Monday, February 18

Quirky Wittiness

It’s a Presidential election year. Maybe the most interesting since the Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail days of 1972. That’s a book, kiddies. By Hunter S. Thompson. Some of the best political reporting of all time.

I mean, this race is shakier than cafeteria Jell-O. It’s as tight as the rusted lug nuts on a '55 Ford. On the Democratic side this race is tight like a too-small bathing suit on a too-long ride home from the beach. All that talk just months ago that Hillary Clinton was a shoe-in? Don't bet the trailer money on it yet. This race is hotter than a Times Square Rolex.

Sorry. Don’t know what got into me there. For a second I was channeling my inner Dan Rather. Those are all his lines, those Texas good-’ol-boy down-home-isms I’m going to kind of miss this time around, recited pretty much verbatim.

"Turn the lights down, the party just got wilder."
"It's cardiac-arrest time in this presidential campaign."
"He swept through the South like a tornado through a trailer park."
"Now Florida, that race, the heat from it is hot enough to peel house paint."
"It's a ding dong battle back and forth."
"They both have champagne on ice, but after the night is over, they might need a pick axe to open them."
"It's spandex tight."
"The presidential race still hotter than a Laredo parking lot."
"These returns are running like a squirrel in a cage."
"It was as hot and squalid as a New York elevator in August."

Dan’s still around. But this year the reporter who got roughed up by “goons” on the floor of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968 isn’t working for CBS.

If you’re my age, you remember it. While peace protestors chanted “The Whole World is Watching” outside, Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago had his security forces take control of the convention floor. It produced this video clip (sorry, you have to click the link: it won’t “embed” into the blog).

This year, if we want Dan Rather’s take on the political process, his quirky wittiness (witty quirkiness?) we’ll have to go to his weekly news magazine on something called HD Net on the Internet.

It’s been almost three years since he left CBS, and he left under a cloud. He vigorously defended a CBS story that claimed that someone may have falsified documents in George W. Bush’s National Guard file: that maybe during the Vietnam war “Dubya” didn’t satisfy his military obligations.

I won’t go into the yes-he-did, no-he-didn’t here; but the flap cost Dan Rather his job after 24 years anchoring CBS Evening News and 44 years with the network.

Still pending: Rather’s $70 million dollar lawsuit against the network and three of his old bosses.

Either way, the finest broadcast news reporter of his generation—maybe the finest since Murrow—won’t be in the CBS booth for the first time in a long time. I’ll miss him.

Don’t get me wrong. I never thought much of Dan as an anchor. Problem is, the spotlight and the accolades (and the big bucks) go to the anchor, the front-man (or front-woman), not the reporter who digs for news and breaks stories. Dan was a dedicated, dogged, determined reporter—as I said, arguably the best. But as an anchor he was always uncomfortable. You could probably get better psychiatric insights for a nickel from “Lucy” in the old Peanuts comic strip, but here’s my take: Rather’s up-by-his-bootstraps-from-humble-Texas beginnings left him with an inferiority complex. He always felt the need to prove himself. He couldn’t be satisfied with being a reporter, he had to push for the one broadcasting job he wasn’t particularly good at, lead anchor.

His tried to communicate with the common man, to overcome his awkwardness, with a down-home aw-shucks manner.

Someone somewhere at CBS actually let him go on the air one night with this story:

Don’t stop me if you’ve heard this one, because you have. It’s time-warp time again in the nation’s capital from out of nowhere fast, guess what’s back on the fast track tonight from the White House to Congress? Phil Jones reports the House, after a personal house call and arm-twisting session for Republicans from President Reagan yesterday, yup, the House is again getting ready to vote again tonight on a bracket-to-bracket, top-to-bottom, coast-to-coast federal tax overhaul bill.
“Yup?” Ouch!

But Dan was always at his best (and his comedy lines were at their worst) during election coverage. Here’s another sampling.

"His lead is as thin as turnip soup."
"This race is humming along like Ray Charles."
"This race is hotter than the Devil's anvil."
"Ohio becomes like a sauna for the two candidates. All they can do is wait and sweat." "One's reminded of that old saying, 'Don't taunt the alligator until after you've crossed the creek.'"
"The presidential race is swinging like Count Basie."
"This situation in Ohio would give an aspirin a headache.''
"Bush is sweeping through the South like a big wheel through a cotton field."
"What Kerry needs at this point is the equivalent of Tom Brady coming off the bench to rescue him. But it's still too close to call."
"No question now that Kerry's rapidly reaching the point where he's got his back to
the wall, his shirttails on fire and the bill collector's at the door."
"This presidential race has been crackling like a hickory fire for at least the last hour and a half."
"Let's see where it goes from here. Round and round it goes, where it stops nobody knows."
"In southern states they beat him like a rented mule."
"If you try to read the tea leaves before the cup is done you can get yourself burned." "We had a slight hitch in our giddy up, but we corrected that."
"Put on a cup of coffee, this race isn't going to be over for a while."
"John Kerry's moon has just moved behind a cloud, as far as Florida is concerned."
On Kerry's chances: "To use a metaphor, he's gotta draw to an inside straight. But hey, sometimes you get lucky and hit that straight."
"Is it like a swan, with every feather above the water settled, but under the water paddling like crazy?"
“The election is ‘closer than Lassie and Timmy.’”
"You can almost hear the GOP (deep breathing sound). We're getting within maybe smelling distance."
"We don't know what to do. We don't know whether to wind a watch or bark at the moon."

But enough of kicking Dan Rather around. Truth is, he believed in truth. And he fought for it. He took his lumps, but it was always facing his accusers, never from behind while running to hide. Here’s one last quote. This one ain’t a quip, and it ain’t somethin’ you’d trot out while whittlin’ on the back porch.

Dan Rather once said, “A tough lesson in life that one has to learn is that not everybody wishes you well.”

I do.