Dan Rather’s homespun wisdom on lofty topics
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.