Legendary Journalist and Author Dan Rather

The esteemed journalist discusses the current political climate and his latest book, What Unites Us.

With a famed and storied career that has spanned more than six decades, Dan Rather has earned his place as one of the world’s best-known journalists. He has interviewed every president since Eisenhower and, over that time, personally covered almost every important dateline in the United States and around the world. Rather joined CBS News in 1962. He quickly rose through the ranks, and in 1981 he assumed the position of Anchor and Managing Editor of the CBS Evening News – a post he held for 24 years. Now, building upon that foundation, he is president and CEO of News and Guts, an independent production company he founded that specializes in high-quality non-fiction content across a range of traditional and digital distribution channels.

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Tavis: I am pleased and honored to welcome Dan Rather back to this program. The venerable journalist and former longtime anchor of the CBS Evening News is concerned about the future of this country. He’s written a series of essays which I think will inspire you. The book is called “What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism”, and I am honored to have again back on this program, my friend, Dan Rather.

Dan Rather: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: How are you?

Rather: I’m great, my brother. How about yourself?

Tavis: I’m wonderful. How is your bride doing? Is she still painting?

Rather: She’s still painting. She’s painted well the last year and a half, and the time I’ve known her. Thanks for asking. She’ll be delighted you asked.

Tavis: Give her my regards. Let me start with this quote that sort of arrested me. I’ve heard it before, of course, but I loved how you and Elliot who worked with you on this project put this quote at the beginning of the book. It’s from de Tocqueville and the quote is “The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults.” Do we still have that ability?

Rather: You bet we have it. We have it at a depth that very few of any other people have it. We’re in a dark time now. We’re in a very perilous time because we tend to forget it. There’s so many people preaching division, trying to exploit divisions for their own partisan, political and ideological reasons that it’s easy to get caught.

Look, we have divisions. We have tremendous divisions, but we have an even greater number of things with more power to embolden us and to make us brave than we sometimes think.

You know, inclusion, descent, courage. This country has a lot of courage. Right to vote, those things that bring us together. That’s the reason I wanted to write “What Unites Us”. Because at a time, there’s a tendency particularly of younger people.

You have a tremendous audience of younger people, Tavis, which is to your credit, who tend to think, well, maybe this is the worst we’ve ever been through. It’s bad, no getting around it. In some ways, it’s really heartbreaking what we’re going through.

But we were pretty divided in the 1960s. We were pretty divided during the high crimes, which we call for short, Watergate. We, of course, had a disastrous catastrophe of civil war in the 1800s. We’ve been through tough times before and, if we remember who we are and what holds us together, we’re going to be okay.

Tavis: You were there for all of that except the 1800s [laugh].

Rather: Even I was not around during that time [laugh].

Tavis: You were not there for the Civil War. All the rest of it, you covered. And we may come back to that later in this conversation. Let me just challenge you. I’m gonna play devil’s advocate here.

Rather: Sure.

Tavis: What seems to be lacking in this current moment, this current American crisis, which you talk about and write about beautifully in the text, is empathy. So that’s why I started by asking whether or not we still have the ability to repair our faults if we lack the empathy that’s required to do that.

Rather: I think we still have the empathy. You and I may disagree. I agree that it is in very short supply. It’s particularly in short supply among too many of our leaders and let’s say it for what it is. Particularly with our present president, there’s no sign or very little sign of any empathy, but the country at large still has great empathy and a sense of fairness.

Look at what happened in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Those people on the Texas coast and Houston, neighbor helping neighbor, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, pulled together, didn’t wait for outside help to come. They welcomed it, but we have empathy.

But one of the reasons I wanted to write the book — empathy is my favorite chapter in the book — is to point out the difference between compassion, which is a good trait to have, and empathy, which is a stronger trait.

But compassion is you feel sorry. You pity someone. As my mother taught me at an early age when I said something about, well, we’re doing this because we feel sorry for them, she said, “No. We don’t pity them. We know how they feel.

