Halfway through his ninth decade, Dan Rather is years past the time when he and TV networks ruled how Americans thought about the world around them. Yet now 86, Rather has not faded away. In fact, he has found a niche in the new world of social media, with nearly 2.5 million followers on Facebook.
This "renaissance," as Rather put it, is particularly gratifying to the former "face of the network" after his 44-year career at CBS ended under a cloud because of a flawed "60 Minutes" report about then-President George W. Bush's military service during the Vietnam War.
Rather left CBS in 2006 but continued doing journalism and even won a 2008 Emmy for his HDNet show "Dan Rather Reports." But it was his Facebook following -- and his posts about the state of America -- that relaunched him as a writer at an age when most people have retired. His newest book, "What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism," is Rather's take on the "havoc of our present situation." At this point in his life, he said, "if I have anything to contribute, it's context and perspective."
During a recent interview in New York, Rather spoke to The Washington Post about aging, how journalism has changed and how to overcome tough times.
Q: Today's your 86th birthday. To what do you attribute your longevity?
A: When I think about aging, which is not often, I think along these lines: I like to work and I passionately like covering news. I think that's why have I been so lucky to make it this far. I think being excited to get up in the morning, being eager to get to work and feeling deep gratitude whenever I work has made a difference.
Q: Do you think of yourself as old?
A: I don't, but I know that I am. There are times when I have an ache or a pain, what I call the dinks, and that's when I'm forced to say to myself, "Dan, you are getting old." By and large, I don't think about age. On a day like today when it's my birthday, I'm sort of forced to think about it.
When I was 45 and traveling to faraway places, covering wars and revolutions and natural disasters, I remember saying to myself, "Dan, to do this kind of work you have to be able to go four miles over brush and timber. When you reach the point that you can't do that, you should stop." Not too long after that, I said to myself, "I think if I can go three miles it will be all right." With each succeeding decade, I've adjusted that number.
Q: Do you approach your work differently now than you did 50 years ago?
A: For a long time my mantra was "head down, tail up, full throttle all the time." I can't mark exactly the time, maybe in my late 60s, I would say, "Don't kid yourself. You have to make accommodations. Pace yourself. Pick the times when you put head down, tail up, full throttle forward, just crash straight ahead." Before then it was every day, all the time, every story. I equate (how I approach things now) to when I boxed when I was in high school. One of the things I was taught is that you don't go in thinking that you're going flat-out every round. Pace yourself, what they call in boxing stick and run: jab, dance, play for time. Then there's a time to attack.
Q: How has your marriage contributed to your health and long life?
A: If I hadn't been married to the same person for 60 years, I doubt seriously that I'd be alive today. Jean (his wife) is very health-conscious, and she'd often say to me: "Do you need to watch your weight? Do you need to exercise more? Do you need to better balance family and work life?" Which was one of my weaknesses.
Q: How have your thoughts about being a husband and father shifted over time?
A: I didn't think enough about the effect my work would have on my family. I made mistakes when the children were young. We moved around too much. I wasn't home anywhere near what would have been ideal. The first year I worked for CBS News, I think I was home 31 days. And the next year was not much better. I should have talked more with Jean and the kids (about the decisions I was making) when they were young. But I was new at CBS. I walked with legends -- Eric Sevareid, Charles Collingwood, Walter Cronkite and Howard K. Smith. I was not a Rhodes scholar, while most of them were. Part of the rationale I had was that I'm not the smartest person here, I'm not the best writer here, so I'd better have the attitude nobody outworks me.
Q: Is there anything else you would change about your life?
A: Being on television regularly, being the "face of the network," you are constantly inhaling NASA-grade fuel for the ego, and that works against you having the kind of humility, gratitude or modesty you should. Those words are rarely associated with anyone on television. I wish I'd been smart enough to grasp this at age 28, or 38, 48, 58 or 68. I'm trying very hard now.
Q: Do you think journalism is a young person's game?
A: Yes! Which raises the question "What the hell am I doing, doing it at this age?" To do journalism anywhere close to well, you have to burn with a hot, hard flame. You have to have a passion -- a passion that borders on an obsession. You have to be prepared to have it almost consume your life. That's easier to sustain when you're younger.
Q: You've also faced adversity. How do you come back?
A: I was taught that to sustain a professional life as a journalist, you have to be strong and persistent. In my early years I was not all that successful -- there was a real question of whether I could make a living doing what I passionately wanted to do. But this put me in good stead later, when I had setbacks, reverses and suffered wounds, some of them self-inflicted. My boxing coach taught us that you've got to be "a get-up fighter" -- if you're knocked down, you've got to get up. Maybe take an eight-count, but you've got to get up.
Q: How do you view your success on social media?
A: In wonder, near astonishment. I don't really have an explanation of why and how it happened, but I'm glad it did. The young members of my staff kept trying to convince me to get into Twitter and Facebook. I kept saying, "I'm too old for that." They said, "Dan, if you want to be part of the conversation, if you want to be relevant, it's imperative that you go on Facebook." Finally they convinced me. (Rather also has more than 300,000 Twitter followers.)
Q: What do you see when you look to the future?
A: I'd like to keep on keeping on. To use another cliché: I just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other and not think too much about the future. My mother had a saying, "Yesterday no tears, but tomorrow no fears," which was her way of saying, "Concentrate on today, concentrate on this hour, this day. Don't be looking back, don't worry about what's ahead." I don't see what's ahead. I'm dealing with today, trying to be the best I could be today.