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Dan Rather, An Unlikely Essayist, On 'What Unites Us'

Dan Rather speaks at the Gotham Independent Film Awards in 2015. His new collection of essays is called <em>What Unites Us.</em>
Larry Busacca
Getty Images for IFP
Dan Rather speaks at the Gotham Independent Film Awards in 2015. His new collection of essays is called What Unites Us.

Dan Rather's career has entered a new phase. At age 86, he's again speaking to millions of people every day.

It's not at CBS, where he anchored the Evening News for decades — instead, Facebook has given him a new audience. That's where he writes essays about the news of the day.

Here's an excerpt of what he posted this past Monday, when members of the Trump campaign were indicted.

Now Dan Rather has a new book — a collection of essays, called What Unites Us: Reflections On Patriotism. It's a topic that can make him quite emotional.

"Our founding documents contain some of the most beautiful and noble words ever put on paper," Rather says. "I recite them often and love them with every fiber of my being. We the people, all of us, are living together in perhaps the greatest social and governmental experiment ever conceived. We are being tested. How can we prepare ourselves for the moment? Are we up to the challenge?"

Interview Highlights

On patriotism being used as a political bludgeon, and if he thinks that can be changed

I do, though we need to look to our history at least a little. We've been through some really difficult times before as a country — and now we find ourselves in a period of, seemingly, chaos and havoc at the very top of the government, particularly in the executive branch. So what we've done is we've descended into extreme partisan politics and set-in concrete ideologies. But we're better than that.

And I remind myself and try to remind others that, you know, the country as a whole is stronger than any president, and that if we just lower the volume and say, 'Let's have civil discourse,' and to return, yes, to our core American values, take an attitude of, 'Listen, we agree on so much — we agree on the right to vote, we agree on the need for empathy.' There are fundamental things that we agree on, so concentrate on those things — and where we have disagreements, say, 'OK, we disagree about these things. Let's discuss them in a very civil manner, lower the temperature and talk to one another.'

On his mix of optimism and alarm about the nation

I do worry about that quite a bit. I recognize that my time to shape the world in even a small way is receding, but I keep coming back to one of my father's favorite words: 'Steady. Just hold steady. Do what you can.' You know, President John Kennedy asked, 'Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.' And if we just hold ourselves steady and say to ourselves, 'Let me do something today that helps my community, that helps my country,' we'll begin to crawl and claw ourselves back to a more reasonable state, and that way, going forward in the 21st century, we can have a better country than we have had, and let's face it — we have had a very good country.

On the impact he's had via Facebook that he could not have had at CBS

That's absolutely true, totally unexpected, and one of the great surprises of my life. Look, I was at CBS News for 44 years, 24 of them in the anchor chair. CBS News was part of my identity — I mean, "Dan Rather, CBS News" was just, in my own mind, almost my name. And when I left there, under those circumstances, I said to myself, when it was finally over, "I don't know what I'm going to do. I still want to work, I have a passion for reporting news, but is anybody going to hire me? Can I find anything to do?"

But to have this social media phenomenon happen — I do find it amazing and humbling. Granted, humbling is not a word usually associated with present or past television anchorpeople, but I do feel that way. I don't profess to understand it, but I am very grateful for it. You know, one of the things has happened to me with age — I think it may happen to quite a few people — is that I'm deeper into gratitude, humility and modesty than I've ever been. That may be damning with faint praise, but I have really learned the value of it. And I will say that, you know, part of what made this book possible was the, to me, still incredible response that we've seen on social media. And I see this book What Unites Us as an extension of that spirit, but one that's broader in its mandate.

Fatma Tanis and Melissa Gray produced and edited the audio of this interview. Patrick Jarenwattananon and Sydnee Monday adapted it for the web.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.