Dan Rather on the idea of alternative facts: ‘You don’t have to have a Harvard or Stanford degree to know this is ridiculous’

6:23 p.m Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017 Austin360 Home
Jay Janner/Jay Janner
Dan Rather listens in the audience during the Vietnam War Summit at the LBJ Presidential Library Wednesday April 27, 2016. JAY JANNER / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Dan Rather, the 86 years young former anchor and editor of the CBS Evening News, sat down with Evan Smith of the Texas Tribune to launch his essay collection “What Unites Us” on Saturday at First Baptist Church as part of the Texas Book Festival. Here is what we learned:

Patriotism should not be confused with nationalism. “Patriots have an abiding love of country,” Rather said, but they are always asking “how can we ever improve moving toward our ideals ... our goal is a MORE perfect union.”

How can we get there? “Lower our voices and be empathetic,” Rather said.

Rather contends that he has been, for a long time, “very skeptical but never cynical” about this country and, citing Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy, noted that exploiting fear (and straight up appealing to white racism) is not a new way of getting votes. 

Dan Rather, American dreamer, still believes deeply in “out of many, one” but that it is crucial to figure out what unites this “experimental, multi-racial” nation. He still believes deeply in the American Dream by which he means the “dream of this experiment that can hold itself together.”

Also, the 1950s are NEVER coming back. “Any thinking person knows the 1950s were not all that great” for people of color, Rather said, and even if you wanted to return to a time when white men led everything (which we don’t), the demographics make it impossible. “Americans are realists,” Rather said. “Sometimes it takes us a while to get there but we are.”

Rather is disturbed by our post-truth moment. “You don’t have to have a Harvard or Stanford degree to know (the idea of ‘alternative facts’) is ridiculous,” Rather said. He admitted that presidents since Washington have lied now and then, but what feels unprecedented is that “No president has told so many lies or ever attacked personally members of the press.” 

Dissent is a tradition. “Majority rules but the minority must be listened to,” Rather said. “Peaceful dissent is as American as apple pie.”

Once he embraced social media, he loved it. “I was and remained amazed that one popular post can reach 25-30 million people,” Rather said. “If you would have told me years ago I could do that, I would have told you you were smoking something very expensive.” However, the sheer volume of stuff on the internet requires “the consumer to work harder” than in the days of many newspapers and three network news programs.

He cautions against comparing Watergate and the Russia election scandal. “Watergate was entirely domestic, crimes by Americans, against Americans,” Rather said. That is not the case with the current scandal, with the involvement of a foreign power.

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