What do you think? Leave a respectful comment.

Dan Rather on the Capitol attack, the state of our nation and ‘What Unites Us’

The January 6 attack on The U.S. Capitol was the staggering culmination of years of political division and misinformation. Now, as debate rages over if President Trump should be held accountable for inciting the riot, President-elect Biden prepares to take the helm of a deeply divided country in a matter of days. Former CBS anchor, host of the Big Interview with Dan Rather, and author of the new book “What Unites Us,” joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss how we move forward.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    For context and perspective on what is happening in Washington D.C. and across the country, I spoke with Dan Rather, former CBS news anchor and author of "What Unites Us," his latest book.

    Dan, considering that you have covered the challenges that America has faced, both foreign and domestic, over your decades of reporting, what went through your mind when you saw this on January 6th?

  • Dan Rather:

    My first thought was I never thought I'd see the day. My second thought was I never even feared this would happen because it never entered my mind that it was possible for this to happen. I recognize that intellectually, that you can't support that. But that's what I felt.

    And then right behind that, which was boiling rage, concern and fear for the country, where we might be headed. And then, of course, anger at least bordering on outrage. I try very hard never to reach that point with the anger about who and what had brought us to this point where we were humiliating ourselves in front of our own eyes and certainly in front of the eyes of the world. All of those emotions were packed into just nanoseconds when I first saw what was happening.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    As you've been pointing out for years now on social media platforms, through your Facebook page, to your Twitter feed, so much of this comes from the lack of our ability to discern fact from falsehood. It just boggles my mind that we live in this ecosystem where the truth that we kind of took for granted is hard to come by.

  • Dan Rather:

    Well, I think it boggles everybody's mind, including my own, because we're still on the edge of this whole new world of social media, the internet, the internet's great possibilities for good, such as educating and giving truthful information. But on the other hand, the dark side, which you're pointing out so well, which has to concern us all, that misinformation, outright lies, propaganda, all of this gets loose on the internet.

    This is a very concerning time. I'm an optimist by nature and by experience, but we have to be realistic. We all know that part of being an adult is to recognize that you have to deal with what is real, reality, not what you hope will be. And the reality for us now, is it all on the table. To use a poker term, everything is on the table for this country. And we need to recognize that, that we can have a great future, a future bigger and better than anything of fathers and mothers ever dreamed of.

    But we have to move because we're teetering on the only imbalance, if you will, of just what you describe the world in which truth is rarely pure, never easy to come by and increasingly difficult to sort out. And I am concerned, and I think this is the question within your question, how we deal with the fact that, what, over 76 million Americans voted to put Donald Trump back into office and a very large majority of those are now convinced that our new president-elect, Joe Biden, is illegitimate. This is a danger within and the events at the capital, which sort of brought things to a head for the moment, won't be the last time that we're going to have to deal with this reality.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So let's say best case scenario, that there is a transition of power, hopefully a peaceful one on January 20th. The challenges that Joe Biden faces are unlike any that any previous president has faced of a huge proportion of the electorate who finds him illegitimate.

  • Dan Rather:

    Well, I agree that it is to use 2020's most overused word, unprecedented in our history. But here's what we have to say to ourselves: Hold on, take a deep breath and steady.

    There have been times in American history before, plenty of times. One example being the 1930s and 40s when we had a deep and abiding depression and the building World War II, when an incoming president, such as in this case Franklin Roosevelt in the early 1930s, faced tremendous obstacles and great problems.

    Now, it's true that when Joe Biden comes into office, I think his two immediate challenges are obvious. One is we have to get the virus under control. It's a disaster and an outrage and a humiliation that the distribution of the vaccine is where it is, the way it is. But the great hopes that Joe Biden can get that moving along, but that to deal with the virus and deal with the economic damage, those are the two immediate challenges for Joe Biden. But nothing is greater than he has to move as quickly as possible to do what is possible. There isn't a lot he can do, but he has to do what he can to bring us back together to identify those things that unite us, work on those things. Listen to the opposition. People who didn't vote for him and hope we can pull ourselves together is a tremendous challenge for him and for the country.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    And one of your recent tweets, you said, we must cultivate hope while demanding justice. How do we do that?

