The Old Man and the Storm
For one more time, maybe the last time, Dan Rather just wanted to report from the center of the storm. But when he came to town last week chasing Hurricane Lili, the 70-year-old CBS broadcasting legend discovered that the reporter he once was could not occupy the same space as the star he had become.
October 8, 2002
By Keith O’Brien
FRANKLIN, La. — Just before 10 p.m. last Wednesday, as people scurried for high ground or holed up behind boarded windows, Dan Rather stood inside a downtown New Orleans hotel considering the intentions of the storm he had come here to face.
“… DEADLY …” the latest hurricane advisory said.
“… EXTREMELY DANGEROUS …”
“… FLOODING …”
“… TORNADOES …”
“WINDS … 145 MPH.”
Rather looked at the map of Louisiana laid out before him on the table and, with his index finger, circled a swath of highway and marsh between Morgan City and New Iberia. He had to be down there when Hurricane Lili hit shore in that area the next day. The CBS News anchor couldn’t stay anchored at the hotel in New Orleans all night.
Everyone around him — the camera crews, the sound guys, the producers, and editors — knew it. Because this is what Rather does. This is what makes Rather Rather. He barrels headlong into the storm with a satellite truck and a microphone, stands up to the squalls, swallows the rain, squints his eyes against the wind and turns his face toward the camera because this is good television, this is TV News.
“We’re going to dare to be great,” Rather told the “CBS Evening News” crew earlier that night as they waited to see where Lili, a powerful Category 4 hurricane, would turn. “That means we’re going to take a real good look and not be afraid to go where we really think we ought to be.”
Now it was time to make that decision and Rather’s executive producer, Jim Murphy, was having his latest personal crisis. Murphy has worked with the 70-year-old anchorman long enough to know that Rather would want to be in the eye of the storm.
But he also knew the reality: If they went down to New Iberia and a 20-foot storm surge buried the city, the satellite truck could flood, and the generator could sputter, which could keep them off the air, which would be a total embarrassment to him and the network, which would ruin Murphy’s week. Or month. Or life.
“Everybody go to bed,” Murphy decided. “We’re staying here.”
Rather asked why. Murphy explained the risks. Rather countered by saying that, more than likely, they would be able to broadcast from somewhere: a hill, a bridge, someplace dry. He had been through enough storms — more than he could count — to know. Murphy had never before seen a hurricane and admitted: “I’m guessing everything.”
“That’s very obvious to me,” Rather replied.
Still, Murphy told him, “We’re not moving.”
“Why is that?” Rather asked again.
Murphy sighed. He paced. He grabbed a cigarette and left the crowded room to talk some more with Rather, who was making his arguments and pointing at the dots on the map that would soon be under water and asking Murphy to explain his decision just one more time.
Murphy put his hands on his head and opened his mouth as if he was going to scream.
“Help … me,” he whispered.
… … .
It begins on an island in a storm in 1961. The man is 29 years old, a young husband and father who works for KHOU-TV in Houston. It is the dawn of the television age. But the young man doesn’t think of himself as a TV guy.
He is a newsman reared on rattling typewriters at the Associated Press, United Press International and the Houston Chronicle. More than anything, he wants to tell a good story, and Hurricane Carla is about to give him that chance.
Carla was a monster storm, a swirling, twirling, menacing hurricane harboring 150 mph winds. By the time it took aim at the Texas coast in early September, it filled the entire Gulf of Mexico and sent people scattering for high ground. But Dan Rather stayed.
He had grown up in Wharton, Texas, about 100 miles west of Galveston, where, he explained, “Boys and girls were raised to fear only two things: God and hurricanes.” His grandparents lived nearby when the great Galveston hurricane of 1900 killed more than 6,000 people. He knew enough to be afraid.
Yet Rather found himself drawn to these powerful storms, which he remembers his grandmother describing to him in magical, mystical tales of winds and rains and native peoples destroyed by both. They were mysteries, these storms. Unpredictable forces of nature, bigger than him, bigger than anything. “They make you dig deeper than yourself, and think,” Rather said, and he learned early, listening to his grandmother, that hurricanes made for good stories.
And so, when Carla approached the Texas coast, Rather stood before a camera in the wind and rain on Galveston Island among the copperheads and rattlesnakes that slithered for the ridge, and broadcast for some 70 hours, locally and nationally.
