By Myles Ludwig
Veteran newsman Dan Rather took the stage at the Palm Beach Convention Center to a standing ovation at the Palm Beach Book Festival on April 14. He was being honored as the Festival’s book of the year awardee for his current What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism, a collection of essays about what Rather believes it means to be an American. It was co-written with Elliot Kirschner.
Looking more grim than hopeful, Rather was interviewed on stage by Leigh Haber, O Book Club curator, before an audience comprised predominantly of women who looked like Oprah book club readers. This byte-sized, pre-chewed presentation format has become a standard softball substitute for a revealing interview and/or speechifying.
At, 86, he walked slowly, shouldering a heavy burden of more than half-a-century of “coming face to face with the heartbroken.” His storied career began in 1950 but has come to its tail end with a few unfortunate asterisks.
Describing himself as a “reporter who got lucky,” the tall Texan in gray suit and red tie as befits an elder statesman of TV journalism, Rather spoke slowly in a low voice that often cracked with emotion and he sometimes seemed on the verge of tears. He said of the country: “We have a lot of problems.”
He described our current intellectual climate as “anti-science, post-truth and anti-knowledge, which is dangerous for the country.” Lauding the importance of dissent in a democracy, he made a Washingtonian distinction between true and pretend patriotism, referring to those who denoted themselves as current “conservatives” as actually “reactionaries.” He said he thought Dwight Eisenhower was an “underestimated president” and Richard Nixon, “very smart, very deep, a conflicted person.”
In a deft, not-so-subtle swipe at our current president, who seems to favor the evanescent fizzle of Fox TV news over any form of substantive, but, for him, plodding print, he noted “all leaders are readers like our Founding Fathers, who look beyond the horizon” and “it’s time to remind ourselves that the things that unite us are much stronger than those that divide us.”
During the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, he became close to the slain leader Medgar Evers whom he said had, “changed my life as a person.” Though he referred to his current book as “not a great book; it’s certainly not a perfect great book” – a comment met with a startled objection by Festival founder Lois Cahall – he said it was important to him to write about “things that mattered.”
He named his mother as an inspiration as well as his wife of 61 years, while noting nobody “lives through marriage unscathed.” He considers himself an optimist by nature and, in response, to a question from the audience, named Martin Luther King, Mother Teresa and Nelson Mandela as inspirational figures.
Rather’s career included reporting at the Kennedy assassination and conflicts in Vietnam and Afghanistan. In an interview with Saddam Hussein, the dictator pooh-poohed America’s power, confidentially predicting victory by saying, “There is no powerful and quick strike that a people could deliver, whatever their overall power. The United States depends on the Air Force. The Air Force has never decided a war in the history of wars.”
How fatally mistaken he was.
Rather shot to national prominence following an exchange at a press conference with then-President Richard M. Nixon in which he questioned whether Nixon was cooperating with a grand jury looking into Watergate, which brought him down in disgrace.
Nixon parried with,” Are you running for something?” and Rather scored with “No, sir, Mr. President. Are you?”
He closed the interview Saturday with a variation of an old Sicilian saying: “Revenge is (a dish) best served at the ballot box.”