Monday, March 7, 2011

The Empty Throne


            I wonder whether Dan Rather is going to celebrate the 30th anniversary of his ascension to the anchor chair of the CBS Evening News. Well, not exactly the actual chair on that first broadcast, March 9, 1981, since Rather, with less than two minutes to airtime, refused to sit in the seat that Walter Cronkite had occupied the previous 19 years.
            Only Rather can explain his petty pique, but it was a near-catastrophe that will not be soon forgotten, all these years later, by those who had worked so hard to make sure that his debut broadcast would be perfect.
            During weekend rehearsals following Cronkite’s last sign-off, Rather had indicated that he wanted to do something different to distinguish his reign, to set him apart from a person everyone knew could never be replaced. He said that he wanted to deliver the news, perhaps, standing up, or sitting on a bar stool, or walking on to the newsroom set. Nothing was resolved that weekend, and it was hoped by those working on the broadcast that by Monday he would forget the craziness.
            Rather had inherited me, as he did most of the rest of the Evening News staff, from Cronkite; I was one of three news writers, with responsibility for international and U.S. foreign policy news, and I sat directly to his right at the desk that during the day was the working “slot,” an old newspaper term for copy desk, and at 6:30 p.m. was the anchor desk. Behind the anchor chair was a slide-out shelf with a typewriter on it.
            As the stage manager, Jimmy Wall, hollered out in his magnificent baritone voice, “Two minutes. Two minutes to air,” Rather stood up from the chair and declared, “I want to sit here,” and moved the typewriter and perched himself on the shelf.
            Sandy Socolow, the executive producer, was in a videotape room working on a last-minute report when he heard over the intercom the crazed voice of the broadcast director, Richard Mutschler. While a verbatim text of what Mutschler said does not exist, it is certain that more than a few expletives were included in his surprised shouts.
            On the newsroom floor, it was a bit calmer, but panic nevertheless was present. With fewer than 100 seconds until Dan Rather was to say, “Good evening,” his decision had sent Mickey Fox and other stagehands scrambling to readjust lights, and cameramen racing to refocus cameras, a process that under the best of circumstances should take many minutes.
            But true professionals as they were, the changes were made; the ceiling klieg lights went on as the other lights dimmed, and the newsroom fell silent. Thirty years later, I still can see Dan Rather perched on that typewriter table, looking a bit constipated, as if he were bracing for a hasty retreat.
            It would take exactly 24 years for that to happen, for Rather to announce on March 9, 2005, his departure as CBS Evening News anchor because of a contentious report the previous September that questioned President George W. Bush’s Texas Air National Guard record.
            So, in addition to wondering whether Rather might observe the anniversary of his first CBS Evening News broadcast, I wonder whether he will make any note of his last. If he had any class, he would ignore both.

            For the record, here is Walter Cronkite’s March 6, 1981, sign-off:
“This is my last broadcast as the anchorman of the CBS Evening News. For me, it is a moment for which I long had planned, but which nevertheless comes with some sadness. For almost two decades, after all, we have been meeting like this in the evenings, and I’ll miss that.
“But those who have made anything of this departure, I’m afraid, have made too much. This is but a transition, a passing of the baton. A great broadcaster and gentleman, Doug Edwards, preceded me in this job, and another, Dan Rather, will follow. And anyway, the person who sits here is but the most conspicuous member of a superb team of journalists – writers, reporters, editors, producers – and none of that will change.
“Furthermore, I’m not even going away. I’ll be back from time to time with special news reports and documentaries, and, beginning in June, every week, with our science program, Universe. Old anchorman, you see, don’t fade away, they just keep coming back for more.
“And that’s the way it is, Friday, March 6th, 1981. I’ll be away on assignment, and Dan Rather will be sitting in here for the next few years. Good night.”

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