Dan Rather, unarguably referred to as the “consummate journalist,” has been an integral part of the American news world for well over 60 years including more than two decades as the anchor of “The CBS Evening News” and a correspondent for “60 Minutes.”
The recent celebrant of his 86th birthday, the Houston-raised reporter has gained even more followers, millennials in particular, through “News and Guts,” his Facebook news feed and social media platform.
Rather, who says “the world is a better place when we have an open exchange of ideas,” while at the same time debunking notions of “fake news,” recently sat down with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jonathan Capehart on the campus of George Washington (GW) University in Northwest for an engaging conversation about Rather’s new collection of essays. The book, titled “What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism,” draws on his first-hand experience of historical change and front-line news, and reveals how he understands the very notion of America and what it means to be an American.
The event, held on Thursday, Nov. 9 at the university’s G.W. Lisner Auditorium, co-sponsored by GW and Politics and Prose Bookstore, attracted an audience of more than 200 eager listeners reflective of the American panorama with a wide range of ages, races, educational levels and economic statuses.
And as he continues to illustrate on his current book tour, Rather brought an impressive, if not unique take on today’s more divisive issues and beliefs that threaten to erode our country’s unity. Still, the journalist stood firm in his assertion and hope that in the final analysis, “we are one.”
“It’s hard to explain why a growing number of millennials are following me online and seem to be so interested in my thoughts,” he said. “I can only guess that they’re looking for a steady, reliable voice and I’ve been around for a lot of years.”
Rather noted that as one who grew up during the Great Depression, lived through World War II, the “Red Scare,” Watergate, the civil rights movement and 9/11, he’s formed a credible perspective on what it means to be a “patriot” — a word he feels has recently been bandied about incorrectly.
“I believe that what it means to be a ‘patriot’ in the 21st century is often confused with the word ‘nationalism’ and we need to be clear about the distinctions between the two,” Rather said. “Being a patriot suggests that you have a deep love of country but with humility as a key characteristic. You don’t beat on your chest while bragging about your love of your homeland. You are searching for a more ‘perfect union’ as the Founding Fathers said.”
“In contrast, ‘nationalism’ is accompanied by arrogance and has the danger of becoming extreme both in terms of economics which was the sentiment among Americans when the Great Depression hit or racially which opened the door for Hitler and the Nazi regime. If we descend into tribalism then the notion of the ‘home of the free’ becomes an impossible goal,” he said.
“Political momentums tend to parallel the movements of a pendulum swinging back and forth. There’s an ebb and flow to American politics. History shows that things tend to swing to the left and then to the right but we see that it eventually steadies itself in the broad middle.”
“Take for example the recent elections in states like Virginia, New Jersey and Maine where Democrats won rather easily. But I would warn Democrats to be careful and not prematurely celebrate, assuming that their recent victories are the beginning of a trend that will continue into the 2018 midterm elections. However, it’s noteworthy that the margins of victory were greater than predicted and that voters from the suburbs turned out in such high numbers.”
Early in his book, Rather takes issue with those who misinterpret the denotation of “patriotism” and then justify their actions or beliefs based on that incorrect conclusion:
To [elected officials] I say that patriotism is not a cudgel. It is not an arms race. It also means confronting honestly what is wrong or sinful with our nation and government. I see my love of country imbued with a responsibility to bear witness to its faults. [p. 11f.]
Capehart: “After reading this section, it took me to those NFL players who have taken to their knees in support of the Black Lives Movement’s young protesters who have denounced the way Blacks are mistreated by the police. Trump says football players who kneel or who do not honor the flag are un-American. Is the president correct?”
Rather: “I stand with my hand over my heart and often mouth the words when the national anthem is sung. But I respect those with different experiences from mine and whose consciousness has evolved with different thoughts and absolutely support their right to protest. Again and again throughout American history, dissenters have been called unpatriotic. However, with time we often see that the radicals of yesterday become the prophets of tomorrow — like the women suffragettes or Dr. King and others who were involved in the civil rights movement. Trump’s attempt to influence public sentiment and to label dissenters whose actions are protected under the Constitution — that’s unconscionable. That’s unpatriotic.”
Rather said he intentionally did not invoke the president’s name anywhere in his collection of essays. He says he wrote the book, not to criticize the current political tenor but to provide context and perspective. However, when queried on his opinion about the Trump administration, he took little time to respond.
“I worked at the White House for 10 years and it gave me a real sense of pride every time I entered those doors,” he said. “Let’s remember that the president is a citizen like anyone else, elevated to the highest office and his tone should be noble and civil. That’s not what we see in Donald Trump.”
“The United States was started as a noble experiment — a place that opened its doors to multiple races and ethnicities. But we’ve never had the relentless attack on the press and certain other institutions by a president like we’re seeing now. A free press serves as the real beating heart of America. Without that freedom, America becomes a very different place.”
“Republicans currently hold the majority in Congress but that doesn’t mean they should go along with everything that their fellow Republican in the White House says or does. If they are opposed to what’s going on and say nothing, they’re being cowards. We’re talking about our country here. Republicans must speak as their hearts tell them.”
“My respect for the Office of the Presidency has kept me silent since the voters chose Donald Trump. But it was impossible for me to remain silent after his response to the actions in Charlottesville in which he suggested that peaceful, law-abiding protesters were just as guilty of inciting violence as the neo-Nazis and bigots who were the real initiators and to whom he gave a wink of approval. I saw that as ceding the moral authority of the presidency. That was going too far.”