Rather says he was victim of 'own shortcomings'
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Former CBS Evening News anchor Dan Rather, recalling the stinging criticism he and the network received after airing a controversial story on President Bush's National Guard service, admits he was a victim of his "own shortcomings."
A two-person panel who investigated the report concluded that, while Rather had a minimal role in preparing the piece, CBS rushed the story -- based on questionable documents -- to air because of competitive pressure in the heat of the presidential campaign last fall.
Rather, who wasn't disciplined, reported the segment that aired September 8 on CBS's Wednesday "60 Minutes" program, which has since been canceled. Rather left his anchor post March 9, but CBS contended the decision was his own.
"It's never pleasant, but among the many things my late father, God bless his soul, taught me was don't whine, don't complain, don't fall in a trap and say, well, it's bad luck or good luck."
"I'm not a victim of anything except my own shortcomings. It didn't feel terrific. There certainly were days when I felt I was rode hard and put to bed wet," Rather told CNN's Larry King on Thursday night.
'Journalism is not a precise science'
The story alleged that Bush used his family connections to get into the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam era and that once in, failed to fulfill his obligations and ignored a direct order to get a required physical.
Included in the story were four memos purportedly written by Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, Bush's squadron commander, in which he complained about Bush's conduct and said he was being pressured to "sugar coat" the future president's evaluations. Killian died in 1984.
The legitimacy of the documents came into question almost immediately after they became public. After defending the report for 12 days, CBS News eventually admitted it could not vouch for the authenticity of the memos.
The producer of the segment was fired, and three executives were asked to resign following the broadcast.
Rather was accused by the investigators -- retired Associated Press chief Louis Boccardi and former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh -- of erring by staunchly defending the segment after the authenticity of the documents came under fire.
The veteran newsman told King that he considered both men conservative, and therefore not totally unbiased, in the probe. However, when asked whether Republicans set him up, Rather declined to respond.
"I've always tried to be an independent reporter. If you do that, not everyone's going to like you," he said.
"I won't say that anybody was out to get us. Clearly, there are some people -- for their own partisan, political and ideological reasons -- who want to jump on people who they perceive to be not with them."
"The situation we had and still have is the last line of this hasn't been written. I've acknowledged that we didn't do it perfectly. I wish we had."
"Journalism is not a precise science," Rather added.
Although admitting the documents had weaknesses, he said that "the facts were supported by all kinds of things other than the documents."
Thornburgh and Boccardi, he noted, found the story wasn't the result of political or personal bias. They also weren't able to prove the documents were fraudulent.
Rather on 'Deep Throat'
Rather, now a correspondent for CBS's "60 Minutes," said the Wednesday version was canceled because "we didn't have the ratings, we didn't have the demographics ... so now we have a lot of good people at CBS News who are or about to be out of work."
The newsman was asked about this week's revelation that the FBI's No. 2 man in the early 1970s, W. Mark Felt, was "Deep Throat."
As "Deep Throat," Felt, now 91, frequently met Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward in a Washington parking garage to provide or confirm information about the Watergate investigation, which drove President Nixon from office in 1974.
"What a terrific story," Rather said.
"This was great reporting. I think the public should know that great reporting starts with a publisher who has guts and an editor who has guts. And the role of the late Katherine Graham, who owned The Washington Post, is not to be underestimated," Rather said. He also praised former Post editor Ben Bradlee.
The Watergate affair "was a widespread criminal conspiracy" led by Nixon, using his power to take the view that "the Constitution doesn't apply to us because we're in power," said Rather. "If Mark Felt had not provided information to the Washington Post, I think they would have got away with it."
Asked about leaving his post as anchor, which he held for 24 years, Rather said, "I feel terrific. I had been cautioned by a lot of people that the transition was going to be extremely difficult. I haven't found it so."