Late last August during the opening night of the Republican National Convention, B&C Business Editor John Higgins and I had trundled in the upper reaches of the Madison Square Garden where the major news operations were trying to squeeze some NEWS out of a brilliantly choreographed infomercial. And there was Dan Rather, suit jacket off, red-white-and-blue suspenders on, chomping on an unlit cigar, clicking away on his laptop. He appeared as immersed as if he were covering his first RNC almost 40 years ago.
After we left the Garden that night, we had a drink with a senior CBS exec who had known Rather for years. “This year will probably be Dan's last year on Evening News,” he told us. “He wanted to make it until 2006 and his 25th anniversary. Hell, he'd stay until his 35th if he could get away with it. But by this time next year, they'll have somebody new.”
The thinking internally was the time was right. Rather was almost 73 at the time, and his newscast was an also-ran in the nightly news race. Better to make a change soon after Brian Williams took over for Tom Brokaw at the perennial No. 1 program, NBC Nightly News, and got too settled in.
Still, I traveled home that night with a certain sense of melancholy. More than Brokaw or Peter Jennings, Rather was the embodiment of the American anchorman. His roller-coaster ride in the anchor chair—which included dust-ups with presidents, exclusives with world leaders, a catbird seat covering virtually every story of import of the last 40 years, the catalog of Ratherisms and just plain weird incidents—made him irreplaceable.
Now when you hear the names of those who may take Rather's place, whether it's inside favorites John Roberts and Scott Pelley or anyone else mentioned, they seem to pale beside Rather's one of a kind. The legends are fading away, and those replacing them have little chance of reaching that kind of iconic height.
Does anyone believe Elizabeth Vargas who took Barbara Walters' job on 20/20 will have a career like the legendary newswoman's? Likewise, there's no one in the wings waiting to take the mantle from Ted Koppel at Nightline, who works part-time and whose contract is up next year.
A group of us here at B&C watched the Nov. 23 newscast when Rather announced that he will be departing March 9. Most of the people in the room were in their 20s and 30s. It was the first time in a long time any of them had watched a nightly newscast. The products advertised—for Metamucil and such—couldn't have interested them less. They are not watching Brokaw or Jennings or Rather now, nor are they likely to watch John Roberts, a relative neophyte, or Brian Williams, who never attracted a big crowd on cable.
Forget that nobody is home at 6:30 p.m. Even if viewers have TiVo, none of those evening anchor guys is getting a season pass. For younger viewers, Jon Stewart and Conan O'Brien are a different story.
Still, it seems a missed opportunity, or lack of imagination that nobody has figured out a truly new, truly vital mass TV news experience. It's sad that Rather's departure from the CBS Evening News comes when that void exists.
It's sadder still that the announcement happens in the wake of the discredited 60 Minutes report on President Bush's National Guard service.
Given a larger-than-life career, Rather deserved that victory-lap 25th year, confident that, as one era comes to a close, another vibrant era at the CBS News anchor desk was about to launch.
That won't happen. No one can replace Dan Rather.