Dan Rather’s home­spun wis­dom on lofty top­ics

USA TODAY US Edition - - LIFE - Charisse Jones USA TO­DAY

As an­chor of the CBS Evening News in the 1980s, Dan Rather’s catch­phrase “courage,” and other home­spun bro­mides, struck some as the awk­ward mus­ings of a man strug­gling to es­cape the shadow of his pre­de­ces­sor, the leg­endary Wal­ter Cronkite.

Rather ul­ti­mately left the net­work un­der a cloud, two years after a con­tro­ver­sial 2004 re­port ques­tion­ing Pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush’s ser­vice in the Texas Air Na­tional Guard.

But now, lit­tle more than a decade later, Rather is hav­ing a mo­ment.

At the age of 86, Rather has be­come a Mil­len­nial dar­ling, with a Face­book page fol­lowed and “liked” by mil­lions.

He fre­quently ap­pears on MSNBC’s The Rachel Mad­dow

Show. And Rather’s new book of orig­i­nal es­says, What Unites Us: Re­flec­tions on Pa­tri­o­tism (Al­go­nquin, 274 pp., out of four),writ­ten with jour­nal­ist El­liot Kirschner, is pro­foundly top­i­cal.

Rather’s riffs on top­ics rang­ing from vot­ing rights to im­mi­gra­tion to the arts bear the tone of a gen­tle lec­ture. His roots as a dogged cor­re­spon­dent who cov­ered the civil rights move­ment, Water­gate and the Viet­nam War are on vivid dis­play as he backs up his point of view with bits of his­tory and oc­ca­sion­ally seeks to shed light on per­spec­tives that might be dif­fer­ent from his own.

In an es­say on sci­ence, for in­stance, we learn there are schol­ars who be­lieve the rhythms of Thomas Jef­fer­son’s con­tri­bu­tions to the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence are rooted in the ax­ioms of Eu­clid. But that is just a side note to Rather’s plain­spo­ken yet pas­sion­ate de­fense of sci­ence as vi­tal to the na­tion’s found­ing prin­ci­ples, teach­ing Amer­i­cans to pon­der and ques­tion. Even the idea of the United States is rooted in won­der, he says, be­cause what is democ­racy if not an ex­per­i­ment?

To be sure, there is judg­ment in th­ese pages, most sharply of a toxic po­lit­i­cal at­mos­phere that rev­els in di­vi­sive­ness. But there is also an un­var­nished hon­esty, about Rather’s own naïveté about racism grow­ing up in a work­ing-class corner of seg­re­gated East Texas and about a me­dia elite to which he once be­longed that gives equal weight to op­pos­ing points of view, even when one of the ar­gu­ments is not cred­i­ble — as in the de­nial of cli­mate change — in or­der to ap­pear bal­anced.

Per­haps Rather’s most pow­er­ful es­says cen­ter on the ideas of in­clu­sion and em­pa­thy. He writes that too of­ten Amer­i­cans revel in self-con­grat­u­la­tion for merely be­ing tol­er­ant when true in­te­gra­tion re­mains elu­sive. He notes the lack of com­pas­sion that is par­tic­u­larly ev­i­dent among the most pow­er­ful, who as­sign their priv­i­leged sta­tus more to good char­ac­ter than good luck, and act as though poverty and mis­for­tune are the fault of those who bear it.

Rather’s writ­ing shows why he has won the ad­mi­ra­tion of a new gen­er­a­tion. In th­ese es­says, he gives voice to the marginal­ized and rips off the jour­nal­is­tic shield of ob­jec­tiv­ity to ring the alarm bell when he wit­nesses ac­tions he fears un­der­mine the prin­ci­ples of Amer­i­can democ­racy. That, un­doubt­edly, is pa­tri­otic.

And it takes courage.

Dan Rather

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