Defiantly quirky to the end, Dan Rather signed off for the last time Wednesday night as the anchor of CBS Evening News, 24 years to the day after he succeeded Walter Cronkite. Master of the bizarre folksy analogy (”We used to say if a frog had side pockets, he’d carry a handgun”), the 73-year-old newsman used the occasion to revive his odd sign-off from early in his anchor tenure, ”Courage.” It was perhaps as much an admonition to himself, departing under a cloud after his involvement in the ”Memogate” scandal, as it was a salute to post-9/11 Americans, U.S. troops, and fellow journalists.
Rather had long been planning to retire, but he didn’t set a date until after the September 2004 scandal, in which he anchored a 60 Minutes Wednesday report about President Bush’s National Guard service that relied on documents no one could authenticate. (The embarrassing episode also led to the firing of several CBS staffers, some of whom have filed suit against the network.) Since then, Rather has taken heat, not only from TV critics and conservatives, but even from such CBS News colleagues as Mike Wallace and Cronkite, who’ve bad-mouthed him in recent interviews.
Signing off Wednesday, Rather seemed to brush off the criticism, saying, ”Thank you to the thousands of wonderful professionals at CBS News, past and present, with whom it’s been my honor to work over these years. And a deeply felt thank-you to all of you who have let us into your homes night after night. It has been a privilege and one never taken lightly.
”Not long after I first came to the anchor chair I briefly signed off using the word ‘courage.’ I want to return to it now in a different way, to a nation still nursing a broken heart for what happened here in 2001 and especially to those who found themselves close to the events of September 11.” He then saluted American troops in harm’s way, survivors of the tsunami, the oppressed, the poor, the sick, and his fellow journalists reporting from dangerous places. ”And to each of you, courage.” With that line, he ended his final newscast, surrounded by applauding CBS staffers.