Not My Job: We Quiz Journalist Dan Rather On What He Actually Said
PETER SAGAL, HOST:
Earlier this year, we went to San Antonio, Texas, where we were lucky to interview one of the greatest TV anchormen ever - well, one of the other greatest TV anchormen ever.
BILL KURTIS: My old friend Dan Rather joined us on stage, and Peter began in the appropriate way - comparing him to me.
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SAGAL: You started - and it turns out that many reporters, I know including Bill, started this way. You were a local guy. You - at one - you were doing minor league baseball games at one point.
DAN RATHER: I did. I did play-by-play football and baseball, basketball, track. Track is really difficult to do play-by-play...
SAGAL: All right. Wait a minute. How would you do that? Well, he's running.
SAGAL: He seems to be running more.
RATHER: Or he's vaulting, or he has the shot put in his hand. And he takes five steps, and he throws.
SAGAL: Do you think there's one moment that - in which you sort of got your start that started your - the career that we've all sort of been watching these many decades?
RATHER: Well, I do. That - there was a great hurricane in 1961, Hurricane Carla, which was at that time and I think still the largest in terms of sheer size hurricane on record in the Gulf of Mexico. And I had just started in television. I had made my move from radio into television. I was still new to television. And we wound up in the right place at the right time on Galveston Island as the hurricane came in. And that was picked up by other stations. Nobody else was there broadcasting. So if I had to point to one moment that sort of, quote, "made my career," that was probably it.
SAGAL: Yeah, it's funny because Bill got his sort of start with a great tornado in Kansas.
KURTIS: Tornado - same thing. You have to be there.
SAGAL: It turns out maybe these weather events are being caused by ambitious, young reporters.
SAGAL: You were known and - for many things but certainly for being fearless, not only the places you went, like war zones, but also the way you treated people in power. There was a famous incident where you got up, and you asked President Nixon a question. It was during Watergate. And he didn't like it. And I believe he said, are you running for something? And your famous response was...
RATHER: No, sir, Mr. President. Are you?
SAGAL: That's pretty good. You, of course, took over as the anchor of the "CBS Evening News," taking the baton from Walter Cronkite, another legend who, I guess, took it from Edward R. Murrow. So you're part of that line. And one of the things that people were noticing as you settled into that role was you were looking for your signoff because famously, of course, Cronkite would end his broadcast with, that's the way it is on this day. And what was your thinking? You said, I needed something different. You needed something for yourself.
RATHER: Well, it was suggested to me that you need a signoff.
RATHER: But you know what? Following a legend like that is not the easiest thing in the world (laughter). At any rate, my first suggestion was maybe I can say, well, that's some of the way it is.
SAGAL: Yeah, OK. That's not bad.
RATHER: Nobody took to that idea. We tried two or three things. But at any rate...
SAGAL: That's the way it might be.
RATHER: Doesn't have quite the same ring.
SAGAL: No, not at all.
RATHER: But at any rate, I was thinking, you know, my father's - late father's favorite word was courage for a lot of reasons. So I thought, well, maybe we could just pause and say, you know, and that's the "CBS Evening News" - Dan Rather reporting. Courage. And the more I thought about it, the more I kind of liked it...
RATHER: ...Because it had a nostalgic ring for me. I will say that the executives in the company were horrified that this whole...
RATHER: So it lasted about a week. And at the end of that week, it was pretty much you either stop using this as a signoff, or we stop using you.
RATHER: So it was an easy decision.
SAGAL: I understand. And what did you change to?
RATHER: I just decided not to have one.
SAGAL: Yeah, just went with a plain goodnight.
RATHER: I've given it my best shot, didn't work, so there you are.
SAGAL: There you go. I know. Hey, out of all the people you've interviewed - and you interviewed just about every, you know, major historical player in the last 50 years - was there a particular favorite, somebody who you were glad to talk to?
RATHER: Well, I'm glad you put the preface because let's face it - I've been lucky and mightily blessed. I could give you the names of maybe seven people. But if I had to pick one, it would be Dr. Martin Luther King and what was then the emerging civil rights movement.
