Dan Rather was once among the most powerful figures in American media. Which is why watching him today is a particularly poignant and painful thing.
Consider Mr. Rather’s appearance with CNN’s Piers Morgan Monday night. When asked about the recent, erroneous Benghazi report on 60 Minutes that led to a leave of absence for reporter Lara Logan, Rather compared that story to the one that ruined his career:
“With our story, the one that led to our difficulty, no question the story was true. What the complaint… was ‘Okay, your story was true, but the way you got to the truth was flawed. The process was flawed.’ That’s not the case with the Benghazi story. Unfortunately, and there’s no joy in saying this, they were taken in by a man who was a fraud.”
Now for some context.
Mr. Rather’s 44-year career at CBS (24 years of which he spent as the anchor of the CBS Evening News) ended because of his role in a story that blew apart. The 2004 story was meant to smear President George W. Bush a few months before his reelection. The problem is that it was based on forged National Guard documents that were almost immediately revealed as such. Yet Rather insists to this very day that the forged documents were accurate.
This claim is a hallucination, as this 224-page Report of the Independent Review Panel (convened by CBS) makes clear. But Rather would not let it go. After being fired in 2006, he filed a $70 million lawsuit against CBS and its parent company, Viacom, claiming he had been made a “scapegoat,” which was subsequently dismissed in its entirely. Mr. Rather of course appealed. And in 2012, while promoting his book Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News, the former CBS reporter continued to insist the forged documents were accurate. “I believe them to be genuine. I did at the time, I did in the immediate aftermath of it, and yes, I do now,” he said.
This story fascinates me in part because of its insight into human psychology. Mr. Rather is emotionally unable to accept that the National Guard story was false and built on lies, that his effort to bring down an American president brought him down instead. And so he keeps returning to the scene of the crime, hoping to clear his name, convinced that one more adamant declaration that his story was true will magically make it so. Unfortunately, and there’s no joy in saying this, Rather doesn’t have the self-awareness to know that each time he does this, he becomes a more pitiable figure.
“To the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.” These are the words of Captain Ahab as he tosses his harpoon toward the great white whale. But they could just as easily be Dan Rather’s.