It is a cliche now, the TV correspondent throwing caution and hairspray to the wind to report from the heart of an approaching storm. But in 1961 viewers had never seen anything like it. When the storm had passed, 46 people were dead, a smaller number than the experts had expected — partly due, they concluded, to the TV coverage. Rather was on his way to becoming a star. CBS hired him the following year.
“Legendary,” gasped Susan Bean, a producer for the “CBS Evening News,” reflecting on the story that launched Rather’s network television career.
But Rather, who replaced Walter Cronkite as “CBS Evening News” anchor in 1981, refused to be tethered to a New York City studio as his predecessor had been — especially if there was a big hurricane brewing in the Atlantic or the Gulf.
Critics dubbed him “Hurricane Dan,” a storm stalking a storm, a disaster-seeking, destruction-chasing lunatic “determined,” as one writer put it, “to be the first anchor washed away by the sea or swallowed up by an earth fissure on live television.”
Rather didn’t care. He sat inside the eye of Georges in 1998 and pursued the angry winds of Floyd up the east coast a year later, moving his crew around, as one producer put it, like a “circus train.” He was there for Andrew as it crashed into Florida and then ricocheted into Louisiana in 1992. Then, three years later, he was back, standing up to Opal’s 130 mph winds in Panama City, Fla., as he wrapped one arm around a pole and had a producer hold his legs to keep him from blowing away.
Critics called it showboating. Rather called it news.
“You can’t pretend to know what you’re talking about,” Rather said, “if you spend all your time in a windowless office on the Upper West Side of Manhattan… . The goal is to cover news. A big hurricane, coming in at daylight, a chance to show people what it’s like, that’s news.”
For this, his crew members love him. He is a legend, they say, but not too big to help them carry their camera equipment. He is a TV news genius, they say, but always willing to chat with a cab driver or waitress. He may be an international star, instantly recognized in New Orleans or Jerusalem, but in his mind he is just a reporter chasing a story, a reporter who got lucky, a reporter, sound man Jim Mohan said, with cojones.
“His job is to push us to be brave, to be journalists, to be the best storm chasers we can be,” Bean explained. “Our job is to get him on the air. We have to be the practical ones. He has to be the maniac.”
… … .
Rather leaned over the map of Louisiana, now marked with circles and boxes and lines drawn by a ball-point pen, inside the Hilton New Orleans Riverside hotel.
He had just finished a live remote of the 5:30 p.m. Wednesday evening newscast. Now he and his crew were waiting to see if Lili would turn east toward the city or continue on the north-northwesterly track that forecasters were predicting.
They would have new information at 10 p.m. But Rather was already making predictions.
“We may roll at 10:15,” Rather announced to everyone as the room spun around him, gaining speed, feeding on its own energy as producers called New York and camera operators broke down gear and an assistant ran off to see if Rather was right when he said the lowest barometric pressure ever recorded in North America was 26.35 inches. He was. It was 1935, a hurricane, in the Florida Keys.
“Let’s get a drink,” Murphy suggested.
“Yeah,” Rather replied, unexpectedly.
Everyone laughed. They were in a good mood, happy with the broadcast that had just aired and ready for the hurricane gaining strength off shore.
“Tonight, from New Orleans,” Rather had said to lead off the broadcast that night, “an especially powerful and dangerous storm is headed to strike the Gulf Coast in a matter of hours. As Lili closes in, residents are boarding up and heading out. A massive evacuation is underway tonight. Could we see the worst case scenario? Why New Orleans is just about the worst place a hurricane can hit.”
Now everything was coming to pass. On the televisions above them in the hotel bar, Rather and the others watched as local meteorologists tiptoed toward hysteria. He ordered a glass of Wild Turkey — 101 proof, straight up, no rocks, no water — and said: “It would be cruel to call them and say: ‘It’s only your career.’ “
There was more laughing, then more jokes as one local forecaster predicted “some very serious weather,” and Rather said: “Love the euphemism: ‘Could be some very serious weather.’ Sounds like something Noah might have said: ‘Better board the ark, honey. Looks like there’s going to be some very serious weather.’ “
Meanwhile, the storm was wobbling. To the east, they thought. Now maybe west. They weren’t sure. Bean called some experts, then told everyone that at least one thought the storm might be jogging toward New Orleans and, if that happened, it could be “the worst hurricane nightmare ever.”
Rather said it was time to move correspondents, like Bob McNamara, into place.
