When CBS presents its special on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, one key figure will be conspiciously absent.
And we’re not referring to Walter Cronkite (or any of the journalists) who have moved on to that big newsroom in the sky. Instead, we refer to Dan Rather, the disgraced former anchor of the CBS Evening News who played a key role in the network’s coverage of that fateful day. You won’t see Mr. Rather on CBS on November 22nd; instead he will participate in NBC’s coverage, led by Tom Brokaw.
On November 22, 1963, Rather was still a relative newcomer at CBS. He was the network’s correspondent based in New Orleans, covering the southern United States, along with central and South America. Rather was posted there after a six-month initiation in New York (where his work was undistinguished, at best), and a brief stint in the Dallas bureau. He was one of several correspondents assigned to Kennedy’s visit to Dallas, along with the late Lew Wood and Robert Pierpoint.
When shots rang out in Dealy Plaza, Rather hustled to Parkland Hospital, where the President and Texas Governor John Conolly were taken for treatment. As doctors battled to save Kennedy’s life, Rather tried to gather updates from hospital staffers.
At one point, Rather was speaking simultaneously with producers at CBS Radio News in New York and a Catholic priest at the hospital. The cleric informed Rather that the president had died, a snippet that was overheard by producers on the phone. Asked if Kennedy was dead, Rather answered affirmatively, not realizing what would happen next. Moments later, veteran CBS radio anchor Alan Jackson intoned “The President of the United States is dead,” and began reporting details of Kennedy’s demise, citing Rather as a source. The CBS radio bulletin aired almost 15 minutes before Walter Cronkite and the TV team confirmed Kennedy’s death. In his autobiography, Rather described that interval as the longest of his life.
It proved to be a career-making turn. He was promoted to the White House beat (for the first time) in 1964; reporting stints in London and Vietnam followed, putting Rather on the trajectory that eventually led to “60 Minutes” and eventually replacing Cronkite on the Evening News.
Of course, Rather’s 44-year career at CBS ended in ignomy, amid the scandal of “Docugate.” After being forced out at the network, Rather sued CBS for breach of contract, a case that was eventually tossed out. Giving your employer a colossal black eye–then taking them to court–won’t win you many friends in the executive suite. So that’s why “The Dan” (to use Bernie Goldberg’s favored term) will appear in NBC’s assassination coverage, and not on CBS.
But the snub of Dan Rather goes deeper than his scandalous departure from CBS and his subsequent legal action against the network. In his recent Cronkite biography, historian Douglas Brinkley reports that the legendary anchorman made a point to visit CBS Chairman Les Moonves on the morning after Rather’s departure was announced. Cronkite assured Moonves that he “did the right thing,” and Brinkley’s book reveals a long-simmering feud between Rather and his predecessor.
Not only did “Uncle Walter” have issues with some of Dan’s on-air antics (remember the “courage” sign-off?), it’s also clear that he was a bit peeved at being forced from the anchor chair back in 1981. At the time, CBS had a “mandatory” retirement age of 65, but the rule was not always enforced, and eventually scrapped altogether (Mike Wallace remained a correspondent for “60 Minutes” well into his 80s). The real reason CBS pushed Cronkite into retirement was to retain the services of one Dan Rather. With their rising “star” threatening to bolt to ABC or NBC, the so-called Tiffany Network felt it had no other option than “retiring” Cronkite and giving his job to Rather.
As Goldberg (and others) have documented, Rather ran the CBS news division with a degree of cunning and ruthlessness that would have made Cardinal Richelieu turn green with envy. Rather relentlessly played favorites, and exiled correspondents and producers who crossed him. Ed Rabel left the network for NBC after running afoul of the anchor, and Bernie Goldberg was similarly shunned after his famous 1996 critique of network news, in the editorial pages of The Wall Street Journal.
So when Rather’s career hit the rocks, virtually no one at CBS rushed to his rescue. And his circle of supporters shrank again when he filed that ill-fated lawsuit. Put another way, Dan Rather didn’t burn his bridges at CBS, he absolutely nuked them. That’s why he will spend November 22 in the company of Tom Brokaw, and not with his former network.