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Whither Rather?

The night my father-in-law died, my mother-in-law got a call from the hospital sometime after midnight from a polite young man working for the hospital's organ donation program. He was properly respectful and circumspect, speaking in a voice that he no doubt imagined was soothing and empathetic but, in actuality, made him come across as menacing and unnerving. "I'm so sorry for your loss," he groaned in the same sepulchral tones that Vincent Price would use in a 1950s B-movie right before flourishing his cape and grinding up the doomed hero into hamburger. "Would you mind donating your late husband's organs?" Understandably, she hung up the phone.

She got a call the next morning from another person -- a less creepy person -- who explained, succinctly and non-ghoulishy, the merits of organ donation. My mother-in-law agreed, arrangements were made, and the woman on the other end of phone thanked her for her time. Which is when my mother-in-law asked about the macabre, off-putting young man who had phoned the night before.

There was a pause on the other end of the line, followed by a heavy sigh. "Oh, that," the woman said, in a tone of voice that suggested she had been asked a similar question before and was getting kind of tired about supplying the answer. "That was Carl. We've asked him not to talk to people like that. He thinks he's being reverent."

I thought of Carl recently and his gloomy, funereal way of soliciting organ donations when I caught a few moments of CBS's war coverage featuring Dan Rather and his gloomy, funereal way of delivering the news. And I can't help but wonder if the folks at CBS are getting as exasperated asking Dan not to talk that way as the higher-ups at the organ bank were getting with poor, misguided Carl.

It was the morning the U.S.-led forces were launching their much-hyped Shock & Awe Tour 2003 on Baghdad. CBS, which had begun the morning broadcasting the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament, cut away wisely, if somewhat abruptly, to footage of the bombing as narrated by Our Man Dan. Rather spoke in hushed, somber tones, trying to achieve that elusive mix of you-are-watching-history-unfold and oh-the-humanity! in his delivery that would convey the gravity of the situation. Rather sounded grim. Rather sounded stricken. Rather sounded...

Well, frankly, he sounded unhinged. Seriously.

I have no idea what's waiting for us when we shuffle off this mortal coil and head for the light. But after hearing Dan Rather solemnly and glumly reporting on the latest Gulf War, I'm convinced that his disembodied voice will be waiting for us on the other side, greeting us in the afterlife.

And because of that chilling realization, I now fear the Reaper.

Rather wasn't doing himself any favors on this particular morning, thanks to his understandable yet ultimately misguided decision to pause at every explosion so that the viewer at home could marvel in terrorized wonderment at the full might of U.S. air superiority. The result was a halting, spastic delivery full of pauses so pregnant you could run to the kitchen and make yourself a sandwich in the time it took Rather to complete a sentence. Nothing wrong with that, I suppose -- so long as you're not really trying to come across as a competent, composed professional, but rather an unfocused, raving lunatic who's on the verge of filling one of those pregnant pauses with a torrent of profanity and gibberish.

In Rather's defense, there are worse ways to anchor the news, and most of them are on full display over on the Fox News Channel, where the presenters cover the war with the same gusto John Madden shows for a midseason Cowboys-Redskins game. I guess I'll take stumbling, gloom-filled gravitas over gung-ho, chattering gasbaggery most of time, though truth be told, I'd probably just turn off both and read the morning paper.

But that doesn't address the central dilemma facing CBS. If we accept the premise that a TV news anchor is basically just a glorified newsreader whose major job requirement is to appear reassuring and authoritative as he or she mouths the words flitting across the TelePrompTer, then what do you do if your glorified newsreader has the look and demeanor of a haunted madman? Or, more to the point, are high ratings still a good thing if the only reason people are tuning into your network news coverage is to see if this is the night Dan Rather loses it on the air and comes back from a commercial break wearing his pants on his head as he begins relaying the transmissions from his home planet?

Because that day is coming, and it's coming soon.

Forget for a moment the cottage industry that has sprung up among Web sites and right-leaning advocacy groups attempting to document Rather's alleged bias by charting the number of times he makes lemon faces while interviewing Dick Cheney. The major problem with having Dan Rather helm your network's newscast is the alarming frequency with which he loses his shit. It's never a good sign when you ask someone if they remember "that crazy thing Rather did" and the first response isn't, "What did he do?" but instead, "Which crazy thing?"

Before his insanely bold artistic impulse to narrate the leveling of Baghdad as if he were the Angel of Death, the CBS anchor was stumbling through the most recent big news story of the year, the Columbia disaster. Interviewing an expert on space exploration about what would happen to the astronauts onboard the international space station, Rather's line of questioning became increasingly agitated and unsettled. Are the astronauts trapped up there, Rather wanted to know. No, the expert explained, because if worse came to worst, there was an onboard escape capsule they could use. But that's risky and untried, Rather exclaimed. Well, not really, the expert calmly countered, since astronauts do train and prepare for such possibilities. And on it went -- Rather sounding hysterical and the expert doing his best to soothe him. Good thing, too, or the interview might have ended with Rather asking when we should surrender the space station and its astronauts over to the forthcoming horde of alien conquerors while Ed Bradley prepared off-camera to subdue the anchor with a tranquilizer dart.

It was an upsetting, devastating moment, the space shuttle disaster. I know it knocked me for a loop, and I'm pretty sure that I couldn't have pulled myself together enough to go on network TV and form coherent sentences. Trouble is, neither could Dan Rather, and that's what he's supposed to do.

Look, Dan Rather's had a hell of career. Most people would be fortunate to enjoy a fraction of his success, the hack writer of this sentence included. He rose to his present position by taking on a thankless task -- replacing the most beloved and trusted network news anchor in history, and doing at a time when the influence and relevance of network news was depreciating on a daily basis. He kicked up an appropriate level of fuss whenever his network seemed bent on squandering its legacy as a news-gathering organization, and -- brief flirtations with Cobs sweaters and bizarre, off-putting sign-off lines aside -- he managed to comport himself with a reasonable level of decorum.

Managed. Past tense.

Dan Rather's a big boy. He doesn't need the likes of me telling him that it's time to hang it up. He's been sitting in that anchor chair for 20-plus years, and I don't imagine he's going to leave it before he's good and ready or before Sumner Redstone pries it from his cold, dead fingers. But I also don't imagine he would relish the notion that a growing percentage of his audience is tuning in expecting him to sing train songs or use sock puppets to illustrate some arcane point of national policy or some other crazy thing. And he shouldn't relish it... because that audience sure is.


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