Born in Wharton, Texas, on October 31, 1931, the son of Daniel Sr. (a ditchdigger and pipelayer) and Vera (a homemaker), Dan Rather moved with his family to Houston Heights, a working-class neighborhood in Houston, as a child. His father’s voracious reading habits shaped the young Dan, who developed an interest in journalism. While bedridden by bouts of rheumatic fever, he listened to radio broadcasts from war correspondents such as Edward R. Murrow and Eric Sevareid. Rather attended Love Elementary School and Hamilton Middle School, and he graduated in 1950 from John H. Reagan High School in Houston.
The first in his family to go to college, Dan Rather earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism in 1953 from Sam Houston State College in Huntsville, Texas, under Professor Hugh Cunningham. The latter got him a job at the local radio station, KSAM, from 1950 to 1953, where Rather rapidly learned the ropes, from writing news to announcing play-by-play of local athletic events, honing his ad libbing skills, which proved invaluable later in his career. Between 1951 and 1953, Rather wrote close to a hundred pieces for the university’s paper, The Houstonian, as a staff writer and later editor. In addition, he worked as an Associated Press reporter and later a reporter for United Press International (1950–52). In 1954, Rather enlisted in the United States Marine Corps but was soon discharged because he had rheumatic fever as a child. Rather then worked at KTRH radio in Houston and the Houston Chronicle, his first job as a full-time reporter. He wrote newscasts, broadcasted, and was a beat reporter, covering city hall, the courts, and the police department. He also continued doing play-by-play sports, which led to his first television job with KTRK-Houston in 1959, doing a weekly “Coaches Show” for the University of Houston.
He became news director of KTRH in 1956 and a reporter for KTRK-TV Houston in 1959, before joining the CBS affiliate KHOU in 1960 as news director. By this time he had married Jean Goebel, whom he met when she was hired as a secretary at KTRH, and they had two children. At KHOU, Rather focused on breaking news and the weather, the bread-and-butter of local channels, leading to his national breakthrough in 1961 with his coverage of Hurricane Carla. Hired by CBS News, Rather spent six weeks in New York before being sent back to the South in 1962 as chief of the Southwest bureau in Dallas and then, in August 1963, as chief of the Southern bureau in New Orleans. With Nelson Benton as bureau manager and Lew Wood as field reporter, Rather was responsible for covering news events in the South, Southwest, Mexico, and Central America. During that time, he reported extensively on racial conflicts in the South and the fight for civil rights, covering the Freedom Rides from Jackson, Mississippi, to Charlotte, North Carolina, and James Meredith’s entry into the University of Mississippi. He also interviewed major civil rights figures, from Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers to Vivian Malone and James Hood.
As chief of the Southern bureau, Dan Rather was part of a team of journalists covering President Kennedy’s visit to Dallas. He was on the ground when the shooting took place and was one of the first journalists to confirm the president’s death. One of only two journalists to see the Zapruder film in Dallas, Rather was the first to describe it on television. In the following years, he was part of several extensive reports on the assassination and the Warren Report in a series of CBS News specials. In the late 1960s, Rather worked as a foreign and war correspondent in places such as London, Greece, India, and China, as well as Vietnam, where he succeeded Morley Safer as chief Vietnam correspondent for CBS News. Together with cameramen such as Jerry Adams and Alex Brauer, Rather recorded and documented the everyday life of soldiers and their fights in places such as Tam Ky and Ho Bo Wood. They also did pieces on troop morale and on a division that had lost and was searching for the body of one of their own, Sergeant Nuñez.
Passionate about all things political, Dan Rather has been reporting about and commenting on U.S political affairs since his first columns as the editor of the Houstonian in 1952. He traveled with his first president, Dwight Eisenhower, in 1960 as the news director at KHOU in Houston. As a White House correspondent from 1964 to 1975, he closely followed the Johnson and Nixon administrations and reported extensively on the Watergate scandal. He was an essential part of several CBS News Special Reports, including “The Senate and the Watergate Affair” on March 13, 1973, and “Watergate and the President” on August 16, 1973. Rather was, like many of his colleagues, often criticized and attacked by the Nixon administration, especially Vice President Spiro Agnew, who denounced television news broadcasters as a biased “unelected elite” and the commentators as “prejudiced” and “hostile.” Press conferences were often tense and hostile, and some of Rather’s hard-hitting questions led to his reputation as anti-Nixon, especially after an odd exchange in Houston in 1974. He was also labeled anti-George Bush when he interviewed the latter about the Iran-Contra scandal in 1988. When he moved on to become a correspondent for CBS Reports and 60 Minutes, and later as the anchor of the CBS Evening News, Rather continued to report about political matters and he is, to this day, a valued commentator.