“I’m worried it’s too dangerous,” Murphy said.
“Jim, it’s one of those times,” Rather countered. “Danger is our business.”
Murphy looked at Rather. Rather looked at Murphy. “OK,” the 42-year-old producer said finally and sarcastically. “Bob’s old. He’s expendable.”
Rather didn’t laugh this time. He was thinking about the news now. He was thinking about what he calls “the swinging gate.” On a big story like a hurricane or a war, he said, there is a gate that opens, then begins to swing closed. And if you don’t move fast enough, you get shut out and someone else gets the story. He didn’t want that to happen here, Rather reiterated as they gathered for the 10 p.m. advisory and a conference call with the producers in New York.
“Fact is, we can see this sonofabitch, if it comes in at the right place,” he said as he stared at the map. But when the conference call ended, Murphy was having none of it. He told everyone to go to bed.
Everyone heard him, yet they stayed. They lingered and listened a safe distance away from Rather and Murphy as they debated the storm’s intentions, and their own plans, until finally Murphy sighed, grabbed a pen and paper and wrote: COVER THE STORM. DON’T BE COVERED BY IT.
Rather looked at the note, then at Murphy. “Well, to cover the storm,” he said, “you might need to be covered by it.”
“Maybe,” Murphy answered.
But the decision had been made.
Everyone wandered off to bed and Rather got on the phone to the correspondents out in the field to ask them, in his softest voice, his teacher’s voice, to go toward the storm, not away from it. He told them they might have to take risks for this story. He said, “This is a chance to be great. I urge you not to take the most conservative approach. This is a time to bet a few.”
But he wondered if they were listening.
“Who is this guy?” Rather asked about one of them who wanted to hang back rather than head to New Iberia.
“He’s a smart, young guy,” Bean replied.
“He’s a smart guy,” Rather said. “But he’s got no balls.”
“Cojones,” Rather added as he told Bean that this guy, whoever he was, would be covering storms when Rather was an old man “drinking a fifth a day and fishing the pilings.” That’s what concerned him, Rather told her.
Then he, too, wandered off to bed as the storm raged into the night.
… … .
Bean awoke the next morning with one mission in mind: Get Dan as close as possible to wind and rain as soon as she possibly can.
It wasn’t that she thought Murphy had been wrong the night before. Bean, a veteran news producer, had agreed with him. They couldn’t risk sending Rather out into the storm, she said, because he’s not just a reporter anymore. He’s the show, the brand name. It’s not just “The CBS Evening News.” It’s “The CBS Evening News with Dan Rather.” And if they couldn’t get him on the air, it wouldn’t matter if Rather had held onto a pole or leaned into Lili’s 145 mph gusts and turned toward the camera as corrugated tin soared through the air like flying razor blades.
“We can risk our lives,” Bean explained. “We can take that risk because, if we die, no one can blame you for not being on the air. But if you live, and you’re not on the air, there’s no excuse for that. None.”
Rather knows that, of course. But that didn’t mean he had to be happy about the circumstances, and plenty of people were worried as they waited for him before 7 a.m. on Thursday morning.
“He’s gonna be one pissed off hombre when he gets in here. That’s my prediction,” said one cameraman before Rather showed up and taped a live two-minute piece for the CBS “Early Show.”
The problem: Lili had weakened.
Overnight, as the crew slept, the storm stalled out, stunning the forecasters as it dropped from a fast-moving Category 4 to a confused Category 2. By 4 a.m., the winds had dropped to 120 mph. Two hours later, they had dropped again to 100 mph, where they remained as Lili made landfall and Rather finished taping his morning segment and Bean picked up a ringing telephone in the hotel meeting room.
It was Murphy on the line. He was talking. Bean was listening. Finally, she spoke up: “You’re not going to be fired. Don’t be ridiculous. Nobody can control a hurricane.”
Murphy wasn’t so sure. He asked about Rather.
“He’s fine. Everything’s good,” Bean said. Then she paused, considered the storm and added, “Except that it’s weakened considerably.”
Rather, meanwhile, was pacing. To the satellite images on the television. To the bank of laptop computers on the wall. Back to the satellite images. “Inside me there is this feeling of the caged cat,” Rather once wrote, describing how he feels when a big story begins to build. Now he was pacing the cage, scratching at the bars.
