'What Unites Us' As Americans? Dan Rather Has An Answer
With Meghna Chakrabarti
Iconic journalist Dan Rather reflects on American character and patriotism in this time of polarization. He’s with us.
In his 40-plus years as a newsman, Rather has seen America cleaved and healed, again and again. How do America’s current divides compare? How can we come together?
On how today’s political climate compares to that of 1968
Rather, at the ’68 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, was in the middle of a scrum where security guard blocked his access to a Georgia delegate.
“There is a what I call a ‘bloodline’ running between 1968, and the tumultuous years that had engulfed the nation for much of the 1960s. It’s worth remembering that in the 1960s, not only were we a deeply divided nation over the [Vietnam] war, but we were deeply divided over race. We’d had the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy. We had race riots in the streets. We were a troubled nation during the decade of the 1960s, which sort of came to a climax of sorts in 1968 at the Democratic convention.
“But while there are similarities to 1968, this is a different time, a different era in the ongoing history of our country. Some of the divisions — for example, divisions over race, which has always been deep and a dangerous divide in the country — are similar to what we were going through in 1968. But I do come around to it: It’s a different time, different era, a different generation with a different government. So while there are comparisons to the 1960s and particularly, as I say, the climactic period around the summer of 1968, it would be a mistake to overemphasize, I think, those similarities.
“The one thing that we as a people went through in 1968 that we’re going through again now is basically the question, can we hold it together? Can we hold the country together? Can we stand united? Can we agree on enough core principles and core values of the country to hold ourselves together? And it was an open question in 1968, and it’s an open question today, which is one reason that I originally did the hardcover book, ‘What Unites Us,’ and one reason I wanted to put this paperback edition out, to talk about … the book is not meant to provide answers, but the hope is that we can start a conversation about our core values — just to name two, the rule of law and the right to vote. But there’s dissent, and a free press, inclusion, empathy, a belief in science and knowledge, public education — all of these are values that I think the overwhelming majority of Americans agree on. But we’re in a period, as we were for some of the time, in the 1960s where we have national leadership that seeks to exploit our differences, put the concentration on our differences, rather than on what unites us.”
On what we learn from the 1960s
“The basic lesson we learned in the 1960s is listen to one another and try to find common ground. An attitude that goes along these lines: Listen, you and I may disagree over a hundred things about policy and political leanings, but can we find one or two things on which we agree on common ground and work on that. A simple example might be that you may live in a small town and some people are Trump supporters, some people are Trump haters, some people are somewhere in between. So there are big differences, even in a small town. But if somebody says, ‘Well, listen, the Little League baseball park needs to be redone and remodeled, can we agree on that?’ And you agree on something simple as that. Everybody gets together and starts to repair the Little League baseball park. The next thing you know, they’re talking to one another, laughing with one another. It seems simple, but those small steps can be enormous in our effort now, and I think it’s a desperate effort now to hold ourselves together and agree on what unites us.”
On whether or not common ground even exists now. The fear is that folks’ core values are so divided these days, finding the middle might be nearly impossible
“I understand, because I have any number of people who contact me in various ways, including on programs such as this, who express that point of view, and I simply smile and take a deep breath and say, ‘I respectfully disagree.’ I do think that we are dealing in a different era. … Demographically the country began changing drastically with the passage of the Immigration Reform Act of 1965, which did away with biases against certain people immigrating to the country. From the time that passed, as a result — it was in the wake of the civil rights movement, the 1960s, that we passed the Immigration Reform Act — from that time forward, we began changing really drastically and continually demographically at the country.
“One of the main ways it is different here in 2019 than it was during the 1960s is that we are a richer mix of religion, race, ethnicity, and that has caused a lot of fear in people. There are any number of people who say, ‘Look, it’s not the America of my grandfather and grandmother, not even the same as it was during my parents’ time.’ And it’s caused by fear. And I think this is a very important point: This fear is being exploited by any number of political leaders. including, I’m sorry to say and there’s is no joy in saying it, the president of the United States.
