Inside Story: The wit and wisdom of Dan Rather

As America says goodbye to it's most famous TV newsman, Ian Burrell charts his finest moments
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The Independent Online

Dan Rather, probably the biggest name in American broadcast journalism since the great Walter Cronkite, is finally going into retirement.

Dan Rather, probably the biggest name in American broadcast journalism since the great Walter Cronkite, is finally going into retirement.

It is difficult to imagine Rather, the face of CBS News for the past generation, with his pipe and slippers. Or at least not the traditional pipe, anyway - Mr Rather is the man who once described journalism as "more addictive than crack cocaine".

Ultimately, it was a basic failure to check facts that ended his 50-year dependency on reporting the news. This eccentric figure-head of US broadcasting was brought down by "Memogate", a story on George W Bush's service in the National Guard, based on fake documents, but nevertheless broadcast by CBS's flagship 60 Minutes show.

The documents had been cooked up on the internet. Rather, who made his name well before the term website had been invented, had once fatefully told his audience: "To err is human, but to really foul up requires a computer." When the most famous of US news anchors announced last week that he would be stepping down from the CBS Evening News on 9 March 2005 (his 24th anniversary on the show), Memogate was not mentioned. But no one was in any doubt that the scandal had dealt Rather a body blow from which his reputation could not recover.

There was a sad irony in this, given that Rather was best known for his public grilling of Richard Nixon over Watergate. He was also the voice that shocked US audiences with the shameful truth about the abuse of Iraqi prisoners in Abu Ghraib prison.

Rather was an American icon. Born in Wharton, Texas, he came to the attention of the networks for his coverage of Hurricane Carla in his home state in 1961. America has been through a lot with Rather. As a national correspondent he covered the assassination of John F Kennedy, the crusade of Dr Martin Luther King Jr and the Vietnam war before, in 1981, stepping into the shoes of the legendary Cronkite as presenter of the CBS Evening News.

Of course, Memogate wasn't just Rather's fault. He was ultimately the messenger, delivering news that had apparently been authenticated by a large team of senior journalists. But such was his persona, his style and his durability that Rather had come to embody CBS News - an attack on the network's credibility was indistinguishable from an assault on the anchorman himself.

Rather was much more than a figurehead and took a very active role in the newsroom. His departure coincides with that of Tom Brokaw, who has said of this ending of an era of American broadcasting that the pair should find themselves "a park bench... like two old fogeys".

Which is a reminder that, while he may be departing under something of a cloud, Rather, 73 and still on the air, has enjoyed a career and a half.

Life

"An intellectual snob is someone who can listen to the William Tell Overture and not think of The Lone Ranger."

"Courage is being afraid but going on anyhow."

"A tough lesson in life that one has to learn is that not everybody wishes you well."

"The dream begins with a teacher who believes in you, who tugs and pushes and leads you to the next plateau, sometimes poking you with a sharp stick called 'truth'."

Politics

"Only votes talk. Everything else walks."

"It's the American way: if you don't vote, you don't get to whine."

After elbowing an ABC reporter aside to ask President Nixon a question: Nixon: "Are you running for president?" Rather: "No, sir. Are you?"

On how the results are affecting strategists: "It's one reason some of them drink a lot."

Politicians

"Bush has run through Dixie like a big wheel through a cotton field."

"Bush swept through the south like a tornado through a trailer park."

"Kerry's got his back to the wall, his shirt-tails on fire and the bill collector's at the door."

"Al Gore has his back to the wall, shirt tails on fire with this race in Florida."

It's a tight race

"This will show you how tight it is, It's spandex tight."

"This race is as tight as the rusted lug nuts on a '55 Ford."

"This race is tight like a too-small bathing suit on a too-long ride home from the beach."

Journalism

"I got addicted. News, particularly daily news, is more addictive than crack cocaine, more addictive than heroin, more addictive than cigarettes."

"I've always tried to be fair, even-handed, not an advocate for any group."

"Be careful. Journalism is more addictive than crack cocaine."

"What I say or do here won't matter much, nor should it."

USA

"Americans will put up with anything provided it doesn't block traffic."

"By more than two to one Americans do not consider what Kerkorvian did, injecting a terminally ill patient with legal drugs at the patient's request, to be the same as murder. You may want to note that laws are not supposed to be enforced on the basis of public opinion polls."

This race is...

"...hotter than a Times Square Rolex."

"...hotter than the Devil's anvil."

"...hotter than a Laredo parking lot."

"...like a sauna for the two candidates. All they can do is wait and sweat."(Ohio 2004)

"...hot enough to peel house paint."

Drugs

"I've tried everything. I can say to you with confidence, I know a fair amount about LSD. I've never been a social user of any of these things, but my curiosity has carried me into a lot of interesting areas."

"I had someone at the Houston police station shoot me with heroin so I could do a story about it. The experience was a special kind of hell."

Election Night 2004

"Do you hear that knocking... President Bush's re-election is at the door."

"The situation in Ohio would give an aspirin a headache."

"If you try to read the tea leaves before the cup is done you can get yourself burned."

"You look at the map and say it's all a big Bush victory. But this is one time when your mother is right, looks can be deceiving."

Swing states

"The presidential race is swinging like Count Basie."

"This election swings like one of those pendulum things."

"Frankly we don't know whether to wind the watch or bark at the moon."

"What we know is there will be no decision until some of those races are decided."

"You talk about a ding-dong, knock-down, get-up race."

"We keep talking about Ohio if you've been tuning in and out or you put the baby to bed or you went to pop the cap on an adult, or otherwise, beverage..."

Gambling

"Don't bet the trailer money yet."

"President Bush smiling there with his family. He's laid down aces so far."

TV

"None of this television mumbo jumbo, let's get in there and count the votes."

The election is "closer than Lassie and Timmy."

Nature

"In southern states they beat him like a rented mule."

"George Bush's lead is as thin as November ice."

"John Kerry's moon has just moved behind a cloud, as far as Florida is concerned."

"These returns are running like a squirrel in a cage."

Food

"The big burrito out there in California."

"Never eat spinach before going on air."

"His lead is as thin as turnip soup."

"Texas: 32 electoral votes, another of the so-called big enchiladas or if not an enchilada at least a huge taco."

"They say California's the big burrito; Texas is a big taco right now. We want to follow that through. Florida is a big tamale."

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