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Interview With Dan Rather

Aired June 20, 2004 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Clinton in the crossfire, a conversation with Dan Rather about the first interview with Bill Clinton on his already controversial memoirs. Should journalists be gracious toward a former president, as most commentators were after the passing of Ronald Reagan, or should Clinton be grilled about his record on terrorism, Monica Lewinsky, his impeachment and his wife's ambitions?

And should Rather and CBS have aired those Iraqi prisoner abuse photos that sparked an international scandal?


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on Dan Rather, who landed the first interview with Bill Clinton, airing tonight on "60 Minutes," about the book that is already touching off a huge media furor.

I'm Howard Kurtz.

It's been a busy few weeks for the country's longest serving network anchor. First, he broke the story on "60 Minutes II" of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib, which has mushroomed into a major scandal for the Bush administration.

Two weeks ago, Rather anchored CBS' coverage of the death and state funeral of Ronald Reagan. Then, after bidding farewell to the 40th president, it was off to Arkansas for a sit-down with the 42nd, whose forthcoming book, "My Life," is not exactly generating the same bipartisan accolades as Reagan's passing.


BILL O'REILLY, HOST, "THE O'REILLY FACTOR": Then he goes, "Well, it's morally indefensible." Well, you did it 85 times.

PAUL BEGALA, CO-HOST, "CROSSFIRE": "My Life," the memoir, by the greatest president of my lifetime.

MARGARET CARLSON, "TIME" MAGAZINE: The only way Clinton could help Kerry is by publishing that book on November 4.


KURTZ: And the tabloid press was more than happy to put Clinton and "that woman" back on the front pages.

So what is the journalist's role when interviewing a controversial former president who's still very much alive?

Joining me now from New York is the anchor and managing editor of the "CBS Evening News," Dan Rather.



KURTZ: Dan, with Oprah and Katie and Diane all chasing Bill Clinton, did you pitch him personally in order to land this interview?

RATHER: Well, we -- we worked hard. We started early. We tried to be a smart in our work, work hard. And we got a little bit lucky. It always takes some of that.

But you know, over the years when it comes to these, quote, big "gets," everybody understands you're going to win some and lose some. You always hope you win more than you lose. And luck does play a factor in it.

KURTZ: Sure.

RATHER: I think the trust that the interview subject has in the interviewer also comes into play. All of those things are factors. When it comes to promoting a book, which is what President Clinton is now doing, of course the publisher of the book comes into play, as well.

KURTZ: They want to get a big bang for the buck. Now, you...

RATHER: Yes, exactly.

KURTZ: You've covered a lot of ground in this interview, from the economy to Kosovo, but inevitably you came to Monica Lewinsky. Let's take a look at that.


RATHER: The central question is why?

BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think I did something for the worst possible reason, just because I could. I think that that's the most -- just about the most morally indefensible reason that anybody could have for doing anything.


KURTZ: Was it difficult to ask a former president of the United States about having sex with a young intern?

RATHER: Well, I subscribe to the idea that there are no bad questions, there are only bad answers. Having said that, the fact that President Clinton would sit for long interviews -- we had, I think, about four hours, maybe more than four hours on videotape, Howard. That -- there were obviously no questions were given in advance.

He sat for every question. He didn't try to cut off any question. He wasn't abrupt in any question.

KURTZ: Well, my question is, was he uncomfortable and were you uncomfortable when the talk turned to this affair?

RATHER: Well, I was uncomfortable. I was uncomfortable asking these questions. These are not my favorite kind of questions. I would prefer not to have to ask these questions, but in a probe, of course, an interview such as this, that was my job.

Was he uncomfortable? Yes, I think he was uncomfortable. However, he seemed relaxed, which is -- you say, well, how can he be uncomfortable and relaxed? That it's clear that Bill Clinton is much more relaxed in general now than he ever was as president, for understandable reasons. The burden of the presidency is a burden. It was a great joy for Bill Clinton, as well.

But he understood that these questions were going to be asked. He had written about this in the book, extensively in the book. And one of the values, I think, that tonight's "60 Minutes" hour, the interview with Bill Clinton, is if you want to get a feel, a sense of what's in the book, that's basically what tonight's hour is about. We couldn't cover everything in the book. We've covered a lot of the ground in the book.

He understood from the beginning that questions were going to be asked about what he has called the darker aspects of his personality and his personal life.

KURTZ: Yes, no surprise there. But on the Lewinsky matter, did you press him on how he could lie to the country, as he did for many months?