  • Dan Rather:

    Well, we're going to find out in coming days about administering justice, first of all, I do think we have to keep our hopes alive and realize that we are a very resilient people. We can do this. We can do this, but we've got to get ourselves together to do it. And at the same time, we can't just brush over what has happened, for example, at the Capitol. That's just one example, perhaps the worst example. And we do have to demand justice, whether that's the passing of new articles of impeachment against President Trump or moving in the courts as the months go by, there can't be hope for moving the future unless we adjust ourselves and address ourselves to justice. Just covering it over and saying, 'well, that's in the past, we need to move forward, we need to forget it all,' — I don't think is in the country's best interests.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Does that justice include holding people accountable who might have incited and you know, it's a fine line between what is freedom of speech and what is shouting fire in a crowded theater. Right. I mean, speech has consequences. So what kinds of consequences should people face if they rallied those people, if they gave comfort to those people who attacked the Capitol?

  • Dan Rather:

    Well, law enforcement and courts. For example, taking the time to identify every single person that can be identified who took part in what happened to the Capitol. But it has to go much higher and deeper and broader than that. The President himself has to be held accountable. He has to answer the questions of why he did what he did and be accountable. This is a whole new area for us to deal with, but deal with we must.

    And then for those who, many of whom, aided and abetted the President from their positions of power, elective office and otherwise, the ballot box is the end game and the ultimate place where their fate can be decided. But I may be wrong, as I often have been in the past, but I don't think the country is in a mood to just forget and forgive everything that has happened over the last four years. On the other hand, I do think it'd be a mistake for the country and if I know the American people are not going to be in the mood for any extension or sense of, 'let's get revenge.' So it is a delicate balance that has to be struck. And one test for the country is whether we can strike that balance.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    You've got a book with a title that I think everybody wants to figure out right now, "What Unites Us." This is something that Joe Biden has said repeatedly while on the campaign trail and even since he's won the presidency. If you could give him a Reader's Digest version or — send him a copy of the book for sure — but what would you tell us is in the book that could work for not just Joe Biden, but for the rest of us?

  • Dan Rather:

    Well, first of all, the book, "What Unites Us: Essays on Patriotism," it doesn't have all the answers, doesn't purport to have the answers. What we want to do is start a conversation about justice, there are hundreds of things which we all disagree. What fundamental things can we say we agree on? What we agree on, we want to preserve this constitutional republic based on the principles of freedom and democracy. I think that's something that unites us.

    You know, I'm fond of saying: I'm not right-wing; I'm not a left-wing; I'm not a chicken wing. Like a lot of other Americans, I just want the best for the country. I think that spirit is one of the things that unites us. But the book discusses things such as that and that we're all committed to one person, one vote. You can say, well, there are people, political operatives who aren't, with but the country as a whole is united behind that. But there are such things as empathy, compassion, science, appreciation for the arts. All of these things can unite us if we would just let them.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Dan, as you've watched American politics through these decades, even through incredibly turbulent times, say, the Civil Rights era, right now, for people that weren't alive then this seems so new to us. This seems that there is this intense tension on the right, getting more extreme on the left, getting more extreme. People just saying, 'Hey, we tried moderation for the past several decades. Look at where it's gotten us. This republic isn't perfect. And the way that we're going about it isn't perfect. We need some sort of radical change.'

    And you listen to people who stormed the Capitol, they have their solution. You listen to others on the far left and they have their solution. How did the country get past those what seemed insurmountable differences in the past, what can we learn from that when we try to talk to somebody who is so ideologically opposite to us today?

  • Dan Rather:

    Well, I know this is going to sound sort of sophomoric, but it starts with listening. We got through the 1960s and got to somewhat higher ground in the 1970s before we ran into Watergate. But each time the country has faced a kind of core challenge of the sort we're facing now, what we did was, deep breaths, say to ourselves, hold steady and let's listen to one another.

    It begins with listening, listening to people with whom you know you disagree and listen, particularly for the small things, beginning with small things on which we can agree. For example, in a community split between Trump haters and Trump lovers, maybe the Little League Baseball park needs refurbishing. Maybe the girl's soccer field needs to be redone. You start with small things like that. Say, we can agree we need to do that. Next thing you know, if you listen to one another, you're beginning to realize that there are things that can be accomplished when you start making your way back.

    One sweet step at a time. That's what happened after the 1960s. Let's remember, we had a decade of assassinations and actual big race riots in the streets. We came back from that. One reason and one way we came back from it, we listened to one another and looked for the common ground and acted on the common ground.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Dan Rather, the book is called "What Unites Us." Thanks so much.

  • Dan Rather:

    Thank you, Hari. Thank you very much.

Listen to this Segment