Dan Rather is the sage of Texas

With a gravitas earned from decades of reporting on the experiment that is America, Dan Rather has emerged as a voice of reason in these bombastic times. We sat down to talk with him about his new book exploring what patriotism means.

Dan Rather is the sage of Texas

Photography by Mike McGregor 

Dan Rather enters his office, 18 floors above 6th Avenue in Manhattan, and takes a seat at his desk. He’s cordial and camera-ready in a red tie, blue dress shirt and suspenders. He speaks far more softly than anyone who has followed his legendary newscasting career might expect. And at 86, he’s lived through and ruminated on more of America’s turmoil and triumph than most, from the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. to Vietnam, Iran-Contra, and the booms, busts, wars and recessions of various presidencies. That longevity doesn’t mean his convictions, or his blue-collar Texas work ethic, have waned.

These days he runs his own production company, News and Guts, which creates documentaries and written pieces such as the ones he regularly posts on Facebook, which have catapulted him back to a national prominence he hasn’t experienced since his controversial firing from CBS in 2005. This month he releases his seventh book, What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism, which he wrote with longtime producer Elliot Kirschner. It’s an impassioned collection, a meditation on what it means to be a patriotic American, and while he’s critical, the book is not a screed. It’s more a search for common ground in an age when, it seems, we need it most.

For an old-school newsman, you’ve become a bona fide Facebook phenomenon. How’d that happen?

I had very little knowledge of social media. But I work with a younger staff here, and they came to me, and they said, “Here’s the situation: If you want to remain relevant, if you want to be part of the conversation, it’s not optional. You have to be on social media.” So, we tried it. And I was stunned by it. We had posts with a total reach of 30 million people, and fairly regularly we reached 3 to 4 million. When we started I had no idea. I thought if we reached two dozen people it’d be alright.

What was it about what you were saying that appealed to people?

I don’t know. It’s always a rather strange and mystical thing what people are drawn to, but I think if anything—and I’m pausing because I don’t want to seem self-serving—people were looking for a sane and steady voice. I want to emphasize that I don’t always consider myself sane, much less steady, but a sane and steady voice with some context and perspective. And it’s not that I’m talented, by the way. I’ve just lived a long time [laughs].

How’d you get from there to this book?

The country had entered a confusing and difficult time. A lot of attention had been given, and is still being given, to how divided we are, and the dangers of sliding into tribalism. I thought it could be a good contribution to ask, here in the second decade of the 21st century, what is patriotism?

Patriotism is a deeply contested notion right now, as seen with the controversies with the NFL. How would you define it?

I want to emphasize, I’m not an authority on patriotism, I’m a reporter. What we hope to do with this book is to start a conversation, particularly in this atmosphere of confusion in government and all this talk about what’s wrong with “others,” either race, ethnicity or religion. So, let’s stop, take a deep breath, look at it with what we call in television a “wide shot.” What basic fundamental things can we agree on that makes us proud to be Americans?

From the book, it seems you have a very personal definition of patriotism: a mix of humility and a deeply felt obligation to work to improve the country.

Yes. We all agree the United States is not perfect—never has been, isn’t now, isn’t likely to be. But we have the polar star of trying to make the country as just as it can be, as free as it can be. So, what are the elements of that? Humility, gratitude, empathy. These are the things that we can agree on. But it’s as difficult now as it ever has been to live up to our ideals.

Why do you think that is?

The partisan political environment is so toxic. I think we’ve forgotten—and it’s worth reminding ourselves—that in the beginning, our national motto was, “Of Many, One.” There’s always been an undertow—we have to have this religious group, and this racial group, and this ethnic group, and you need to be with your own kind. Well, taken to its ultimate, that’s a descent into tribalism. That’s not a country.

Does this period in time strike you as the most divisive that you’ve experienced?

I can’t say that, but it’s certainly one of them. This is so important to understand: We seek a more perfect union, according to our founding documents. But it’s a constant search. The question is, can we continue to progress?

I think part of the problem right now is that there’s an assumption of bad faith when people talk to others they disagree with.