RATHER: Yes. I did ask him about that, and he went to some lengths to try to answer that. He always began by saying, "There is no excuse. There are no excuses." He probably said that -- I don't know; I'm not exaggerating -- five or six times. And then said -- when I tried to explain it to myself, this is the explanation I've come up with.

And then he noted, that in the end on one of the questions about, well, why, having made the mistake in 1992 which almost wrecked his bid to become the Democratic nominee, the whole Gennifer Flowers thing...

KURTZ: Sure.

RATHER: ... why would he come back in the '90s. He didn't give the easiest answer to why. He, in some ways, gave the most difficult answer, the worst answer in regards -- because he said, you know, "I finally concluded I did it simply because I could," which indicated it was hubris, arrogance, conceit, if you will. KURTZ: Did you see your role in this interview as if you were interviewing an incumbent president, to grill him, to pin him down on the facts? Or was it more of a friendly interview with somebody who's out of office and peddling a book?

RATHER: I think it was something in between. Others will have to judge. I'm comfortable with what I asked. That is, we covered the ground. I did follow up. I asked the questions that I wanted to ask.

As you know, Howard, when you do particularly one of these high profile interviews, it's impossible to please everybody. The Clinton haters are going to say, certainly, "Oh, well, he wasn't tough enough." The Clinton lovers are going to say, "Well, he was too tough."

But no complaints. That goes with the territory when you do these high profile interviews.

KURTZ: You went through some of that last year when you interviewed Saddam Hussein, and some people said you weren't tough enough.

RATHER: Well, it's a case in point. You know, everybody says, "Boy, this is what I would have asked him. This is what I would have done." Well, they should have gone to Baghdad and done their own interview.

KURTZ: Now, conservative radio host Laura Ingraham says no way would Dan Rather and "60 Minutes" devote an hour to President Bush's memoirs when he leaves office or give the book five stars, which is how you described your read on the Clinton book.

In other words, suggesting that you're friendlier to the Democratic presidents.

RATHER: Well, people make their own judgments about that. I -- I've -- she's entitled to say what she wants to say. I don't know the woman. But I think she fits into that category of people that nothing I could do in a Bill Clinton interview would be enough to please people such as that. Just as when it comes to Ronald Reagan and his legacy, that whatever you say about the former president, people who didn't like him will say, "Oh, you're being too easy on him."

Again, Howard, that goes with the territory. No complaints.

KURTZ: You anticipated my next question, which is we are already seeing in the cable talk show debates that are breaking out in this past week that the media coverage of Clinton's look back at his presidency is going to be nothing like the outpouring of praise that surrounded Reagan's passing.

Does not Clinton deserve a kind of a truce? Or is it too soon after he left office for him to expect that kind of thing?

RATHER: Well, no. This is a classic case of comparison doesn't stand up. Ronald Reagan had passed. It was his funeral. We all wanted to be respectful of his family, respectful to his memory. It's a different thing. President Clinton is not only a living former president, but he's fewer than four years out of his presidency.

So I don't think any comparison should be made about coverage of the Reagan funeral and coverage of the Clinton book.

KURTZ: Now, you anchored CBS' coverage, as I mentioned at the top, of the Reagan funeral and the remembrances and so forth. Let's take a brief look at some of that.


RATHER: He retained a sunny atmosphere. It was one of the keys to his having two full terms in the presidency, a kind of thumbs-up demeanor. He had his difficulties over the years, but as it turned out, he's lived longer than any other president of the United States, dead today at age 93.


KURTZ: As you know, Dan Rather, a lot of people out there said it was just too much coverage. It was kind of relentless. It went on for a week. What's your view?

RATHER: Well, my view is it did go on for a week. It went on for a week because that was what the family had planned, and President Reagan and former first lady Nancy Reagan had planned this. Our job was to cover it.

For anybody who thinks it was too much, I say, well, you know, we in the news business, we thought it was news. And in addition to that, we thought it was a public service. And widely believed it may not be, but true it is that we still think in terms of public service.

KURTZ: Reagan was a very controversial, as you well remember, for the 1980s, and in some ways a divisive president. And yet, that seemed to many people to be lost in the kind of tidal wave of positive coverage. Is that a fair criticism?

RATHER: I don't think so, because it was only a week. History will take care of the Reagan legacy, and history has a way of putting it in proper context and perspective. There's plenty of time to do that.

The week of his funeral, in my judgment, is not the time to do that. What we tried to do at the funeral, first of all, we tried to let the ritual speak for itself. We probably had more silence -- that is, silence from people behind the microphone and the camera -- on the air in prime-time the week of the Reagan funeral than at any other time in prime-time.

