"Back to the wall, shirttails on fire."
That's how Dan Rather described Al Gore on Election Night 2000. These days, his words apply to the CBS News anchor himself as the hot, swirling sands of notoriety shift beneath his feet and conservative critics demand his ouster.
Don't count Rather out, though.
Others have come back from much worse, and his career, too, will endure in one form or another. Television is known for welcoming back bad actors into the fold of respectability like redeemed sinners. The culture is forgiving. If Vlad the Impaler were alive today, he'd wind up on TV with his own talk show.
It's true that CBS News and its star anchor have had a rotten month, kicked off by a Rather-fronted 60 Minutes story on Sept. 8 that featured possible faux documents purportedly commenting on President Bush's Air National Guard service in the early 1970s. After initially vouching for the documents, Rather had to make a humbling public apology. And matters got worse when it was reported that Mary Mapes, a veteran field producer largely responsible for the story, had acted unethically by putting her primary source in touch with the John Kerry campaign.
The 60 Minutes
failure appears spun from sloppiness and poor judgment, not a dark cabal to undermine Bush's reelection.
More venal, in fact, was the NBC Dateline admission in 1992 of rigging a crash test of a General Motors truck that ultimately blew up in the network's face. Dateline survived, as did CNN after it retracted its 1998 exposé, done with Time
magazine, alleging that the U.S. military used nerve gas on Vietnam War defectors during "Operation Tailwind" in Laos.
The present CBS fiasco pales against these missteps and the black eye 60 Minutes suffered in 1994 when network higher-ups, for self-serving reasons, killed a tobacco-industry exposé the program planned to run.
CBS has commissioned an investigation that may shape the future of Mapes and others. Yet, though he often leads with his chin, Rather has shown he can take a punch.
One example came during his 1993 appearance with Bill Clinton via satellite at a New York meeting of CBS affiliate stations, when the president predicted that Rather and Connie Chung, then Rather's new co-anchor, "will be great together." Replied Rather: "If we could be one-hundredth as great as you and Hillary Rodham Clinton have been together in the White House, we'd take it right now and walk away winners."
A network news anchor publicly taking sides and drooling over the President and First Lady as if they were French pastry? Eight years later, Rather crossed that ethical line again, incredibly, when agreeing to speak at a Democratic fundraiser in Texas.
Those lapses should have cost him his job, or at least earned a fierce reprimand.
At such times, however, one recalls The King of Comedy, Martin Scorsese's 1983 film about an inept comedian wannabe played by Robert De Niro. After gaining fame and doing time for abducting a superstar talk-show host, Rupert Pupkin emerges from prison a widely celebrated folk hero. His reward: A $1 million book deal and his own television talk show.
Real-life Rupert Pupkins abound.
One is Martha Stewart, already making a comeback by getting a new five-year contract with her own company prior to the scheduled Oct. 8 start of her brief prison term for lying to authorities about a stock trade. A book is also in Stewart's future, along with a proposed prime time series from TV reality guru Mark Burnett.
Another real-life Pupkin is Clinton himself, now a best-selling author who has recast himself glowingly after the Monica Lewinsky scandal and his humiliating impeachment. So has Lewinsky, parlaying her Oval Office escapades into TV gigs, a book and a career designing handbags. And former Clinton adviser Dick Morris rebounded from his own sex scandal to become an opportunist-for-hire, bashing Clinton relentlessly as a commentator on the Fox News Channel.
Let's also not forget history's human boomerang, Richard Nixon. After resigning the presidency in disgrace, he sold books galore and ultimately became a sought-after elder statesman. A famous line about Nixon—that the only way to get rid of him was to drive a stake through his heart—also applied to his loyal soldier, G. Gordon Liddy, who became a popular radio talk-show host after serving time for Watergate.
A comeback usually follows when others believe they can profit from your resurrection.
It happened to former NBA bad boy Dennis Rodman, whose notoriety led a Los Angeles-based fast-food chain to make him its TV pitchman. Having personality flaws like sinkholes also gained the late Billy Martin and his former New York Yankees boss, George Steinbrenner, joint appearances in Miller Lite commercials. Similarly, Bic blades hired John McEnroe to make commercials that played off his famed nastiness on the tennis court, and then CNBC hired him to be rude on the air.
Even more boggling, CBS is now exploring a possible sitcom drawn from the life of volcanic, raging college basketball coach Bobby Knight, arguably the least funny man on the planet.
If CBS puts Knight on the payroll, it surely won't take Rather off.
The message? You can't keep a bad man down.