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Exclusive: Dan Rather, as the oft-told story goes, went from being an unknown CBS runner to a rising star at the network with his dogged reporting in Dallas on the day President John F. Kennedy was killed.
Years later, in 1981, Rather was just settling into his role as anchor of the “CBS Evening News” when it very nearly happened again. “The Kennedy assassination, the shooting of Ronald Reagan, those were watershed moments for the Secret Service,” Rather told TVNewser in a telephone interview from his home in Austin. “Afterward, major adjustments were made.”
For the last month, Rather has been reflecting on those two defining days, and reporting on the current state of the Secret Service. The agency has been rocked by reports of serious security lapses, both at the White House and in the field as agents traveled with the president. The reporting–led by The Washington Post‘s Carol Leonnig–forced the director of the Secret Service to step down on October 1. “Hats off to The Washington Post, which has done, in my humble opinion, Pulitzer-level reporting on this story,” Rather told us.
Rather’s at work on his next AXS-TV special, “Dan Rather Presents: A Crisis Inside The Secret Service,” which debuts November 18th. Is the agency doing its job to protect the president? “I think the public should be concerned,” Rather said. “The facts speak pretty loudly here.” Rather’s reporting includes talking to contacts inside the agency, and an interview with Ralph Basham (pictured, above, with Rather outside the White House), a former director of the Secret Service.
Rather says the agency is burdened by the highest of high expectations. “When you reach legendary, stretching into mythic, country, as the Secret Service has done, frankly the standard is so high no one can meet it. They’re not dealing with an exact science, they’re dealing with a crude art.” The question, in Rather’s opinion, is what can we realistically expect of the men and women tasked with such an immense job?
Rather hopes his special report will answer that, along with two other key questions: is the agency as good as it has always been, or as good as it can be? “I’m not confident, at least not yet, on either one of those scores,” Rather said.
More than 50 years after that day in Dallas, Rather says he’s enjoying the opportunity to step back from the day-to-day urgency of breaking news, to follow a story and determine what it means. “That’s the nature of our program, and the nature of what I do now,” he told us. “What we try to do here, is to give an overall, comprehensive look at what happened and what that tells us. What are we to make of this?”
While Rather has worked a month on the Secret Service special, he’s been working for a year on a two-hour special report that will debut December 2, “Dan Rather Presents: Unwanted in America–The Shameful Side of International Adoption.” Rather says he will expose a disturbing number of children who have been adopted overseas, brought to the U.S., and ultimately abandoned. “To my great surprise, there’s really no record-keeping about them. The child just disappears, as it were, into a no man’s land.”
Rather credits AXS owner Mark Cuban for allowing him to follow a story as long as it takes, and wherever it leads. “He’s been terrific to us,” Rather said of Cuban, who hired the veteran newsman in 2006. “I’ve lived long enough where I don’t have to kiss up to anybody, and isn’t it wonderful. (Cuban) promised me I’d have complete, total and absolute editorial control and he’s more than kept his word.”