RATHER: Covering Dr. King changed me as a professional, and it changed me as a person. And for that reason, I would say if I had to pick one, I would say interviewing Dr. Martin Luther King and covering him day to day for almost two years.
SAGAL: Wow. Sure. I imagine that's - I'm envious that you had the chance.
SAGAL: Do you ever - when you're watching whomever, do you ever, like, miss it? Are you ever like, if I was there, I would have the questions?
RATHER: Like every second.
SAGAL: Yeah, I know.
SAGAL: I can imagine. Well, Dan Rather, it is an absolute honor to talk to you, but today we have, in fact, asked you here to play a game we're calling...
KURTIS: This game is tougher than the hide of an armadillo in the hot sun that forgot its sunblock.
SAGAL: As I'm sure you know, you are famous for what people call Ratherisms, folksy sayings with colorful metaphors and colorful wisdom. You've used so many of them over your career, we want to see if you can pick the one you actually came up with....
SAGAL: ...From some fake ones that we made up in tribute to you. If you can do that two times out of three, you'll win a prize for one of our listeners.
SAGAL: Bill, who is Dan Rather playing for?
KURTIS: Corey Henderstine (ph) of Washington, D.C.
SAGAL: All right. Here's your first Ratherism. This was when you were covering the 2000 election. And did you say, A, this race is tight like a too-small bathing suit in a too-long ride home from the beach...
SAGAL: ...B, Poppa, wear your good suit because we got ourselves a tie...
SAGAL: ...Or C, this race is tighter than Aunt Tilly (ph) after a third Moscow Mule.
RATHER: Definitely A.
SAGAL: It was definitely A.
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SAGAL: I've always wondered, did you just make those up off the top of your head? Or did you, like, have them ready to go?
RATHER: Well, in the beginning, they came from working in the oil fields when I was a kid. This is the way men talk with one another.
SAGAL: You have got to be kidding me.
RATHER: Oh, absolutely. You know, you can only say it's hot as hell so many times.
SAGAL: Yeah, I guess so. Yeah.
RATHER: So as the day wears on, you say, you know, it's hotter than a Laredo parking lot or some way to use colorful language.
SAGAL: All right. We have two more. You did well with that one. This is now - we're moving through time to the election of 2004. That was George W. Bush re-elected versus John Kerry. During that evening's coverage on CBS, did you say, A, John Kerry's wife might own Heinz, but this is one night he won't catch up...
SAGAL: ...B, we used to say, if a frog had side pockets, he'd carry a handgun; or C, it all comes down to O-H-I-O, which stands for, oh, hi, it's over.
RATHER: Definitely B.
SAGAL: Yes, if a frog...
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SAGAL: ...Had side pockets, he'd carry a handgun. I think you're doing really well.
SAGAL: Here's your last question. This is a great metaphor you used while commenting on the 2016 election. Was it, A, this race is a back country tilt-a-whirl - it could go either way; B, like the talking horse said to the hopping bull, I can't believe what I'm seeing...
SAGAL: ...Or C, if Clinton wins Florida, this race will go faster than a "Hamilton" ticket at face value.
RATHER: I don't recall saying any of those.
SAGAL: Really? Do you know which one you wish you had said?
RATHER: I guess that would be B.
SAGAL: You'd be B, like the talking horse said to the hopping bull. That is a good one, but the one that we were told you said - if Clinton wins Florida, this race will go faster than a "Hamilton" ticket at face value, which I thought was great because you're updating your cultural references.
SAGAL: But meanwhile, Bill, how did your old friend Dan do on our quiz?
KURTIS: Well, he had won anyway. Two out of three is a big win for us.
KURTIS: Good going.
SAGAL: Dan Rather is a legend of broadcast news and the creator of News and Guts Media. Dan Rather, thank you for being with us. Thank you.
SAGAL: Dan Rather, everyone.
RATHER: Thank you.
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SAGAL: When we come back, our panel opines, and Seth Meyers reclines in an armchair at Carnegie Hall. That's in a minute on WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.