A spirit of we try to walk in their shoes and, in effect, say, “There but for the Grace of God, go I.” That’s empathy. The country still has a great deal of it, but you might never know it if you just listen to the president’s Tweets and what’s on cable television every day.

Tavis: Since you made a distinction and a beautiful one, Dan, between compassion and empathy, let me come at it another way. I think there’s a distinction between charity and justice. And the example you gave was a beautiful example about what the country does after Harvey or after Irma or after — whenever we have these natural disasters.

You’re right. We come together, but that’s more about charity. What I see lacking in our society today is a real focus, a real interest in justice. Because charity ain’t justice.

Rather: No. Charity is not justice. Those are two different words. Look them up in the dictionary if you have to. And justice? You know, we are committed as Americans to vote the idea and the ideal of equal justice under the law.

No man’s above the law, but no man is but the law. That’s our navigational star out there. We’re never going to be able to achieve it with perfection, but we know down deep in our id that we can do it a whole lot better than we do it now.

Tavis: Again, I’m pressing only because I agree with you that that is the American ideal., What I’m having a hard time juxtaposing, Dan, though, are the ideals that we profess on the one hand, the i-d-e-a-l-s and the ideas, the i-d-e-a-s, which are being advanced today, back to your point about Trump.

It’s not just the president. There are other folk who are right along with him. So how do you square those ideals that we profess as Americans with the ideas, like this tax plan, etc., that we seem to latching hold of?

Rather: Well, let’s have it straight. This tax bill is ridiculous, outrageous and really heartbreaking in many ways. There’s never been a tax bill like this. This is the swamp in Washington that’s come alive. This is a tax bill to benefit the wealthiest people in the country. Let’s don’t’ dance around it.

And your point is well taken. If you say our ideals are one thing, but our ideas are another thing, we in America are in an experiment to constantly get our ideals closer to ideas, but we’re not there. Let’s talk honestly. Race is perhaps the most important talking point, conversation point, finding justice point.

We’ve made progress on civil rights, not question about it, but we have so far to go. So getting people to understand that, look, we have the ideal of racial justice, but we are miles away from reaching justice which lives up to our ideal of equal justice under the law.

Anybody who’s covered law enforcement as I have over the years, police beat, court, knows that the justice system is badly out of balance based on color. That’s a fact. It’s a fact alone that people don’t want to recognize and some people do recognize it, but say that’s all right because I’m of the right color.

That, I would say to you, is unpatriotic. Part of this is, you know, patriotism. Patriotism, it includes recognizing we have our faults whereas nationalism is more of a chest-beating, has more arrogance and conceit to it.

That’s the reason I wanted to do “Reflections on Patriotism”. I don’t think we spend enough time thinking about the difference between patriotism, which is a deep love for the country, willing to die for the country, but recognizing that we’re always going for that distant star, the polar star, trying to get better.

Nationalism sort of takes the attitude of, listen, we’re the greatest in the world, beat on your chest, and this is really important, Tavis. Extreme nationalism, we know what that leads to.

Extreme economic nationalism in the 1920s led us to the Great Depression. Nationalism based on race, Arian nationalism, led to Adolf Hitler. We in America, that’s why I say, I’m wary of all this talk about nationalism. We need to talk about patriotism and ask ourselves — let’s have a conversation. What is patriotism here in the second decade of the 21st century?

Tavis: I want to come back to that distinction. It’s a beautiful one, again, between patriotism and nationalism. Since you went there, though, there’s a beautiful chapter in this book, a beautiful section in this book, about you’re covering the murder of Medgar Evers. As you know, Medgar’s youngest son is my staff photographer…

Rather: Van, yes.

Tavis: Van, yes, on this program. His niece…

Rather: Sheila.

Tavis: You know them all [laugh]. Sheila did your makeup and my makeup tonight. She does mine every night. So we have the Evers family here and I’m actually really excited that tomorrow night on this program, Myrlie Evers, the widow of Medgar, is our guest tomorrow on this program. So tune in tomorrow night for a great conversation with Myrlie Evers.

