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Rather built a hard-news, but folksy image

Sun Staff

He was always a hard-news guy, an old-style, old-school reporter who once told Larry King that "danger is my business."

Aggressive, intense, confrontational, folksy and sometimes wacky - that's been the image of Dan Rather for more than 40 years. His career was born when he broke the news of President John F. Kennedy's assassination in 1963, and in 1981, he replaced CBS broadcasting legend Walter Cronkite at CBS News. But now it's Rather's turn to step down.

His final broadcast as anchor will be March 9, although he will stay on as a correspondent for both editions of 60 Minutes. That's fitting, since one enduring chapter in Rather's career has been his dogged reporting and confrontational style on the groundbreaking CBS news magazine launched in 1968.

During the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that year, Rather was knocked around by Mayor Richard Daley's police. CBS viewers saw Rather, wearing a head-set, emerging from a tangle of people on the convention floor. He reported to Cronkite that, yes, he was all right. Just part of the job.

Throughout his career, Rather - born Oct. 31, 1931, in Wharton, Texas - seemed to have the uncanny ability to be at the right story at the right time.

In Richard Nixon's Republican White House, Rather again would make a name for himself - and not only for his reporting. In the heat of the Watergate scandal, Nixon taunted Rather during a news conference. "Are you running for something?" Nixon asked. "No, sir, Mr. President. Are you?" The GOP was not pleased with Rather's reporting and his name, in some circles, would become synonymous with the "liberal media." Few hold a neutral opinion of Rather.

His resume includes reporting assignments in Cuba, Baghdad, Iraq, Moscow, Bosnia, Haiti, Kuwait and Israel. There wasn't a high-profile story he didn't want, which led some Rather watchers to coin the acronym, ADATT - All Dan All the Time, said David Blum, author of Tick ... Tick ... Tick, a history of 60 Minutes.

Rather also wrote books, including the memoirs The Camera Never Blinks and The Camera Never Blinks Twice: The Further Adventures of a Television Journalist. He wrote about the Nixon White House in The Palace Guard.

The son of a Texas ditchdigger, Rather's style and highlight reel have sometimes featured the inexplicable. In 1980, a bearded and robed Rather slipped into Afghanistan to report on the Soviet Union's invasion of that country. Rather came home from the assignment with a new nickname, "Gunga Dan." This was a year before he traded his Afghan robe for an anchor suit.

News, contrary to Cronkite loyalists, did not end when Rather assumed anchor duties March 9, 1981. Exclusive interviews, awards and a failed on-air pairing with Connie Chung would follow, but the decade also proved a curious one for Rather. In 1986, he began ending his newscasts with just one word, "courage." He dropped the sign-off after a few months, but would remain known for his down-home on-air commentaries.

Rather's homespun take on the news was embraced by CBS, which on election night e-mailed reporters Rather colloquialisms, so-called Dan-isms, including: "This race is hotter than a Times Square Rolex." In 2000, he said of then-Vice President Al Gore's election night odds: "His chances are slim right now, and if he doesn't carry Florida, slim will have left town."

Later that year, Rather made news when a man approached him on Park Avenue and demanded to know, "What's the frequency, Kenneth?" Rather was knocked down and beaten. The man told authorities he thought the media had him under surveillance and were beaming hostile messages to him. The pop band R.E.M. later had a hit single with "What's the Frequency, Kenneth?" which is also the music CBS late-night talk show host David Letterman's band plays when Rather is a guest.

In 1987, Rather stunned CBS brass and its audience by walking off the set because a U.S. Open tennis match had pre-empted the start of his broadcast. The network went dark for about six minutes. Cronkite would famously fume over this incident: "I would have fired him. There's no excuse for it."

In 1988, Rather and then-Vice President George H.W. Bush had a testy interview. In response to Rather's questions about the Iran-Contra affair, Bush countered, "It's not fair to judge my whole career by a rehash of Iran. How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York?" It was another memorable Rather confrontation.

Little could compare, however, to the news Rather made two months ago after anchoring a flawed 60 Minutes story about President George W. Bush's National Guard Service. Suddenly, the 73-year-old Rather was fighting for his career and issuing a public correction.

The Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper, contributed to this article.

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