Dan Rather and Michelle Malkin
There are two Dan Rathers, as there are two of any of us, the image we have of ourselves and the image we show to others when we are off guard, often when we speak of our earliest memories. The core of a vivid television personality revolves around how well one projects that first self-image on screen, which is like the laterally reversed image we see of ourselves in our own mirror. In signing off on Wednesday, after thanking all the people who really needed to be thanked, Rather gave the final and definitive signature of that television persona:
To a nation still nursing a broken heart for what happened here in 2001 and especially those who found themselves closest to the events of Sept. 11; to our soldiers in dangerous places; to those who have endured the tsunami and to all who have suffered natural disasters and who must find the will to rebuild; to the oppressed and to those whose lot it is to struggle, in financial hardship or in failing health; to my fellow journalists in places where reporting the truth means risking all; and to each of you. Courage. For the CBS Evening News, Dan Rather reporting.
Both on screen and in retrospect as written prose, what strikes me about this coda is the degree of exaggerated importance that Rather felt both for the calling of newsman and the degree to which he personally fulfilled it. It was a little larger than actual life, a little more highlighted and entertaining than actual news, and a little more important than the messenger strictly should be.
It was what kept Rather as anchor for CBS News longer than anyone else, because it was television personified. It was also what really annoyed so many who are obsessed with sniffing out "liberal bias" in every hole and corner of the news business, whether or not they have the capacity for self-criticism to rein in their own self-important persona, which they largely do not. One of the bloggers whom I least respect morally, Michelle Malkin, captures this real irritation perfectly and without an atom of self-criticism, in her own graceless remark on Rather’s last anchor broadcast:
But there is another Dan Rather. And it is best represented, I think, in what he has to say about his childhood, and what shaped his self-image into a persona just a little larger and more highlighted than the real man:
All frame houses. Streets were unpaved. But this was not unusual. This was the 1930s. My father had a job in the Depression, which was a precious thing. He was a pipe-liner, which meant that he dug ditches along which they could lay pipe. I can remember any number of times, I'd get a block and a half away, and if I didn't behave myself, before I got home, my mother knew about it.
But the radio was my escape. The great war, World War II, was exploding. The Ed Murrows, the Charles Collingwoods, the Richard C. Hottelets — the great legends of CBS became very real to me. People in radio were great describers. A picture sometimes is worth 1,000 words. But sometimes a word, the right word, is worth 1,000 pictures. I knew that from listening to radio.
By getting work, beginning at 14, in and around oil fields and pipe gangs, I built my strength up fairly quickly...
Most of the bloggers out there have no living memories of this past. I don’t either. But, unlike most conservative bloggers out there, and, particularly, those who are younger than I am, my parents did, and I listened very carefully to what they had to say about them. I also sank myself deep in the written history of their memories, from about the age of 10, when those 1930’s and 1940’s were the recent past, rather than the distant past. Living memories such as this gave men like Rather, and Rather himself, a depth of character which none of us who came after now possess.
But the memories I do have, which most conservative bloggers also do not have, are best expressed in Rather’s reminiscences of the protests of Civil Rights Movement:
I was gape-mouthed and bug-eyed most of the time about what I was seeing. People would come out of, seemingly, out of the woodwork or out of the shrubbery, and hit people with clubs. Particularly, cameramen were sometimes beaten. In place after place, we were spat upon by the worst elements of the community and called the 'Colored Broadcasting System.'
The reason so few conservative bloggers have my moral respect is that the absence of these memories, and of any real curiosity about the history behind them, leaves most of them with an ideology, and an emotional life, like some South American orchid clinging to the bark of a tree with starveling rhizomes groping for the least moisture in the air. Real memories of real and difficult things, and a sense of history, are roots in the earth.
This arid disconnection occasionally leads them as far as moral blackguardry, such as Michelle Malkin’s advocacy for the clearly racially motivated internment of scores of perfectly innocent Japanese Americans during World War II. We have our own crisis of terrorism abroad, and anyone with eyes can see that this dip by Malkin into a discreditable, but rather arcane, incident in our history is a mere stalking horse for the contemporary view which she hasn’t the courage to put in plain words: that all Muslims in America should be interned indefinitely.
Malkin is not on my blogroll, of course, and both her view and her lack of courage to be open about it in prose, are so repugnant to me that I can barely bring my self to mention her name, link to her book, and trackback to her blog, which her very evanescent infamy forces me to do.
Rather and Malkin stand, I think, at one end and the other of what America was, what America has been, and what America is becoming. I have not disdained to express here my historical roots in the first, my pride in the second, and my dismay and disgust at the third. Let others think of these and me what they will, I stand rooted in all three, committed to a moral life and constantly struggling for the self-criticism necessary to lead one.
So good luck, Dan Rather, on your semi-retirement. You have been healthy and productive, and followed your dream, far longer than most of us do. And if your own self-criticism was as difficult for you as it is for us all, you at least got the maximum mileage, and so did we, out of the image you have of yourself and your calling. May your example be both an inspiration, and a caution, to all of us who look at ourselves in the mirror and struggle to see the left as right and the right as left in our image.