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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Rather Outspoken’

- - Friday, July 6, 2012

RATHER OUTSPOKEN: MY LIFE IN THE NEWS
By Dan Rather
Grand Central Publishing, $27.99 320 pages

Dan Rather has been covering the news for six decades. Forty-four of those yearsfor CBS. He has weathered hurricanes, the Kennedy assassinations, Vietnam, the civil rights movement, Watergate, Sept. 11 and, most important, his own firing from the "Tiffany Network" in 2006.

He can't wait to tell us all about it - his accomplishments, betrayals and angst - in his folksy, sometimes whiney new memoir,"Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News."

Like its snappish, 80-year-old author, the book is blunt and obsessive, and it reveals a juicy snapshot of the back-biting and double-crossing world of TV journalism.

He saves his special rancor for his former bosses at CBS, whom he calls out and lambastes for their deceit, cowardice and lack of moral and professional integrity for what he perceives as their fixation on the bottom line over basic journalistic principals.

His basic gripe? His spineless superiors kowtowed to outside pressure and kicked him out.

After that, he zeroes in on some of his colleagues: "[A]fter pretending to be friends for all those years, they stealthily snuck around giving anonymous newspaper quotes and otherwise scheming to put the dirk in deep when I was down and hurting," he writes.

He accuses his successor, Katie Couric, of dumbing down the news and dismisses her as "news lite."

Achtung: Do not underestimate the rage of a Rather scorned.

Like Zelig, the Emmy Award-winning journalist has popped up everywhere. For the last half-century, he has reported from most of the hot spots around the globe and much of his reportage makes fora compelling read.

His observations about all the presidents from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Barack Obama give the reader an interesting insider's take on the various heads of state.

No surprise here: His least favorites were Richard M. Nixon, who called him "bastard," and George W. Bush, whose Texas National Guard record he questioned on "60 Minutes II," which led to Mr. Rather's downfall and dismissal.

Enraged by his sacking, he went to court demanding $70 million in damages. He lost the suit, created more sturm und drangand reduced his bank account by many millions.

"It was never about the money," he writes. It was to restore his sense of honor and pride.

Dan Rather was born in a small Texas town and, bedridden with rheumatic fever, he grew up listening to the "Murrow Boys" on the radio and aspired to follow in their footsteps.

He began at a local radio station and cut his teeth on live TV battling the winds of Hurricane Carla that swept through the state in 1961.

This performance plus ferocious ambition and determination led to a correspondent's job at CBS News in Manhattan, N.Y. After years of high-profile interviews and investigations, often from far-flung and dangerous locations, he finally landed the prestigious anchor slot in 1981. He stayed for 24 years.

The main theme of this book is nostalgia tinged with bitterness - a yearning for the good old days when big-name journalists employed old-fashioned shoe leather to ferret out scoops, a time when there was no intrusive Internet or mob of savage bloggers.

Some of his recollections are especially intriguing, including:

His "Gunga Dan" phase when, swathed in local garb, he sneaked into Afghanistan early during the Soviet invasion and reported on the fury and resolve of the Mujahedeen.

His coverage of the civil rights movement, when his video was sabotaged, his life threatened and outrage, epithets and boycotts from affiliates and viewers became part of everyday life.

His frontline reporting from Vietnam where, slogging through the jungle with the grunts, he laid out a "how to" in his essential guide to covering combat. His tips:

1. Dress the part. There is no faster way to lose credibility with a combat unit than to appear in loafers.

2. Make sure you are self-sufficient. Don't be a burden.

2a. Make sure you are obviously self-sufficient.

3. Find the captains and the sergeants. "When you really want to know what is going on, straight/no chaser, your best bet is to talk to the captain of the forward-most combat unit and his most experienced sergeant."

Still a workaholic and insatiably curious, the stubborn octogenarian now heads a news show 42 weeks a year on HDNet, a cable channel available to more 30 million households. It is a fraction of his former audience, but for Mr. Rather the program was, and is, a lifesaver.

More revelations:

In crisis mode after being canned by CBS, he became an outcast, floundering about, searching for a new identity, depending on the proverbial "kindness of strangers." One of them was George Clooney, whom he had profiled for "Sixty Minutes II." It was Mr. Clooney who invited him to an award ceremony and introduced him to entrepreneur Mark Cuban, who became his new boss and offered him the best advice he ever received. During the gala, Mr. Clooney turned to Mr. Rather and murmured sotto voce, "So you got screwed. Happens all the time in my business. Forget it!"

If only he could or would.

• Sandra McElwaine is a Washington correspondent for Newsweek Daily Beast.