NEW YORK -- Dan Rather wouldn't enlist with "60 Minutes II" if Jeff Fager weren't his general.
"In my later years, I've made a vow to myself that, like Napoleon, I will not follow small men into battle," says Rather, almost standing at attention.
"I want to work with people whose love for news matches my own. Jeff is a terrific leader. A future legend. He and I get along extremely well."
A former "60 Minutes" producer, Fager was Rather's executive producer on "CBS Evening News" for 2 1/2 years before joining "60 Minutes II." (It launches Jan. 13 at 9 p.m.) Rather was a "60 Minute"-man from 1975 to '81, when he succeeded Walter Cronkite as the network's anchor/star.
Rather, an indefatigable force whom Fager labels "Mark McGwire without steroids," was Fager's first choice as correspondent. "I had to lure him, but in his heart of hearts, he loves this kind of story," says Fager, 44. "I think he feels reborn."
The 67-year-old newsman -- and former Marine -- remembers it a tad differently.
"The second I heard about it, I thought, 'Not only do I want to do this, I have to do this.' I thought about it for half a nanosecond. During my first stint at '60 Minutes,' I never had a better time. I did some of my best work. The rhythm of the broadcast allows you to develop and tell a good story."
But Rather's "60" hitch ended 16 years ago. Between anchoring "CBS Evening News" and "48 Hours," doing weekday commentaries for CBS Radio and writing a syndicated newspaper column, how can he possibly crank out 10 pieces a year for "60 II"?
"When it comes to news, I am an all-day hunter and a long-distance runner," says Rather, who's in "mid-career, on the Mike Wallace scale." (For the record, Rather is 60 II's eldest correspondent by a decade. Bob Simon is 57; Charlie Rose, 56; Vicki Mabrey, 42.) "I'm at my happiest when I have a lot of things to do."
Fager's well-acquainted with Rather's bionic work ethic.
"He just keeps coming back for more. I've traveled to crazy places with him; covered wild stories with him. You work 16 hours straight, toss down a few whiskeys and you're back. Dan can go on three hours' sleep and still get charged up if it's a good story."
With four correspondents to "60'"s five, "60 II" will offer only two original pieces a week, along with a "60" "classic," updated by the original reporter. Though "60 II'"s correspondents are younger than their esteemed counterparts across the hall, Fager says age played no factor in his roster.
"I don't buy into this 'skewing younger' stuff. I think viewers are looking for great stories told by experienced people. You can't put someone in a '60' position who hasn't been out there and covered the world. They need to have that kind of seasoning. I can't imagine giving up Bob Simon for someone 20 years younger."
Rather, who will do half the workload of a full-time correspondent, loves "60 II'"s roster. Hates the name, though.
"In my head I call it "60 Plus." 'Plus' for added value. We're new. We have an enthusiastic team. We're going to be better than '60 Minutes.' I say that with all the respect in the world for my friends there. I'm not looking for a fight.
" '60 Minutes' is the standard by which everybody is measured. My goal is to beat that standard, with better stories, better done, better told. I want to be the best. If we fall short, and we won't, I want us to fall short trying to be better, not trying to be as good."
And many years from now, when Rather is finally "kicked out" of CBS, he says his next job will be with cable's Food Network, headed by ex-CBS News chief Eric Ober. An avid fisherman, Rather says his show will be about cooking fresh fish next to the body of water in which you've caught them. Title: "The Streamside Chef."
TV's top shows
Here are last week's top TV shows, according to A. C. Nielsen Co. figures:
2 60 Minutes CBS 14.4
3 Touched by an Angel CBS 11.4
4 NFL Monday Showcase ABC 11.1
5 Barbara Walters Presents: The 10 Most Fascinating People of '98 ABC 10.1
6 Dateline Monday NBC 9.8
7 Home Improvement ABC 9.7
8 NFL Monday Blast ABC 9.7
9 Sunday Movie: Final Descent CBS 9.5
10 Walker, Texas Ranger CBS 9.3
11 Everybody Loves Raymond CBS 9.2
11 (tie) Tuesday Movie: I'll be Home for Christmas CBS 9.2
13 Becker CBS 8.9
14 Sunday Night Movie: I.Q. NBC 8.3
14 (tie) Just Shoot Me NBC 8.3
16 The Hughleys ABC 8.2
16 (tie)Dateline Tuesday NBC 8.2
18 Drew Carey Show ABC 8.1
19 Cosby CBS 7.9
19 (tie) Dharma & Greg ABC 7.9
19 (tie) Law and Order CBS 7.9
The rating is the percentage of homes equipped with a TV in use.
Pub Date: 12/30/98