Dan Rather Unleashed

updated 08/27/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/27/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Shameel Muhammad, we can fairly assume, has never seen anything like this. The 26-year-old Bedouin, with two dogs and a donkey for company, has been tending his 250 sheep all morning as they graze in the slim pickings alongside the Amman-Baghdad road, which runs through the Jordanian desert. Suddenly, a modern-day caravan of rental cars pulls alongside, and a herd of Westerners and Arabs spills out in his direction. A tall American approaches and, through a translator, asks for an interview as a TV camera rolls.

Has he heard of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait? Shameel is asked.

"Yes, I have a radio," he answers.

What does he think of it?

"It is bad."

What does he think of Saddam Hussein?

"It is bad for a Muslim to attack other Muslims. It is against Islam."

The camera moves in on the American and the Bedouin, as the donkey pushes his way through the flock toward them—just another jackass trying to get on television. When the shot is finished, the American thanks the shepherd punctiliously and moves toward his car. Shameel Muhammad may not apprehend that he has been interviewed by the anchorman of the CBS Evening News, but Dan Rather has been impressed by Shameel.

"That was very important," Rather reflects as he scuffs through the sand and the weeds toward the road. "All week in Amman, all we heard were Jordanians who support Saddam Hussein and oppose the United States. It's important to get out and find out that there are other views."

This day, as the first week of the roiling Gulf conflict drew to a close, Dan Rather was still the only U.S. network anchor reporting from the Middle East, filing a dizzying series of interviews with kings and ambassadors, sheepherders and shopkeepers, in an attempt to capture the mood of a tinderbox that seemed about to explode. To those who have followed his career, Rather's hands-on approach was no surprise; this, after all, is the reporter who slipped into Afghanistan disguised in the robe and turban of an anti-Soviet mujahadeen rebel.

When the Iraqis rolled into Kuwait, he and his producer, Tom Bettag, were vacationing in the French Alps with their wives. At first, the CBS brass tried to persuade Rather and Bettag to return to New York City but quickly acceded to their arguments that the Middle East is the logical place from which to cover a Middle East war. Rather left with only his vacation clothes, plus a pair of Reeboks purchased at a discount store near the airport in Annecy, France. His winter vacation had been canceled because of the Panama invasion. His wife, Jean, "was very understanding," he says. "She just said, 'Let's have a good vacation this summer.' " Now, another holiday was about to go down the tubes. Within hours, Rather and Bettag were flying to London, then chartering a jet to the Middle East.

This time around, Rather's on-the-scene reporting has had some unexpected results—beyond leaving Jean Rather and Claire Bettag to fend for themselves for two weeks in France. The anchorman's scramble has boosted the ratings of the CBS Evening News. Although Rather's viewer ship was up 22 percent from the week before Iraq invaded Kuwait, he still trailed ABC's Peter Jennings and had barely passed NBC's Tom Brokaw, both of whom covered the story from New York. It has also touched off backbiting and anonymous derision in newspaper TV columns back home—much of it, bitter with the flavor of sour grapes, attributed to unnamed sources at other networks. And it has provoked Rather to take the almost unprecedented step of accusing Tom Brokaw, by name, of sanctioning a campaign to discredit him.

The Amman-Baghdad road is hot, dusty and treacherous—later in the week a CBS crew will be injured and its driver more seriously hurt in a wreck along this desert highway. But today it seems as if the road may hold the key to understanding what is going on in the Middle East. "We might come upon some refugees coming across the border from Iraq, or talk to people who have seen them," Rather had said the previous midnight. "There's an old saying in Texas: 'If there's lightning about, you should at least be a tree.' "

This tree has trouble putting down roots. At 1:30A.M. that day, Rather, 58, broadcast the CBS Evening News live to the United States, where it was 6:30 P.M. eastern time. At 2:30 that morning, he began an hour-long interview, then ate a dish of chocolate ice cream, telephoned Washington and, as the sun rose over Amman, anchored a special broadcast that ran live at 11:30 P.M. New York time. He had slept two hours of the previous 24, four of the last 40; during broadcasts, aides continually replenished the cup of black coffee that he gulped whenever he was off-cam-era. As soon as the second broadcast ended, he set out on the road, calculating that he had five hours to do some reporting before he had to be back to tape a segment for the CBS Morning News. So here he was under the desert sun, meeting Shameel, stopping at the oasis at Azraq, where Jordanian shopkeepers nervously told him of their loyalty to "whatever King Hussein says," and even drawing an Arabic "no comment" from soldiers in a detachment digging what looked like a defensive trench.

No refugees appeared on the road; that, in itself, was a story. That night the other network anchors would report that Saddam Hussein had closed the Iraqi border, effectively transforming 3,500 Americans into hostages. Only Rather would be on the scene to show the main route from Iraq ominously empty of traffic.

But if he was dominating the coverage in the Middle East, Rather was losing the publicity battle back home. While the CBS anchor put in his marathon workday, the Washington Post was going to press with an anonymous item that ridiculed his reporting. "One NBC News official yesterday told of a joke making the rounds." the paper said. "The only action Dan Rather has seen in Jordan is a fight between housekeeping and room service in the Inter-Continental Hotel. 'He's just watching Jordanian TV,' said the NBC executive, 'and we can do that from here.' "

To Rather, that statement was not just untrue—if sounded like a declaration of war. "Steve Friedman said that," he charged, singling out Brokaw's producer by name. "We know it, and he knows it. He speaks for Tom Brokaw. I respect Tom Brokaw tremendously, but this I don't respect—even less so because they didn't have the guts to put their names on it. Why do they do that? It's in their nature. But also, when you're getting the hell beat out of you, you do desperate things. I'm not the kind of person who wants to sit in a windowless room on the West Side of Manhattan when a major story is happening," says Rather. (In New York City, Friedman denied he was the source for the Post story.)

