DAN RATHER took the best seat in the house that Murrow built and then left the place a ruin. Now he has returned to torch the rubble.
The former "CBS Evening News" anchor has a filed a $70-million suit against the network where he worked for 44 years, alleging that the network breached his contract when it asked him to step out of the anchor's chair and pushed him into broadcast obscurity. CBS did this, the suit contends, because of his role in producing what turned out to be a wholly unsubstantiated "60 Minutes II" segment alleging that a young George W. Bush used family connections to obtain favorable treatment that allowed him to evade service in the Texas Air National Guard.
Rather's suit further alleges that CBS' internal investigation -- directed by two outsiders, former U.S. Atty. Gen. and Pennsylvania Gov. Richard Thornburg and ex-Associated Press chief Louis Boccardi -- was a "fraud." According to Rather, Sumner Redstone, chairman of Viacom, the network's corporate owner, along with then-CBS news President Andrew Heyward and Les Moonves, CBS' chief executive, sacked Rather and four other journalists to get the Bush administration off their backs.
"Central to the defendants' play to pacify the White House," the suit contends, "was to offer Mr. Rather as the public face of the story and as a scapegoat for CBS management's bungling of the entire episode -- which, as a direct result, became known publicly as 'Rathergate.' "
Oh, that's how that happened.
Here we thought that trite "Rathergate" business came about because a lot of conservative commentators gleefully pounced on a self-evidently shoddy piece of journalism served up by a newsman they'd long suspected of bias and because he and his network then obligingly confirmed their suspicions by arrogantly defending the indefensible -- bad work.
Now, if you once had thought of yourself as situated at the heart of the journalistic universe for nearly half a century, and suddenly found yourself 75 and toiling for an obscure cable operation that seemed to generate more press releases than viewers, it probably would be much more satisfying to see yourself as the victim of an intricate, high-level conspiracy than as someone undone by the kind of personal screw-up that would make a first-year reporter blush.
The problem is that there's more than one guy's injured vanity at play here. In fact, the adjectives that come to mind as you assess the substance of what Rather now has done are wanton, reckless and irresponsible. Let's put aside the fact that Rather has no evidence that the network's owners were anything but understandably embarrassed and angry at having their single most recognizable journalist air something as incompetently put together as the "60 Minutes" segment in question. Let's ignore any questions over why Thornburg and Boccardi -- two men with unimpeachable reputations in their respective fields -- would join a conspiracy to "get Dan Rather."
Instead, let's focus on the implications of two of the allegations in Rather's suit:
The former anchorman now says that he had little, if anything, to do with the reporting, sourcing or fact-checking that went into the Bush segment. He was busy elsewhere -- covering a hurricane and former President Clinton's heart surgery. Other people reported and vetted the charges against Bush; Dan just went on camera and recited them -- sort of like a court clerk.
If that's true, it's beyond reprehensible. The anchorman of the "CBS Evening News" went on camera and told the world that a wartime president of the United States had deliberately evaded military service himself, even though the anchorman had no firsthand knowledge that the charge was true? And if that's, in fact, what occurred, how is it that Rather could go on CNN's "Larry King Live," as he did this week, and insist that the report was true? (One of the most stunning moments in that interview occurred when Rather insisted he was entitled to say the "60 Minutes" segment was true, because nobody had proved it was false. Actually, Dan, it's supposed to be the other way around.)
Josh Howard was executive producer of "60 Minutes" when the segment aired and was one of those subsequently forced to resign from CBS. Here's what he told the Washington Post about Rather this week: "I think he's gone off the deep end. He seems to be saying he was just the narrator. He did every interview. He worked the sources over the phone. He was there in the room with the so-called document experts. He argued over everything in the script. It's laughable."