Exactly. I don’t think it’s reached epidemic stage, but we increasingly struggle with the disease of cynicism. Now, as a lifetime reporter, I know there’s a great advantage to skepticism, but I’ve always tried hard never to let the skepticism descend into cynicism. And what you just described was a certain cynicism: that they, whoever they are, have ulterior motives, they’re not who they appear to be, they’re bad for the country.

Whereas, often when you’re a reporter, it’s the opposite: No matter who the person is you’re talking to, you have to very quickly find commonality.

That’s right.

Is that part of the mission of the book? To find that little sliver of common ground to build on?

It’s a great part of what the book is about. It’s encouraging people to have an attitude that allows you to have a conversation along the lines of, “Look, you and I disagree about 100 things. Can we find one thing, or maybe two things, on which we might reach tentative agreement?” It’s always there. Once you find one little bit of common ground, you’ll be surprised how much of it there is. But it can only start and succeed if you are willing to listen, and have empathy.

What do you think of today’s political climate?

There are voices saying, “Come on, history tells you the United States can’t possibly hold itself together. It’s too racially divided, too religiously divided, too ethnically divided, politics has gone off the rails.” Well, I don’t believe that for a second. I make no apology for it: I am an optimist, by nature and by experience. The country’s going through a difficult time. It may take a while, but I’m convinced we’ll get through it stronger and better than we were before.

What is it that gives you hope?

The way Americans come together and unite in times of crisis. Take Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma. Harvey happened and neighbor helped neighbor, right from the get-go. I was very moved by that. It reminded me of the Oklahoma City disaster. I remember how Oklahomans immediately coalesced and started pulling together. They had a great attitude, saying, “We’re very pleased to have help from the outside, but understand that we’re resilient, and independent, and we help one another.” We’ve seen that time after time. We saw it after 9/11. I loved New York City before 9/11, but it really considerably deepened my love for this city after what we saw that day.

What else?

Look at the dedication of U.S. service members—not just military, but also diplomatic service. Go up to any hospital in the country—rural hospitals where they don’t have much help—and see the number of people pouring themselves into helping other people. By and large none of them are making any money. I see those things day in and day out.

You have a story about how your family helped some neighbors growing up who were having a hard time. Your mother had a fantastic line about why you did it.

She said, “We don’t feel sorry for them. We understand that’s how they feel. And it could be us.” I don’t know where she got that from. She was not a formally educated person. But she understood that. And I think we have a population that overall is filled with empathy. Compassion is feeling sorry for someone. Empathy is, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

Your grandmother was wise, too. You talk about your earliest memory. Can you tell me about it?

This was my grandmother Paige. In Bloomington, Texas, it’s blackland dirt. She said, “Danny, put your hands in the dirt. Feel the dirt. And look at the sky. This is Texas. This is where you’re from. This is who you are.” I was quite young when that happened. She felt so strongly about that. She wanted me to feel the dirt, feel the land and then sense the immensity of the sky. In her very provincial existence, those were the fundamentals. I didn’t realize it until much later, but it was her way of giving me a strong sense of place. Later, when I was traveling a lot, and life was fast-paced, and I couldn’t even remember where I was staying, it ended up being important to me to say, “Who am I? What am I doing?” And go, “Well, wait a minute. You’re a Texan. You’re an American. That’s home.”

Rare Perspective

Dan Rather’s career has allowed him to witness, report on and ponder some of the most important moments in modern American history.

First journalist to report on the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Bureau chief for CBS News London, then CBS News Saigon, where he reports from the battlefield.

Returns to job as CBS White House correspondent, covering the Civil Rights movement and eventually Watergate.

Attacked by security as he tries to question a Georgia delegate being removed from the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Begins 38 years of contributing to CBS’s 60 Minutes as a correspondent, host and co-editor.

Reports from the battlefields of Afghanistan.

Replaces Walter Cronkite as anchor of CBS Evening News, a post he would hold for 24 years.

Grills Vice President George H.W. Bush about the Iran-Contra affair.

Breaks news of abuses at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison.