As someone who spent a year in the battlefields in Vietnam and lost 40 percent of his hearing from it, it’s hard to believe Dan Rather doesn’t think he has courage.
“One of my favorite words is courage,” he said. “It’s always good to aspire toward it.”
The fourth and final speaker in the Broward College Speaker Series lineup for the year, the legendary journalist spoke to a packed house at the Broward Center for Performing Arts about his career, his family, and stories that changed his life.
The sixth-generation Texan began his career in journalism while a student at what is now Sam Houston State University, including making 40 cents an hour working the weekend shift at KSAM— “the signal barely reached the city limits of Huntsville,” he recalled. He moved up the ranks in the journalism world, moving to New York City to work at CBS News and eventually “succeeding” Walter Cronkite for as anchor and managing editor of “CBS Evenings News.”
“Notice I said ‘succeeded’ Walter Cronkite—no one replaces a legend, an icon like Water Cronkite,” he told the audience.
Rather has interviewed every sitting American president since Dwight D. Eisenhower, although the journalist joked that the interview with the general was one question and it was probably “how are you?” Even so, during his career he has interviewed the world’s greatest leaders and reported from the battle lines of intense combat, most notably during the Vietnam War as a foreign correspondent, which he said exposed him to the “unimaginable bestiality of war.”
In the same vein, Rather said that reporting on the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, Jr. “changed me as a person.” It was during an interview with King in 1962 in Albany, Georgia that he was struck by how in the madness, King “stayed quiet at the center.” Other standouts were Nelson Mandela the day after his release from serving 27 years in prison, for his “ability to never forget, but to forgive.” The Dalai Lama for his devotion to “deep, hard study… if he wasn’t the Dalai Lama, he would be a scientist.” Mother Theresa for her unwavering sacrifice—he recounted watching her claw through heaps of “stinking trash” to search for infants who had been thrown out by their families.
Rather’s career came under fire while reporting on then-President George W. Bush, when he reported that Bush was given preferential treatment while serving in the military and managed to avoid fighting in Vietnam. The documents he based his claims on were alleged to be fake—the story of these “Killian documents” was made into a movie, “Truth,” in 2015.
Before his talk, Rather hosted a fireside chat with students at Broward College and also had the chance to meet a few survivors of the shooting in Parkland, of whom he said he was impressed by their “intelligence” and “poise” and praised their “blowing on the embers” of the issue of mass shootings.
He also discussed the current state of journalism, criticizing newsrooms for abandoning the tenet of public service and replacing it with a quest for ratings and hits. In the age of fake news, he implored news consumers to read (“yes, even a book”), be discerning, and choose trustworthy news outlets to serve as your “base camp” to help recognize fake news—his favorites are the Associated Press and Reuters.
The audience wasn’t going to let Rather leave the building without addressing the Trump White House, which were asked of him during the Q&A segment of the talk. He said that no matter one’s political stripes, the Trump administration is unlike any the country has seen before.
“This country has a tremendous amount of resilience…I am an optimist by nature and by experience,” Rather said. “I know we’ll get through this time and come out the other side of it.”
He warned against nationalism, saying it’s different from the humble virtue of patriotism, and that staunch nationalism in the last has lead to the Great Depression and Hitler’s Germany. Even so, he said he’s “not as concerned as other people I know.”
“As a citizen, you cannot and must not waver, get distracted or cower,” he said. “Deliver at the ballot box.”
(Photo by Downtown Photo)