In the Battle to Stay on Top of the News Heap, Dan Rather Is CBS' Primary Weapon
Answer: apparently. Three years after stepping into Walter Cronkite's shoes, Rather has won the ratings race against his ABC and NBC rivals for 96 consecutive weeks. Part of the credit, of course, goes to the audience goodwill that he inherited and the excellent news team he helped shape. But much of it also belongs to Rather, 52, whose perfectionist drive seems fueled by something more than his estimated $1.5-million annual salary. "The Everest at CBS is Edward R. Murrow, and Dan's a mountain climber, "says Peggy Noonan, who produces Rather's three-minute weekday CBS radio reports. "He doesn't want his headstone to say 'Here lies Dan Rather, who sustained top Nielsen ratings.' He wants it to say 'Here lies the best reporter of his time.' " During the New Hampshire primary, PEOPLE followed Rather for two days to find out how that quest was proceeding.
At 9:25 a.m. Rather enters the Wayfarer's ballroom, now a pulsating newsroom cluttered with computers, monitors, cameras and cables. Outside, two satellite dishes, six trailers and a helicopter are parked on the hotel grounds. "Welcome to chaos," says Rather, sipping black coffee. He calls colleagues "Brother Lee" and "Sister Ramona" and can be as corny as Minnie Pearl as he slips into the homespun phrases of his Texas youth. He is generous with praise but is nevertheless a hard-driving taskmaster. "He inspires loyalty in his troops," says senior producer Andrew Heyward, "because he appreciates the role subordinates play in making him look good." Now staffers press him to discuss the day's schedule, but Rather is already late for an appointment with "Brother Hollings" at the Senator's campaign headquarters for the off-the-record briefing that Rather has requested—and been granted—with each candidate. The private meetings allow frankness and humor. Rather plainly enjoys covering politics at close range. "As Will Rogers once said," he notes, misquoting slightly," 'I don't make jokes, I just watch politicians and report what I see.' "
Back at the news center, Rather changes from a pinstripe suit to a blue sweater-vest and sports jacket—he prefers a casual look on camera—then bulls through a series of meetings with producers and phone calls to field correspondents. He has the final word on what news is delivered during the evening's 22½ minute broadcast. "Question," he says. "What's the news today? We've got New Hampshire. We've got the Marines out of Lebanon. We've got the weather. Are we underestimating the Reagan write-in campaign, question mark? [Rather habitually verbalizes his punctuation] Mondale flew to Washington this morning. That strikes me as possibly strange. Let's check it." After rehearsal at 2 p.m. beneath a halo of hot lights, Rather takes a call from Walter Mondale, reels off a radio commentary, downs a glob of Jell-O, rhapsodizes with a staffer about the beauty of Magnolia, Texas and heads for a 30-minute meeting with George McGovern.
In the hallway, one of the CBS Evening News' 18.5 million viewers spots him and hollers, "I've loved you ever since you gave Nixon hell." Dan grins, extends his hand and is gone. (Other admirers inundate his New York office with neckties, personal photos and food, from pralines to crayfish. The decor there includes an aquarium whose inhabitants are named after members of the staff, and an open Bible lies near Rather's desk. He often tunes in country music, smokes cigars and chats with assistants. "It wasn't like that under Walter," says a colleague. "Cronkite was a more Teutonic figure. You didn't sit around and scratch your head and tell jokes.")
At 6:10 three cameras move into position. Rather and his producers fine-tune the news lineup, which is broadcast live at 6:30 p.m. (An updated version—partly live, partly taped—is broadcast to other stations at 7.) He scans his copy. "Damn, Sam," he mutters, employing a typical Rather-ism. "Brother Lee, do we need that popcorn reference? Mr. Fischer," he calls to one of the show's three writers, "can you give me a smooth tag line to follow Mr. Moyers' piece?" "Five minutes!" booms the stage manager. A makeup artist freshens Rather's face. "Two minutes!" Dan swigs Tab without ice from a wine glass—this is a Texan?—and fastens the top button on his jacket. "Absolute quiet, please. Five seconds. Stand by, Dan." Rather beams into the camera. "Good evening from New Hampshire..."
