how many young U.S. Marines lost their legs in a short amount of time in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, I have to fight back the tears.
For reasons I have never fully understood, any time I try to sing the old Jimmie Rodgers classic “Waiting for a Train” my eyes go watery. It may have something to do with memories of my early youth in Texas. In the time and place of my childhood, before airlines came to prominence, trains were big in the culture—and so was the Great Depression of the 1930s. Somewhere deep are embedded memories of seeing out of work men hop freight trains, of seeing one of my uncles wielding a sledge to drive spikes while laying rails and, much later, the days and nights spent with my wife Jean in the little railroad town of Smithville, Texas. “All around the water tank, waiting for a train…” are the opening lines of the song.
For different, and I think more obvious, reasons I’ve been known to well up while singing “America the Beautiful”, “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” or “The Star Spangled Banner”.
2. The fictional character most like you?
Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn, because no matter how old I get or how many miles I travel, I know that inside this man there’s always the boy I was—curious, adventurous, playful; an optimistic, happy spirit… especially when in the outdoors… sometimes mischievous, a dreamer of big dreams (no matter the likelihood of their ever being achieved.)
In very recent times: the anchorman character Will McAvoy, played by Jeff Daniels in the new HBO series The Newsroom. The series is about the battle for the soul of a big network television anchorman, the soul of his newscast and, indeed, the soul of news in general. The character was not modeled after me (I don’t think… well, maybe a little, in some ways) but man, do I identify with his challenges. Been there, done that. Lived it for a lot of years.
3. The greatest album ever?
Hard to pick one. Any album of Mozart’s music is a strong contender. He was the greatest composer ever, in my opinion. As the late author Walker Percy had one of the characters in The Last Gentleman say of Mozart, “300 years and still the best.” The clarity of Mozart’s work and the volume of sustained masterful accomplishment is what puts him in a class by himself. Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger album is a big favorite, too. Ditto any album by the U.S. Marine Band containing the best of John Phillip Sousa.
4. Star Trek or Star Wars?
Star Wars. Call me sophomoric if you like, but it’s inspiring to me as few movies have been. I love its message.
5. Your ideal brain food?
The ancient Greek classics, especially Homer but also Thucydides, Herodotus and others. Wisdom for the ages and super all-around brain food.
6. You’re proud of this accomplishment, but why?
Being the husband of Jeannie Grace Goebel Rather, the father of our children and grandfather of our grandchildren. Because in the end, they and what they have helped to make of me and make of themselves has mattered the most.
Professionally, I’m most proud of having been able to be a working reporter for most of my adult life and thus been able to do something that—in at least some small way—mattered, that was (again in perhaps a small way) important, a contribution.
7. You want to be remembered for…?
Personally: For my family (see above).
Professionally: For being a hard-working, caring reporter. I can’t just pick one particular story. Covering 9/11 is on any list.
8. Of those who’ve come before, the most inspirational are?
Besides Biblical figures my late father and mother, Edward R. Murrow, Washington, Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr… a long line of talented and caring school teachers, from elementary school through college.
9. The creative masterpiece you wish bore your signature?
You mean besides Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel? And Mozart’s “Requiem”? Would I like to have written Hamlet, or Don Quixote? You bet. But, hell, I’d settle for Edward R. Murrow’s masterpiece “D-Dog” radio report or any one of his best documentaries… maybe See It Now‘s “A Report on Senator Joseph McCarthy” or CBS Report‘s “Harvest of Shame”.
10. Your hidden talents…?
Well, let’s see… I can do a fair country-music style yodel in the Jimmie Rodgers (“The Singing Brakeman”) mode, provided you can pop the cap on enough “longnecks” to get me started. And I can, on my better days, plaster a mosquito to the wall with a splatter of tobacco juice from up to four or five feet. (Sorry. I grew up working in oil pipeline crews where everybody had to chew; it wasn’t optional.)
11. The best piece of advice you actually followed?
From my mother: “About yesterday, no tears; about tomorrow no fears.”
From my father: “Get to work early, stay late, and work hard and smart in between.”
The first is so useful because it saves one from worrying too much. The second because this little creed has helped to keep me employed so many times in so many places under so many different circumstances.
12. The best thing you ever bought, stole, or borrowed?
Besides buying my first Bible, the best thing I ever bought was our first house little more than a year after Jean and I were first married (and with our first child due). It was a little two-bedroom frame house with a yard in the Oak Forrest section of Houston. It cost $6,200, total price, on a 25 year loan with $500 down (with help from the Veteran’s government loan assistance.)