“The remarkable thing about Dan is the body of work. When you look at the collection of stories that he’s covered, it’s the history of the country over the past 50 years. He’s been there.”
Producer Jeff Fager in an interview with the New York Times, November 24, 2004.
In 1974, Rather joined the legendary CBS Reports, where he fronted a dozen reports including some on drinking water, the hunting industry in the U.S., cancer research, and his first of many interviews with Fidel Castro. He was also part of an ambitious four-night special entitled “The American Assassins,” which earned a Peabody Award. From 1975 to 1981, he worked with Mike Wallace, Morley Safer, and Don Hewitt at 60 Minutes, which became the top-rated program on Sunday nights in the fall of 1978. During that period, Rather worked on about 160 shows with a team of first-rate producers, including Leslie Edwards, Steve Glauber, Marion Goldin, Andrew Lack, Paul Loewenwarter, William McClure, Philipp Scheffler, Igor Oganesoff, and Jeanne Solomon. Like his colleagues, Rather did a mix of stories: investigative pieces on social, political, and economic abuses, and frauds (moving companies, the pesticide Phosvel, therapists who sexually exploit their patients, brown lung disease) and high-profile interviews (George Wallace, John Connally, Barbara Jordan, Leon Jaworski, Jesse Jackson, Fidel Castro). He also did his share of “fluff” pieces (the disco craze, backgammon, pinball machines) and introduced viewers to a wide range of important topics (a maximum security federal penitentiary, the over-consumption of sugar, carcinogens in hair coloring products, the plight of disabled workers and of handicapped children, neo-nazi movements, etc.). Eager to pursue his passion for investigative and ground reporting, Rather continued to participate in a series of news magazines after becoming anchor, including 48 Hours(1988–), CBS Reports (from 1993 on) and 60 Minutes II (1999–2005), where he unveiled major stories including the abuses at Abu Ghraib and an interview with the daughter of Strom Thurmond.
In addition to his other duties, Rather had been anchoring the Sunday Night News since the 1970s as well as occasionally the Saturday Evening News. In 1981, he replaced Walter Cronkite as the anchor of the most successful and highly regarded evening news in America. Dan Rather was the anchor and managing editor of CBS Evening News for twenty-four years, the longest tenure in television history. As such, he was not only the face of CBS, but stood for quality and reliable television news. He was repeatedly voted best anchor and was regarded, in 1984, as one of the most influential men in America. During shattering events such as the assassination attempt on President Reagan, the Challenger space shuttle disaster, and 9/11, Rather delivered critically acclaimed hours-long coverage, bringing clarity and a sense of calm in times of confusion and uncertainty.
Starting with his breakthrough coverage of Hurricane Carla, the civil rights movement, and the assassination of President Kennedy in Dallas, Rather also honed his skills and earned his credentials as a journalist working on the ground. As a foreign and war correspondent, he has covered, on-scene, more than twenty wars, revolutions, and major violent riots. In addition to Vietnam, these include the India-Pakistan War of 1965, the Rhodesia War in Africa, the El Salvadoran Civil War, the Palestinian “Intifada” against Israel, the U.S. intervention in Somalia, as well as the first Gulf War, the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, and the Afghan and Iraqi wars. He followed major foreign events, from the opening of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s to the liberation of Nelson Mandela in South Africa and the demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in China. In addition to crisis and conflicts and foreign events, Rather gained a reputation for covering natural disasters. Since his breakthrough with Hurricane Carla in 1961, Rather has reported on site about hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods, such as the 1989 San Francisco earthquake and the 2004 tsunami. He followed up on the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and was on the scene of the 2010 Haiti earthquake.