There are not one, but two new civil rights museums that are opening in the State of Mississippi where Myrlie is from and where I am from, quite frankly. I’m proud to be a Mississippian. So tomorrow night, Myrlie Evers is on this program talking about these two new civil rights museums.

It’s a fascinating conversation I think we’re gonna have because there are not one, but two, as I said, and there are separate entrances. Only in Mississippi could you get two civil rights museums. I’m gonna ask her tomorrow night, why did you have to do two, and why two separate entrances for civil rights museum? I’ll talk to Myrlie Evers about that tomorrow night.

Back to your book, Dan, where you write so beautifully and so poignantly about what it was like to cover that murder, I think the question I want to ask is, when you look back on your career covering civil rights, that and so many other incidents, and you see white supremacy in 2017 raising its ugly head again, the specter of it on the horizon, in the streets every day in certain places across this country, how do you juxtapose that, what you saw then and it making a comeback in some ways in 2017?

Rather: Well, first of all, it has very strong echoes that resonates to that time in 1960. The book, “What Unites Us”, one of the things that unites us is the right to vote. Medgar Evers was one of the bravest men I have ever met of any race, color or creed or religion. He was working very hard in and around Jackson, Mississippi.

This is in the early 1960s. I recount it in the book. I went with him once to a voting place where he had people with him and he said, in effect, these people are here to vote. And the white person standing on the porch — I won’t repeat the language. It was basically, “You ain’t voting here today.” I’ve never gotten that scene out of my mind.

And when I hear some of the rhetoric of today, 2017, I answer your question. I say, “You know, I wouldn’t have thought in the 1960s that in 2017 way up ahead, that we’d hear a President of the United States, maybe some other people, but not a President of the United States saying these things, they’re bigoted. There’s no other way to put it.”

A president talking about equivalency between Neo-Nazis and citizens who are running a nonviolent protest, that’s the reason I say this is a perilous time. Because we’re seeing a renewal of some of what we had in the 1960s. We thought in the 1960s when we passed the Voting Rights Act that that would solve the problem. It helped the problem immensely, no question about it.

But here we are in 2017. We’ve seen all these political, what I call side dancers, trying to keep people from voting and we know what this is about. The people they don’t want to vote are people of color. There’s no getting around it, no denying it. So it’s a reminder that, while we’ve made some progress, we have a long, long way to go.

Tavis: How do you think the media, Dan, write large is doing in covering the president? Put another way, have they found their legs in how to cover him? Because he obviously has gone at them and they’ve tried to push back and he’s called them names and the fake news and back and forth and back and forth. Has the media writ large found its legs in how to cover this president appropriately?

Rather: Not completely, but I do see some signs of encouragement. There’s more deep digging investigative reporting than it has been in the preceding five or ten years. In some ways, the media has gotten its spine. I prefer the word “press”, but everybody uses media. It’s found its mind. And another way of putting it, it’s found its guts, if you will.

But the power of the presidency is so large that we have to constantly remind the public that the press, when it faces the kind of statements from the president, the president saying, you know, these reporters, these journalists are enemies of the people, that’s the kind of language that dictators use.

I’m not saying that Donald Trump is a dictator. I am saying that he has authoritarian tendencies. And authoritarianism can lead to nativism. Nativism can lead to tribalism. And if we ever get to the point where we’re just a separate tribe to people, then we won’t be the United States of America.

So the press has a big responsibility, but we have to constantly remind the public that, while this is a problem for the press what the president says about us individually and the institutions and as a profession, it’s more important for the country as a whole.

Because a free and fiercely independent when necessary press is the red beating heart to freedom and democracy. Without it, you don’t have a check and balance on power.

I think one of the times I was with you previously, Tavis, I gave you my definition of news. It’s another reason with me, but news is what people need to know that someone somewhere, particularly a powerful person, doesn’t want the public to know. That’s news. Everything else is propaganda and commercials.

Tavis: You did tell me that and I’ve never forgotten it. I’ve used it many times, sometimes even with attribution [laugh].

Rather: That’s all right. You’re entitled [laugh].