13. You feel best in Armani or Levis or…?
Levis. Wranglers will also do. If they are anything else, they aren’t really jeans.
I do like the way Armani cuts his suits. I do my best to wear American, but I confess, I have had a cashmere Armani basic blue sport coat for about 12 years and it looks as good today as the day it was bought. Well, it may be getting just a mite tatty around the edges now, but while it remains my “go-to” sportcoat. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mrs. Rather quietly sends it to Goodwill Industries soon.
14. Your dinner guest at the Ritz would be?
Either one of the Clintons or John McCain. All three are great conversationalists, smart and have hardy senses of humor. Plus, I love covering politics and this being a Presidential election year, I’d sure like to pick their brains. What they don’t know about politics probably is not worth knowing. And of course, all three know plenty about international and economic affairs.
15. Time travel: where, when and why?
Sometime in the future to Mars and beyond. My interest in the cosmos knows no bounds. Besides, I love adventure—always have a hankering to go to far away places—and to Mars, and if possible beyond, would be the ultimate.
I’d also like to go to Heaven, but there are probably strong odds against that.
16. Stress management: hit man, spa vacation or Prozac?
Spa vacation. I’ve never taken one, but I want to. Been close a few times but some story always interfered with plans. The wife tells me a spa vacation is wonderful, whether one is interested in using it for stress management or not.
Frankly, I don’t spend much time worrying about “stress management”. May be that I’m just too dumb to do that. It’s well known that about such subjects I can be dumb as a carrot.
17. Essential to life: coffee, vodka, cigarettes, chocolate, or…?
Cold buttermilk. I’ve been crazy for milk ever since being on mama’s breast. I may have consumed more milk of every known description than any other living person.
For many years between ages 18 to approximately 60, it was not unusual for me to consume three-quarters or a gallon of milk a day. Most of it cold regular milk (whole, two or one percent or skim… didn’t matter much.) I now try to limit myself to a pint a day, skim or one percent. Often don’t succeed. Is there a “milk drinkers anonymous”? If so, must admit I’m still a candidate.
I do believe milk is the closest to a perfect food that we have. I know, I know: some (many?) nutritionists say it isn’t so. But I believe it.
Buttermilk is increasingly hard to find. But what fine wine is to some folks, what good scotch is to others, buttermilk is to me. Hmm, boy! (You may want to note, for whatever if anything it may be worth that some of the best gun-fighters of all time had no hesitancy about walking into a saloon and asking the bartender for a glass of buttermilk. ‘Tis said they believed it kept their draw hand steady.) I seem to recall that Cormac McCarthy, in one of his Texas badlands novels, had a weathered old cowpuncher (one handy with a “hog leg” pistol,) when asked by a homemaker what he’d like to drink answered, “Well, if you don’t mind, ‘mam, I’ll just take a cold glass of buttermilk”—or something like that.
If I can’t have milk—buttermilk or otherwise—a glass of “sun tea” will be okay. Sun tea is tea that’s been properly prepared from leaves, then put in a big fruit jar and left in the sun (on a porch or otherwise) for an hour or more. It tastes like no other tea you’ve had before. It’s a favorite of my maternal Grandmother Page in Bloomington, Texas.
18. Environ of choice: city or country, and where on the map?
Country. Anyplace in Texas that’s remote, has a lot of trees and has a river or stream running through it. Alternately, the upper reaches of New York’s Beaverkill River.
19. What do you want to say to the leader of your country?
Be honest, be faithful and true to the Constitution and to the core values of our country and our people—and to the idealism of our country’s founders.
20. Last but certainly not least, what are you working on now?
I’m working as hard as I can, as much as I can, to develop deep-digging investigative reports. That and meaningful, important international stories. My passion is reporting the news, trying my best to make high quality news of integrity—and to do it while playing no favorites, pulling no punches.
Most of my efforts now are done for AXS-TV (formerly HDNet), a cable and satellite channel owned by (among others now) Mark Cuban. He has given me complete, total, absolute editorial and creative control to do what I want to do, the way I want to do it. This is unusual if, indeed, not unique for an owner in modern journalism. I love this, treasure it, and have a high sense of responsibility to the trust he has placed in us—our small but dedicated team. He and we view our efforts primarily as a public service, in the public interest. In that sense, ours is a public trust and we try hard to be worthy of that trust.