We at CBS said, you know, we're going to talk -- certainly, we'll talk some. But we -- we went in saying we want to be restrained in what -- how much we say. And I think we were, and I think properly so. I'm at peace with our coverage of the Reagan funeral, and as to being "too soft on him," quote unquote, not pointing out the downside of his presidency, I have no apology for that, and no apology's necessary. History will take care of that, and we -- during the Reagan presidency, when he was president, we pointed out when mistakes were made. Tough questions were asked. And frankly, we caught hell for some of them.

But all of this is in the nature of being a journalist. This is what you do. But at the time of a funeral, that is not the time, in my opinion, to point out the biggest of the deceased's flaws, his possible failures...

KURTZ: Right.

RATHER: ... the toughest questions about him. It's just not the time for it. Not for me.

KURTZ: To come back to Bill Clinton for one moment, did you have the sense -- you spent a lot of time with him in Arkansas, going through his boyhood town and New York, as well -- that he understands that by publishing this book and writing about Lewinsky and impeachment and so forth, that he is opening the door for all the people who have criticized him over the years to now get a second whack? Does he know what he's in for here?

RATHER: I think he did know what he was in for. I can only guess about this, Howard. But having spoken with him and spent time with him, my guess is that he said to himself, "People are going to talk about my legacy. I'm interested in my legacy." Every president and former president is very interested in their legacy, and Bill Clinton is.

He said, you know, "I need to get down on paper what I did, plus and minus, why I did it. I want people to have the whole story. That would give me, Bill Clinton, if nothing else, will give me the best chance to speak for myself in the years ahead, looking very far ahead when I'm not around. People will have this, at least, as a base point, a base line from which to work."

KURTZ: Right.

RATHER: The other thing is that he does feel strongly, Howard -- I will say that he convinced me, may not convince others, but he feels strongly that what he has to say about his life and times will be valuable to historians and valuable to Americans living now in making assessments of what we went through in, say, the last quarter of the 20th century.

KURTZ: Well, he certainly set down his thoughts in 970 pages. We have to take a break. When we come back, we'll talk to Dan Rather about breaking the Iraqi prisoner abuse story.


KURTZ: Welcome back to RELIABLE SOURCES. Seven weeks ago, Dan Rather and "60 Minutes II" broke one of the biggest stories of the year.


RATHER: It turns out photographs surfaced showing American soldiers abusing and humiliating Iraqi prisoners at a prison near Baghdad.


KURTZ: Dan Rather, as you know, a lot of critics have said this was a story that hurt the country, hurt the military, damaged America's image around the world. As a journalist, do you worry about that sort of thing?

RATHER: Of course I worry about that kind of thing. And my worry begins with never at any time do I want to place U.S. troops in danger in any way, in any form. But let's have this clearly understood. The problem here is not people who called attention to the problem. The problem is the problem.

It wasn't journalists -- myself, the team at "60 Minutes II" -- who called attention to this problem. That's not the problem.

KURTZ: Somebody gave you credit for it, though.

RATHER: The problem is these things were done. These things were done in secret. They was an effort to keep them secret. And you know, we didn't put a hood on anybody in that prison. We didn't attach wires to anybody at prison.

What we -- what we did, all we did, is when we found out about it, we said, "This is news." And by anybody's reasonable definition of news, this is news.

Now, we have been criticized on both sides of the decision. To once having established that we had the facts, and we had the pictures and we established the integrity of the pictures, there was a request...

KURTZ: You held off for two weeks. Two weeks at the White House's request.

RATHER: Well, the -- it was a request by the government not to -- not to put the story on the air for -- for some length of time. And after a debate in-house among ourselves, the decision was made by Andrew Heyward, the president of CBS News, that we would hold the story one week and then take -- assess for the next week. And in effect, we held it for two weeks.

Now, I don't have any argument with anyone who says well, you shouldn't hold it a single day. Once you established the facts, once you have the pictures, you should have put it on the air. You should have rushed it on the air. That's a legitimate point of view. It's not a point of view that I happen to agree with. I thought we acceded to the government's request for a reasonable amount of time, but then we put the story out, broke the story. And not only do I not apologize for it, but this is what the free press in a country such as ours is supposed to do.

KURTZ: You're proud of that story?

RATHER: Beg your pardon?

KURTZ: You're proud of that story?

RATHER: I'm so sorry, Howard, I didn't understand you.