Tavis: I stole from Dan Rather. Because I’m curious and I suspect the audience might be as well, why do you make a distinction between media and press and why do you prefer press?

Rather: Well, because the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees freedom of the press. It doesn’t say anything about media. I’m old-fashioned about it and I recognize it. But I think the words are interchangeable because I just want to make sure that people understand. When we have freedom of the press, that’s freedom of all media.

Look, the press, media, we can’t be perfect. Nobody can be perfect. And the whole idea that it’s not that the press has to be perfect. We make our mistakes. It says press has to be free because it’s such an important part of, as I say, the system of checks and balances.

Can you imagine what the Trump administration would be without some of these investigative reports at The New York Times, the Washington Post, USA Today? Can you imagine what would be happening if you didn’t have that counterbalance of the press?

Tavis: Speaking of press and media, I was tickled the other day — I don’t know why this had never really occurred to me, but I was just preparing for our conversation, just looking at some numbers. You are like literally now reaching some of the largest audiences of your life through social media, through the internet.

What do you make of the fact that you were once sitting on the news desk and here you are at this advanced age, looking good and sounding good, and still doing what you do so well. But what do you make of the fact that you have a whole new platform that you hadn’t even been thought of when you first started that’s allowing you to reach as many or more people now than you ever have?

Rather: I’m amazed by it, but I’m really grateful, very grateful.

Tavis: I mean, you have huge followings of people.

Rather: Well, a fairly large following of young people.

Tavis: Yes.

Rather: Which surprises me. Look, I’m 86 years old. In many ways, I’ve been where I’m going. But to have this audience, to have this reach at this age and stage in my career is humbling and, believe you me, humble is not a word generally associated with past or present anchormen [laugh].

Tavis: Let me put you on the spot then. Since you have such a huge following of young people, and you do, I’ll put you on the spot, Dan. What is your greatest hope for these young people who are following you every day and reading your stuff? And what’s your greatest fear for the world that they’re inhabiting?

Rather: My biggest hope is that they will not lose hope and will not lose their idealism. You know, part of the essence of being young is to be idealistic. As life goes along, there’s a great undertow to lose your idealism. So what I hope for them is that they don’t lost hope, that they keep their idealism. My fear is that they will become cynical.

Look, as a reporter, the essence of being a reporter is to be skeptical. And an informed active citizen should be skeptical, but never cynical. And with so much cynicism at the very leadership of the country at the moment, my fear is that young people will say, “You know what? You have to meet cynicism with cynicism.” No. Be skeptical, but never cynical.

Tavis: I just wonder whether or not it’s too late for that advice, whether or not we’ve already crossed the line where so many Americans are cynical and you can’t change the way they feel. I saw a report not too long ago, maybe a Rasmussen report, that suggested that, for the first time in ever maybe, a slight majority of Americans think that our best days are behind us, not in…

Rather: I saw that.

Tavis: You saw that? Behind us, not in front of us. So I just wonder whether or not it’s too late for the sermon about skepticism versus cynicism, that we’re already there and we can’t make our way back.

Rather: Well, first of all, and I try to avoid it in the book, I’m not giving anybody a sermon. But I do passionately believe in this country. In an answer to your question, it’s not too late. But the hour is growing late. It’s not too late.

It’s never too late for gratitude, humility, modesty, tolerance, forgiveness, mercy and, as the Pope recently said, tenderness. It’s never too late for those things. But I do agree with you there’s so much cynicism at the top that, at a late hour, if we’re gonna save the country — and I do think this is a vital time, it’s a decision point for America how are we going to go?

We’ve been descending for the last year or year and a half that the uncivil conversations, the tone and tenor of the presidency which has seeped down to the things. I find, Tavis, traveling around that so many Americans of all persuasions are saying, “We are better than this. We are better than this and we’re going to prove it.” Well, we got to start proving it.

Tavis: You used a word I want to come back to, Dan, and the word was tolerance. I don’t mean to get philosophical, but I guess I do [laugh], and that is whether or not tolerance is the best that we can do. Here’s my point. You’ve covered in your career, Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King talked about love. Medgar Evers talked about love.