The battle with the competition was one of the few bad moments in a week that, for Rather, was very bliss. In Jordan he promptly landed an interview with King Hussein that ran on 60 Minutes. "I could see that he was really worried," says Rather. "I thought that he was literally in the process of worrying himself sick. He said, 'You've got to understand how long there's been this resentment among the have-nots among Arabs towards the haves. You Americans have favored the haves—the Kuwaiti royal family, the Saudi royal family, the Iraqi royal family. What people tell you they admire about Saddam Hussein is that he's cast himself in the role of being with the have-nots against the haves.' "

Foreign criticism of the U.S. is sensitive ground for any journalist, but especially so for Rather, who is still resented by some conservatives for his on-camera confrontations with then-President Nixon and then-candidate George Bush. "At one time you have to say, 'Am I an American, or am I a journalist?' " he muses. "The fact is, I am an American journalist. The definition of an American journalist is that he tries to be an honest broker of information and tries to report it accurately and fairly, even if he disagrees with your point of view. I don't believe in a lot of what the King said. I certainly have some deep doubts about what he's doing, running with a guy like Saddam Hussein. But in terms of understanding, he's about as good a guy as there is to explain it."

Several times in the course of the week, Rather says, surprisingly, "I think President Bush has handled this very well." And when the people he interviews ask what he thinks, his answer is always some variant of, "I am an American, and I think what Saddam Hussein has done is wrong." When the Arab summit in Cairo ends with a far-from-unanimous decision to support Saudi Arabia, Rather describes it on the air as "a major diplomatic victory for the United States"—a description with which even he concedes reasonable people may differ. But he cannot immunize himself to criticism; the only moment all week when he utterly loses his temper comes when he hears that a high-ranking U.S. diplomat in Jordan has called him "a friend of Saddam Hussein." "That's f—ing outrageous," Rather shouts, bringing a buzzing office quickly to silence. "I'm going to call him on that. In fact, I'm going to call [James] Baker on that." If the Secretary of State does get a phone call, he would be well advised to talk softly. Hell hath no fury like Dan Rather when his patriotism is questioned.

Now he has been in Amman for five days, trying constantly to get any new angle he can—a visa to Iraq, a visit to Kuwait, permission to talk to U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. He is growing restless. At one point he asks Bettag to look into the chance of renting a jeep and driving through the desert into Saudi Arabia. He needs to move, to act, to do something. He decides to charter a jet to Cairo for the summit. "Frankly, I don't expect much to come of it," he concedes.

Sometimes, Rather's efforts workout perfectly, as when his staff persuades the clergy of the largest mosque in Amman to let them floodlight the building at night as a scenic backdrop for the broadcast. Sometimes they almost lead to disaster; in Cairo, the satellite time CBS has been promised somehow becomes unavailable. The crew scrambles, asking ABC, NBC and CNN to help them out. The Evening News finally gets to New York, thanks to CNN, with just seconds to spare. (Such professional courtesy is common, even amid the sometimes rancorous network competition. "They know that if it's us tonight, it could be them tomorrow," Rather explains.)

During this momentary crisis, Rather stands in silence, away from the panic. He permits himself a pained expression only when the danger has passed; he never utters a word of rebuke. "I covered sports a long time," he explains. "The best coaches kick ass after a good game. When you have a bad day, everybody knows it."

Well into the second week of the conflict, Rather still has the story to himself. With their anchors still behind desks in New York, the other networks are murmuring that CBS's costs are approaching $4 million. "They couldn't possibly know that," producer Bettag says. "We don't even know what it's costing." In a phone conversation with CBS News President David Burke, Rather is overheard saying, "I know we're hemorrhaging money." Later, CBS chairman Laurence Tisch sends the news team a message of congratulations—but only after the new, higher ratings are in.

The war for the soul of CBS News has been waged for years; cost cutters axed some of the hard-news reporters on whom Rather relied most, including correspondents Fred Graham and Ike Pappas. Now some of his colleagues argue that the network should move to a slicker presentation. Rather's nemesis, NBC's Steve Friedman, has been quoted as citing MTV as a model for the news show of the future. "There's a constant struggle between news values and entertainment values," Rather concedes. "There's a theory in television today that people won't watch foreign news." This week has made his side of the struggle easier, but he sees no permanent victory. "The barbarians aren't at the gates," he says. "Those sons of bitches are already inside. We've already got the clergy and children in the cellar, and we're fighting hand-to-hand."

The weekend arrives. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is the only big interview left in Cairo, and he is lying low. Rather is itching again. Then word comes that a press pool is forming in Dubai; the U.S. military will fly some reporters to the U.S.S. Independence. Rather is not scheduled to be part of the press pool to visit the ship, and there is no particular reason to believe that he can get onto the carrier. Rather and company charter a jet for Dubai.

"We have a chance," he says, as if trying to convince himself. "It's a small chance, but it's a chance."

As his car races to the Cairo airport, Rather returns a last time to a sore subject. He has a thought on the people he calls "backshooters": "I was in Vietnam; they weren't. I had my career and my whole professional life on the line during Watergate; they didn't. I was in Afghanistan; they weren't. And I'm here and they aren't. It's Saturday night. I'm here; where are the backshooters?"

On Sunday, Rather lands on the Independence. While the other pool reporters and the camera operator sleep, Rather still can't quit reporting. On his own he descends into the bowels of the carrier and talks a seaman into taking out his home video camera and taping a series of conversations with the crew, making Rather the first U.S. anchorman to interview military personnel in the combat zone.

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