In the course of his career, Rather has conducted interviews with some of the world’s most compelling figures, from the famous to the infamous. Known for asking real, tough questions, Dan Rather has and continues to conduct in-depth interviews with hundreds of world leaders and newsmakers ranging from Rosalynn Carter and Jesse Jackson to Saddam Hussein. He is as comfortable with Robert Redford, Dolly Parton, and Quentin Tarantino, as he is with Fidel Castro, Nelson Mandela, and President Bill Clinton. Rather also strives to give voice to everyday people, from the victims of Katrina and the returning soldiers to migrant workers and truck drivers. In his roles as a reporter, White House correspondent, and anchor, Rather talked to countless people, and his work with investigative magazines like CBS Reports, 60 Minutes, and Dan Rather Reports allowed for longer interviews. In addition to his Conversations in Science, Rather also fronted the interview show Who’s Who in 1977. Since 2013, he has pursued his interests by talking to television, film, music, and entertainment personalities in The Big Interview on AXS TV.
In a 60 Minutes II story in September 2004, Rather questioned President George W. Bush’s service record in the Texas Air National Guard at the time of the Vietnam War, citing newly acquired documents. The authenticity of this evidence was called into question, and Rather eventually retracted the story. Pressure on the network continued, and Rather announced in November that he would step down as anchor on March 2005, twenty-four years after he had started. CBS appointed a panel, which concluded that the network rushed to make inadequately verified allegations public and was slow in responding to criticism. The panel, however, was unable to conclude whether the documents were forgeries or not, nor did it conclude that a political agenda at 60 Minutes Wednesday drove either the timing of the airing of the segment or its content. Four CBS employees were asked to resign or were terminated. Rather continued to work for 60 Minutes before leaving the network altogether in June 2006 when his contract, contrary to what had ben verbally agreed upon, was not renewed. The network produced and aired a retrospective of his career in March 2005 entitled “Dan Rather: A Reporter Remembers.” In September 2007, Rather sued CBS for breach of contract and various tort theories. The case was eventually dismissed by a New York State appeal court. Dan Rather moved on to HDNet TV, now AXS TV, where in November 2006 he started Dan Rather Reports, a news magazine for which he was nominated for and won numerous awards.
Rather has received virtually every honor and award in broadcast journalism, including numerous Emmy Awards and Peabody Awards, citations from critical, scholarly, professional, and charitable organizations, and various honorary degrees from universities. He has received a Lifetime Achievement Emmy Award in 2005, the prestigious National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Trustees Award in 2013, and a lifetime achievement award at the Banff World Media Festival in 2014. He continues to be a much-sought-after contributor to top newspapers and magazines and is a frequent speaker on journalistic issues.
A prolific writer, Dan Rather has authored or co-authored seven books, which include The American Dream (2001), Deadlines and Datelines (1999), The Camera Never Blinks Twice: The Further Adventures of a Television Journalist(1994), I Remember (1991), The Camera Never Blinks (1977), and The Palace Guard (1974). In 2012, he published his latest memoir, Rather Outspoken and What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism came out in the fall of 2017. Rather also contributed to CBS News Radio with a weekly broadcast of news and analysis, Dan Rather Reporting, heard on more than three hundred stations across the country from 1981 to 2004. He wrote an eponymous weekly King Features Syndicate column that ran in about fifty newspapers between 1998 and 2009, participated in numerous discussion panels, and gave hundreds of speeches around the globe. His “ratherisms,” the “verbal oddities” and Texas/Southern/made-up expressions he uses most often during election nights, became the topic of articles and have been collected by all sides.
Needless to say, Dan Rather became a very public person as a reporter, White House correspondent, correspondent for shows like 60 Minutes and CBS Reports, the anchor and managing editor of the CBS Evening News, and the head of Dan Rather Reports. He has given countless interviews, been featured in numerous magazines, and appeared on television shows. A fixture in American culture, he has also been impersonated on shows like Saturday Night Live and The Simpsons. Colleagues and friends often comment on how, on a personal side, he never lost his connection to his family and Texas and remained a Southern gentleman. In the course of his long career, Rather has attracted both critics and admirers and was embroiled in his share of controversies, but he continues to work hard to be a reporter and an honest broker of information.