Rather: Absolutely.

Tavis: Bobby Kennedy talked about love. I wonder sometimes whether or not, although I understand how well-meaning people are when they use the term. I don’t mean you in this instance, but people I’ve talked to over the years. But I wonder is tolerance the best that we can do?

Rather: No, it isn’t, and I listed it. Mark well, I listed it on the list of things.

Tavis: Of course, of course.

Rather: Tolerance, forgiveness, mercy and love, always love. Tolerance is not an up. It is the minimum, it is the minimum, but we’re Americans. We don’t settle for idiocrasy. We don’t settle for the minimum. The end result has got to be forgiveness, mercy and love, always love. Sounds like some Baptist preacher that I listened to when I was young [laugh], but there is an old hymn, “Love Conquers All”, and I believe it.

Tavis: That’s right. I only raised it not to push back on you. I was just raising it because I find myself in these conversations where I get depressed because I think that that’s become our standard, that’s become our highest goal. As long as we can tolerate one another — that just irks me to no end.

Rather: No, that’s not nearly enough. Again, we have to come back to it. It’s the absolute minimum. But I agree with you. It’s not — the essence of patriotism is to know that tolerance is not enough. It’s the minimum. In the end, you have to love the other person. Who would think that I’d be sitting here talking to Tavis, great Tavis, about love?

But it’s a subject we don’t touch nearly often enough. It’s one thing to say, “Well, okay, I can tolerate this person who’s of a different religion, different ethnic background, different color.” It’s quite another thing to say, “I want to see that person as my brother or my sister.”

Tavis: Exactly. Let me circle back in the time I have. We’ll circle back to this distinction you made earlier between patriotism and nationalism. You don’t want us to morph from one into the other and neither do I. But what examples, what signs do you see that we’ve crossed the line, some of us at least, into nationalism?

Rather: Well, as far as economic nationalism is concerned, the pullback from saying, “America First”. Look, as an international economy, you cannot turn the clock back. But more than that, it not only would we be better for it economically, but it’s the right thing to do. So that would be an example.

On race, there are any number of examples of it that you can’t just say, as we were talking earlier, you can’t just say tolerance. You have to have understanding. We have to have empathy, that time and time again, we’ve reached this point in this country where we’re up against the edge.

We’re up against the edge now and I’m here to say, with the book, “What Unites Us”, and talking with you, that we have to stop, take a deep breath, start listening to one another and try to have some empathy.

It doesn’t mean give up your principles. It’s a spirit of — Tavis, you’re so good at this, of saying, listen, you and I can disagree about 100 things. Can we find one thing today that we can help another person or help our country?

Tavis: Let me close with this, Dan. Given all that you have seen and all that you’ve covered and all that you’ve done, given this moment that you have dissected, that we are trying to navigate our way through now, how do you personally sustain your hope?

Rather: Well, one, through the power of prayer, that I believe in prayer. It’s one of those things we don’t talk about publicly and maybe it’s just as well. But that’s one thing. And the other is, I travel around a lot. I meet people and I talk to people. I like people. I like to talk to people. And I find I’m really encouraged when I travel the country.

I took a trip with my eldest grandson this last summer. We drove from Dallas to Mt. Rushmore up through Oklahoma and Nebraska, Kansas up into South Dakota. Everybody we met had a strong sense of decency about them.

This is Trump country, you know. I found I was really encouraged. Anybody who takes such a trip and doesn’t remark on the kindness and empathy, the American people has missed something very important about our country.

Tavis: Maybe I need to get in my car [laugh]. Get in my car and take a trip somewhere. All I need to do is take a road trip and I can increase my hope? Somebody pull my car out right quick.

The new book from Dan Rather with Elliot Kirschner is called “What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism”, a beautiful, empowering and inspiring read. I highly recommend it. Dan Rather, always, sir, an honor. Good to see you, my friend.

Rather: Good to see you, my friend.

Tavis: Thank you. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.

Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.

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Last modified: December 6, 2017 at 1:57 pm