One wonders how Dan Rather's obituary would read had it not been for the disastrous 60 Minutes II report in 2004 that became such a blot on CBS News that it hastened his retirement as anchor of the CBS Evening News. But given Rather's incredible career, his $70 million lawsuit against his former employer, filed last week, seems to be just another bizarre element to add to the list.
It's hard to figure Rather, who has the penchant for eliciting strong opinion. This was the anchor who, for no apparent reason, in 1986 for one week, ended his newscasts with one word: “Courage,” he said. He was the anchor who, admirably we thought, tried to pin down the first President Bush with a tough question during a live interview, and the correspondent who, in 1980, disguised himself as a peasant to sneak into Afghanistan, thus forever being nicknamed Gunga Dan. He reported from around the world, with distinction, and on and off the air made headlines.
Sadly, this lawsuit has now reduced Dan Rather to being the anchorman best remembered for pointing his finger at bosses. He blames them for making him the fall guy for a flawed report that he says ruined his reputation, and he blames CBS for forcing him to read a retraction of the story.
Rather has said that he believes the story that George W. Bush got preferential treatment when he served in the Texas National Guard during the Vietnam War, regardless of the shaky facts the CBS report used to “prove” it. Last week he said he would use the $70 million lawsuit payout to fund investigative journalists.
The plain fact, though, is that we doubt that money is coming. The episode is over. Rather, with this lawsuit, wants to replay the circumstances that led to the report, the controversy it caused and, ultimately, the retraction. “The only punishment they understand is money,” Rather told Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post.
And to that we may add that the only punishment Rather might understand is being berated publicly by his former employers and co-workers, over an incident that has, for all practical purposes, been forgotten. We're fairly certain a trial would devolve into arguing picayune contractual issues, not ferreting out The Truth.
The fact Rather seems to want to prove—that Bush got special treatment in the National Guard during the Vietnam War—doesn't seem like breaking news anymore.
Dan Rather's reputation, which he says was “seriously damaged” by the report, is being ripped to shreds by this lawsuit. There's no way to undo that damage. The Dan Rather we would have liked to remember was a hard-hitting, enigmatic television news star who reported from nearly every hot spot in the world, but near the end of his career participated in a documentary that was seriously flawed.
The Dan Rather that we will be forced to remember now, first and foremost, is a veteran journalist with a tragic petulant character trait, who did not know when to leave bad enough alone. That makes us sad.