KURTZ: You are proud of the story. You feel very comfortable that this was...


KURTZ: ... the role of the media, to tell the world about this?

RATHER: No, I tried -- I tried to say -- I tried to -- I tried to stay humble about it. We did our job. I don't think that's being proud, I don't think that's being ashamed. It's just we did our job.

Look, I'm a lifetime professional journalist. What I seek to do is find news. One definition of news is that which is interesting and/or important. This story was certainly an important story. Americans needed to know that this was what was being done in their name.

And this -- when somebody said, well, why do some of these Iraqis, they're so difficult for our troops? Well, there were things we didn't know. And one of the reasons possibly what was going on in those prisons.

But I don't find, Howard, outside of people with extreme partisan, political and/or ideological motives, I don't find very many people criticizing the fact that this story got out. Indeed, what people are criticizing, and I think what they should be criticizing, is the fact that this was allowed to happen.

KURTZ: Right.


RATHER: Why did it happen? Who was responsible?

KURTZ: Let me jump in here, just because we're a little short on time. Speaking of stories that were held at the administration's request, you also held up -- along with other news organizations -- reporting on the "CBS Evening News" some details of the allegations against Ahmed Chalabi. Specifically, the allegation that he had told Iran that the U.S. had broken its secret communications code.

Was that a tough call? RATHER: No, that wasn't a tough call. It was Leslie Stahl and a team out of "60 Minutes" broke that story. We -- it happened to break on our clock so we had it on "The Evening News."

That was not a tough call. That was news. I don't see any way how that would place any American in danger. The Abu Ghraib prison story was a much tougher call. The Chalabi call, not a tough call.

KURTZ: All right. Dan Rather, you're 72 years old. You're about to head back to Baghdad to cover the handoff. How many more decades do you plan on keeping doing this?

RATHER: Well, no more decades. I'd have to be lucky to make one more day. You know, I love my work. I love being in journalism. As long as my health holds, and as long as they want me to do it, I'm really eager to do it.

But you know, nobody does it forever. I just -- every night, you know, my basic prayer, Howard, is, "God, could you give me one more day doing this." And of course, being greedy, I guess sometimes I pray, "And if you do give me one more day doing this, could you kind of help me along? If there's a big story around, help me get it."

KURTZ: Well, judging by the last few weeks, I guess some of those prayers at least have been answered.

Dan Rather, thanks very much for sitting down with us in New York.

RATHER: Thank you, Howard.

KURTZ: Up next, your e-mail on the relentless media coverage of Ronald Reagan's death. Stay with us.


KURTZ: Welcome back. Last week we asked whether the media went overboard in lionizing President Reagan. Julian of Fort Collins, Colorado said, "Need you even ask? It was nearly impossible to get any real news last week. Instead, I got to stare for hours at a plane standing motionless on a tarmac, listening to commentators desperately try to keep some sort of chatter going, and in the midst of this huge flood of coverage, I heard barely a word about Reagan's many failures. Why all the fawning? Afraid of being accused by the right wing of being liberally biased?"

Dan of Santa Barbara writes, "After the media's incredibly gushing coverage of Reagan and his record over the past week, the next person who even hints that there is some kind of liberal bias in the media will assuredly turn to salt. The one-sided week-long tribute was way out of line."

But Michael from Memphis disagrees, saying, "the media provided coverage that that was entirely appropriate. In a week of national mourning, we honored a man and his character and achievements. There will be plenty of opportunities to provide balanced reporting of the political impact of his presidency, both good and bad, as history unfolds and we benefit from the perspective that the passage of time allows."

Still to come, Dick Cheney rips the press over 9/11. That's next.


KURTZ: Vice President Cheney has denounced the press as "irresponsible" for the way it reported on the 9/11 commission this week. Here he is on CNBC's "CAPITAL REPORT."


DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: What "The New York Times" did today was outrageous. They do a lot of outrageous things, but the headline, "Panel finds no tie to Iraq tie."


KURTZ: What I can't figure out is, why single out "The Times"? "USA Today" says: "No Iraq-al Qaeda 9/11 Link Found." "The Washington Post," "Al Qaeda-Hussein Link is Dismissed." "The L.A. Times": "No Signs of Iraq-al Qaeda Ties Found." Maybe Cheney just didn't like "The New York Times'" lead sentence, which said this sharply contradicted one of President Bush's central justifications for the Iraq war.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. I'm Howard Kurtz. Join us again next Sunday morning at 11:30 Eastern for another critical look at the media. "LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER" begins right now.


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