“We need to move our asses. Like now,” Rather said to Bean, who was still on the phone with Murphy. “It doesn’t matter what happened last night. We’ve got to move now,” the anchor told her again. Bean eyed him as he walked away, then said into the phone: “Jim, I think you should get down here.”
Murphy, tired and feeling miserable because he had been wrong and Rather had been right — after all, they could have been in New Iberia that morning — appeared a few minutes later and announced, “I’m internally pulling out every last hair on my head.”
Someone ran off to find him cigarettes. Someone else had hotel employees deliver carry-out boxes stuffed with bacon strips and sausage patties and blueberry muffins. People gathered. People ate. And at 8:30 a.m., as the eye of the storm was making landfall, they decided to head west toward the damage, whatever damage they could find.
“We’ll get Dan up to his chest in water and he’ll be good,” Bean had assured the others the night before. Now they set out to do just that with camera crews and U-Haul trucks, TelePrompTers and a satellite dish strong enough to beam images back to New York where, presumably, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings were just getting into the office.
Bean was looking for shattered glass and scattered rooftops, rising water and washed out roads. Rather wouldn’t be happy, she said, until he was out there in the middle of it. And soon they were there, pointing cameras at him in front of downed awnings, before toppled power lines and on a flooded portion of Louisiana 83 south of New Iberia.
It was just Rather, Bean and a camera crew now. The others were off searching for a place to broadcast the show, scheduled to go on the air in two hours. Murphy was in New Iberia, then Franklin. He was lost, then found. He was on his cell phone to Bean and Bean was shouting, “It wasn’t a big f——— hurricane. What do you want me to do? Cut down a tree?”
Rather didn’t look at her. He was driving now, quiet at the wheel of their rented sports utility vehicle. He was surrounded now by fields of flattened sugar cane and a cemetery swallowed by muck and mud. He was driving on a road buried in surging flood waters, past a stern-faced state trooper, who asked him to turn around next to a grove of cottonwood trees rustling in 50 mph winds. He rolled down the window and stopped the car.
“Listen,” Rather said, “to the sound of the wind in the trees.”
… … .
The CBS trumpets blared. The “Evening News” headlines rolled. The broadcast aired. And it was, Rather, Murphy, and Bean decided, a good one.
They led with the hurricane package. Several minutes of street signs rattling in high winds, trees falling into doomed homes, and people wading into dirt-brown flood waters. They had correspondents reporting from towns across the state. And then: Dan Rather, standing among it all, on Main Street in downtown Franklin, La.
“Good evening. This the heart of a hurricane strike zone,” Rather said as the tape rolled and befuddled residents drove past, staring at the man bathed in white lights.
Rather had been here before. In 1992, he had visited Franklin while covering Hurricane Andrew, a monster storm that killed 23 people in Florida and Louisiana and racked up $25 billion in damages.
“I didn’t expect to be back, to tell you the truth,” Rather said when he saw Mayor Sam Jones.
“I didn’t expect to be mayor still,” Jones replied, waddling in rubber boots.
It’s funny, Jones said. Ten years earlier, after an interview with Rather, he recalled the anchorman asking him how long he expected the clean-up to take. Sixty days, Jones remembers answering, and he invited Rather to come back with his news crew to record the resolve of his people. In fact, in the aftermath of Andrew, Jones remembers asking most everyone to come back: CNN, ABC, NBC. No one came, though. Not until now.
“Depth,” Rather had said the night before in New Orleans. This, he admitted, was television’s greatest limitation. But the medium also has its strengths, he said. “We take people there,” he explained. “Hurricanes, Super Bowls, elections … we take you there.”
“The magic of television, dude,” Murphy cried, giddy now, as he watched the broadcast on a tiny square television screen inside the satellite truck. “There are like 400 cameras out there,” he added.
Then, one by one, they packed up the cameras, broke down the tripods, boarded the U-Haul trucks and rental cars and drove south on a deserted road toward a helicopter waiting to ferry Rather back to New Orleans.
“Let’s fly,” Rather told the pilot, and the chopper eased into the air, wobbled on the wind, and motored into the clouds over flooded neighborhoods and swollen bayous, damaged cane fields and long, empty miles of lush green nothingness. It’s going to get bumpy, the pilot warned. Up ahead, to the east, lingering rain squalls and strong winds were still spinning in the sky, skittering north as a broken storm, the storm that got away.
Dan Rather looked out the window and nodded his head. He was flying right into it.