“This fear of — ‘well, not only has the country changed in so many ways, the whole culture has changed’ — they’re trying to exploit that fear. They talk about the divisions, they emphasize what divides us. And they’ve been successful in playing upon that fear, exploiting that fear, for their partisan, political and ideological advantages at the disadvantage of the country.”
From The Reading List
Excerpt from “What Unites Us” by Dan Rather and Elliot Kirschner
Excerpted from the book WHAT UNITES US by Dan Rather & Elliot Kirschner. Copyright © 2016 by Dan Rather & Elliot Kirschner. Reprinted with permission of Algonquin Books.
USA Today: “ Dan Rather’s essay collection, ‘What Unites Us,’ is a tonic for our times” — “As anchor of the CBS Evening News in the 1980s, Dan Rather’s catchphrase ‘courage,’ and other homespun bromides, struck some as the awkward musings of a man struggling to escape the shadow of his predecessor, the legendary Walter Cronkite.
“Rather ultimately left the network under a cloud, two years after a controversial 2004 report questioning President George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard.
“But now, little more than a decade later, Rather is having a moment.
“At the age of 86, Rather has become a millennial darling, with a Facebook page followed and “liked” by millions. He frequently appears on MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show. And Rather’s new book of original essays, What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism (Algonquin, 274 pp., ★★★ out of four), written with journalist Elliot Kirschner, is profoundly topical.
“Rather’s riffs on topics ranging from voting rights, to immigration, to the arts bear the tone of a gentle lecture. His roots as a dogged correspondent, who covered the Civil Rights Movement, Watergate and the war in Vietnam, are on vivid display as he backs up his point of view with bits of history, and occasionally seeks to shed light on perspectives that might be different from his own.”
Columbia Journalism Review: “ How 86-year-old Dan Rather became Facebook’s favorite news anchor” — “Before his acrimonious departure in 2006, Dan Rather spent 44 years at CBS News. For more than two decades he was the face of the network, anchor of the CBS Evening News, watched by millions of viewers every night. But it was never the right fit. He felt constrained by the anchor desk, unable to share opinions or analysis, and he was more interested in reporting in the field than reading a teleprompter in a Manhattan studio. Now at age 86, Rather, who started his reporting career before the advent of color TV, has found a medium that suits his personality and has revived his influence: near-daily Facebook posts in which he expounds on American life, politics, and, especially, Donald Trump.
“‘What I’m doing now gives me as much pleasure and satisfaction as anything I’ve done in my career,’ Rather tells me in his instantly recognizable, barely changed baritone via telephone from Galveston, Texas.
“Though hardly active two years ago, Rather’s Facebook page is now liked by more than two and a half million users, more than the pages of Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Megyn Kelly, or Anderson Cooper—let alone any standing network news anchor.”
Houston Chronicle: “ Dan Rather starts the conversation about patriotism in new book” — “Dan Rather holds a note pad and a pen in the author photo for his new book ‘What Unites Us,’ a reminder of his roots as a young reporter in Houston in the 1950s. But the photo doesn’t quite fit the new book, which finds the famed news anchor instead playing the part of essayist. He opens with a piece titled ‘What is Patriotism?’ before answering his own question through 15 additional essays, three each within five thematic categories: Freedom, Community, Exploration, Responsibility and Character.
“A little more than a decade after his departure from CBS News – an event more ignominious than celebratory because of his report on President George W. Bush’s Texas Air National Guard service – Rather has chosen not to take it easy. He’s 86 and active, writing for his site News and Guts, and building a following in the millions with his writing on Facebook. From the more contemplative of those musings sprang the new book, which he co-wrote with Elliot Kirchner. Rather’s book tour brings him home to Houston and to Katy this week for appearances the Ballroom at Bayou Place on Wednesday and James E. Taylor High School on Thursday.
“‘Selling a book turns out to be a full day of work,’ Rather says during a call from the West Coast. ‘But I will say this, I’ve worked for a living and this is easier. Once you’ve dug pipeline ditches in the Texas sun, everything else is a piece of cake.’ ”
Adam Waller produced this hour for broadcast.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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