“As Lyndon Johnson said, ‘I’m hunkered down like a mule in a hailstorm,’ ” says Dan Rather from his New York apartment. Now 88, the veteran reporter and newsman is holed up like many in his city, but he’s hardly silent. Although it’s been 14 years since he and CBS News parted ways, Rather remains active in his business; he’s gearing up for a new season of his Big Interview series on the AXS TV network and has a SiriusXM show, Dan Rather’s America.
In recent years, Rather, known for confrontational interviews with presidents Richard Nixon and George H.W. Bush, has also become one of President Trump’s most vocal critics. And he’s used his Twitter account, which he’s had since 2009, to tweak and critique the ways of Washington: “We stockpile bombs and ammunition for our national security, at huge cost. Why haven’t we stockpiled respirators, masks, and other gear at a fraction of that cost?” or “Excuse me but why is the Senate gym apparently open? Doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence.”
We checked in with Rather to get his take on the current pandemic — and how both the Trump administration and the media are handling it.
You’ve been witness to a lot of history, from the civil-rights movement to Vietnam to Watergate. Can you compare what we’re going through now to anything you’ve experienced?
No. None of us Americans have seen anything quite like this since the great flu of 1918, and even I, at my advanced age, was not alive in 1918 [laughs]. This is completely uncharted territory. When this is over, there’s just no way we will be the same country. We can’t and probably shouldn’t be, for that matter.
But we haven’t had this kind of test in our lifetime. I think you’d have to go back to the very first days of Pearl Harbor and the Japanese attack. It looked like we could well lose World War II, and the whole nation felt those were scary and sad times. But what we’ve learned from ancient and modern history is that we reach into the wellsprings of hope and resolve to get through things like this, and I think we will.
You’ve been a regular critic of Donald Trump. How would you rate his performance so far during this pandemic?
I’m trying my very best to be objective, but his performance is disappointing, to say the very least. It’s clear that he has decided to lead from behind. He says he doesn’t want to take any responsibility for any strategic or tactical decisions. That’s always somebody else. It’s disappointing and dispiriting and, frankly, disgraceful.
Some in the media are making the case that the networks shouldn’t broadcast Trump’s press conferences, calling them “propaganda.”
I’m smiling because this is a question I anticipated. I thought, “Well, I hope he doesn’t ask me that question,” and here we are [laughs]. I confess to being torn. I do think there’s a very strong case for stating that what he calls his press conferences are straight-out propaganda and should be seen as such. They’re a new version of his campaign rallies, and I think most of us journalists felt we learned a lesson during the last campaign: If you let him dominate the airwaves, you’re giving him a free pass. So I do think there’s a very strong case to be made for not covering them.
But the other side of me, having worked a long time in network news, feels the people who make that decision to carry or not are going to decide for the competitive reason, and I understand that. If networks A and B don’t carry them, and network C does, then network C’s ratings will go through the roof and they will benefit financially and otherwise. It’s the real world, and it’s a very good discussion to have, but I don’t expect any major change.
You’ve been on Twitter for more than a decade. Do you enjoy it?
I do. And this is something that surprised me. I do confess that I was slow to come around to Twitter. When it first started, the young people on the staff — they’re all younger now — encouraged me to get on social media platforms and I basically said, “I’m sorry, I’m too old for this.” But they came back and made the argument that if you want to stay relevant in even some minuscule level, it’s not an option; it’s imperative. I actually enjoy it, for the sense of community.
Every once in a while, you use Twitter to tweak the media, like a New York Times headline about the government’s lack of preparedness. (“Chilling article lays out Trump Administration missteps. I would suggest rewriting this headline not in the passive voice.”)
It’s always in the spirit of knowing how difficult it is. I don’t know much, but this is something I know something about. When I happened to see that press conference with Peter Alexander live, and when I saw that happening, I had real empathy for Peter, because I’ve been in that situation. [On March 20, NBC’s Alexander asked Trump, “What do you say to Americans who are watching you right now who are scared?” to which Trump responded, “I say you are a terrible reporter.”] I know how that feels. American journalism as a whole deserves a lot of credit, particularly in the last three years. There was a time going back not too far when I was really afraid that investigative reporting was going out of fashion. But overall the coverage has been very good and sometimes terrific.
Having been in White House press briefings in the past, especially when you were CBS’ chief White House correspondent for 12 years, how did you feel when Trump answered Alexander the way he did?
You’ll never meet anyone with more respect for the office of the presidency than I have. But that was outrageous and unacceptable. It should be universally criticized. It was unworthy of the American presidency, to say the least. The president wants to be seen as attacking the press, and he’s convinced that’s to his advantage and he continues to do it. The irony is that Peter Alexander is one of the most decent, well-mannered, and respectful reporters in all of television.
I do think this outburst against Alexander, which was unprovoked, says something deeper. What that deeper thing is … it may indicate how worried the president is and that he knows he’s not meeting even the most basic standards of a presidential performance in a national emergency.
If you were able to ask Trump a question, what would it be?
[Pause] “Mr. President, of what are you afraid? Time after time, statements indicate that deep down you are fearful. Of what?” That wouldn’t be a bad question. I wouldn’t expect a very good answer. You could say, “What are you afraid of, because your behavior sometimes is bizarre.” Sometimes it’s mondo bizarre. He seems very afraid that people are going to find out something. I’d like to find out what that something is, or even see him try to answer it.
Is it possible that this pandemic could be his Hurricane Katrina?
Well, we can’t know. We have to see how things play now. Right now, as we’re talking, it’s worse than Katrina, but there’s still time. It isn’t over.
And in the meantime, Trump is positioning himself as a “wartime president.”
I will say that I expected that. When George W. Bush became president he was advised, by Dick Cheney or one of those people around him, that if he wanted to be a great president he had to be a wartime president.
But stop for a second and examine that statement. He wants to be a wartime president but he doesn’t want to be in command. A wartime president wants to pull the whole country together. But he’s saying we’re at war, but each state has to fight the war in its own right. It would be as if Franklin Roosevelt said, after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, “California, you’re going to have to fend for yourself” or “Washington state, you’re going to have to fend for yourself.” Forgive me if this sounds harsh, but that is ridiculous. And dangerous.