Toward the end of the newscast an urgent message pops up on the UPI news wire. A U.S. destroyer has fired a warning shot at an Iranian patrol plane in the Persian Gulf. The Rather team has less than two minutes to gather the details and insert the information into the 7 o'clock newscast. Is the news significant enough to lead the broadcast? They decide it is not. "Do we know the name of the destroyer?" yells Rather. "The Lawrence!" shouts a writer. By 7 the lineup has been reshuffled, and Rather calmly delivers the information as if it were the weather. "How he can keep his cool while all around him are going to hell in a hand basket beats me," says executive producer Lane Vernardos. "Maybe once or twice I've seen him lose his temper in the last three years."
At 7:50 Rather leaves the studio to meet John Glenn, who has been waiting for 20 minutes in Rather's hotel suite. They talk for 45 minutes. "He's very likable," says Rather. "Somehow that doesn't always permeate his public image. Since he got knocked down in Iowa, one gets the sense that he's decided, 'To hell with it, if I'm going to go down, I'm going to go being myself.' " After the meeting, Rather props his legs on two pillows and pores over the day's sports pages.
8:45 a.m.: a new day, a fresh sweater. Rather briefly joins Diane Sawyer on the CBS Morning News, then darts out through the snow to a nearby trailer to tape promotional interviews with two CBS affiliates. He is called back to his office to chat with Jesse Jackson, recently humbled by his admission that he had used the word "Hymie" to refer to Jews. The two confer privately, leaving Jackson's 50-strong entourage of aides and press milling in a cramped hallway. A short woman in a long mink coat and black slippers wrestles free from the crowd. "I'm getting pushed around," says Jacqueline Jackson. "Doesn't anyone know I'm the candidate's wife?"
4:40 p.m.: Rather sits patiently while a makeup artist paints his face. The door bursts open, and senior broadcast producer Mark Harrington announces, "We've just learned there's a 747 down in Jamaica Bay in New York." Rather grabs his jacket and, rattling off questions, bolts out the door. "Going or coming? Was the plane full? How's the weather in New York?" Lights go up on the set as Rather prepares to go on the air with a bulletin—until it is learned that the plane merely skidded off a runway, and no one was injured.
Meanwhile, rumors that Gary Hart has upset Mondale at the polls sweep the newsroom. The mounting excitement sends Rather leaping in the air like a cheerleader. "It's going to be a good story," he says, smiling. "You can begin to feel this place throb." Closed-door sessions follow to determine whether to lead the 6:30 newscast with the information—a sensitive issue because the networks have recently been lambasted in Congressional hearings for projecting winners before the polls have closed. CBS decides to go with it.
Later, after two complicated but flawless newscasts, Rather asks about the competition and learns that NBC projected Hart the winner at 8 p.m. and ABC chimed in at 8:01 p.m.—an hour after CBS. Triumph. Rather stays planted at the anchor desk for the next two hours, updating election returns in brief news bulletins.
At 10:16 Walter Mondale, surrounded by a school of buttoned-down Mon-dale-clone aides, arrives to tape a three-minute interview reflecting on his defeat. When he finishes, Rather pumps his hand and signals a friendly thumbs-up. Moments later, Gary Hart drops by to talk about victory. Next, Rather beams up John Glenn on a monitor to ask his reaction to the results. When Rather asks about Glenn's potential losses in the upcoming primaries, Glenn laughs and chooses not to answer "that dumb question." Rather laughs too. The exchange is snipped from the on-air update that follows the Grammy awards at 11:53 p.m.
After Rather bids his final on-air "Goodnight" at 12:23, all is quiet. "Thank you, everyone," he says. But Rather keeps on ticking. He sits for a live interview on CBS News Night-watch, then ambles down to an audio room, along a corridor littered with potato-chip shards and crushed soft-drink cans. The hours he keeps could wither a man before his time. "Okay, let's do it," he says, launching into another radio script, though his face is craggy with fatigue and his voice weakened from overuse. The tape rolls, and Rather delivers a faultless, energetic three minutes. At 1:23 a.m. he signs off and heads back to Suite 240.
Goodnight, Brother Dan.