At 86, legendary newsman Dan Rather may be busier than ever, as his new book attempts to find common ground for Americans in highly divisive times.EXPAND
At 86, legendary newsman Dan Rather may be busier than ever, as his new book attempts to find common ground for Americans in highly divisive times.
Photo by Ben Baker/Courtesy of Algonquin Books

Legendary Newsman and Houston Native Dan Rather on Quest to Find "What Unites Us."

It’s a scenario that will play out time and time again in bookstores across the United States this holiday season: Conservatives will purchase tomes by conservative authors for their conservative friends to give as gifts. And liberals will buy treatises from liberal authors for their liberal friends.

But legendary newsman and Houston native Dan Rather hopes to bridge the red and blue Christmas checkout lines just a bit with his new collection of essays written with Elliot Kirschner, What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism (Algonquin Books, 288 pp., $22.95).

“I didn’t have a book in mind at first, but this grew organically out of my Facebook page taking off rather amazingly,” Rather says from a stop on his current book tour. The journey will bring him back home to Houston this week for an on-stage conversation with Houston Public Media’s Ernie Manouse and sponsored by Brazos Bookstore.

“I’m very concerned where the country is and where it’s going at the moment. This is a perilous, dangerous time. I’ve traveled a lot of places and seen a lot of things and lived a long time, and I just want to offer what I can and have a steady, reasoned voice with context and perspective.”

Part memoir, part history, and part editorial commentary, the 16 original and powerful essays collected here cover timely topics including voting, dissent, the press, inclusion, immigration, the arts, books, science, service, the environment, and public education.

“I think the title says it all, especially in this period of time where everything is so divisive on a regular basis,” says Brazos General Manager Benjamin Rybeck. “Just that phrase makes me think of all the things that do unite us, no matter our beliefs, around this time of the year. I want it to bring people together in the community.”

Perhaps the book’s most powerful thesis is when Rather lays out the differences between “patriotism” and “nationalism” – terms which he feels too many people use interchangeably and thus incorrectly.

“There is a difference. There are many, powerful voices now, especially the President, who [believe] the terms are synonymous. There is some overlap, but part of the core of patriotism is humility,” Rather says. “There’s a certain conceit and arrogance in nationalism, a lot of breast-beating and talking about how great you are. And as we know from history, that is dangerous for any society. But especially one like ours that is multi-racial, multi-religious, and multi-ethnic.”

Rather sees a slippery slope from extreme nationalism to authoritarianism, nativism, and finally tribalism. And if we just stick with our tribes, that punctures the very promise of America, not to mention trample concepts like empathy and compassion.

“There is such a blizzard of propaganda and highly political partisanship and ideology going around today,” Rather adds. “Plus, some pure, unadulterated bullshit!”

Not surprisingly, in What Unites Us, Rather often tells tales about growing up in Houston (though actually born in Wharton, his family moved here when he was one). Whether it’s attending a political meeting with his father in their Heights neighborhood to stand up for the rights of blacks to vote, or his early educational experience at Love Elementary with a special teacher, or taking his future wife on their second date to the Alley Theatre to see The Glass Menagerie, there’s a lot of Houston in the book.

He also talks about the virulently anti-Communist “Minute Women” of the Bayou City during the ‘50s and the dangerous power they held, and how his term as a reporter for the Houston Chronicle was short-lived due to an editor who would rewrite and respin articles to present a more conservative viewpoint. Then there were Rather’s own admitted problems with spelling.

He still has ties to the city with two siblings who live here and a grandson who is a senior at Rice University. He even talks about the “old” Houston Press daily newspaper that was owned by Scripps-Howard and was known as the most “colorful” of the city’s three dailies. That’s before it folded in 1964 when it was sold to…the Houston Chronicle.

“I am a child of Houston. And Houston informed me, and buried deep in my head, everything I have become – for better and worse – stems from growing up in the city,” Rather offers.

He adds that he grew up “on the wrong side of the tracks” in the Heights when it was a far cry from the gentrified and expensive neighborhood it is today, and was also bedridden for a time with rheumatic fever. “It was one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, aside from [many of] the African-American sections. But I should be on my knees thanking God I was born in Houston because if I was not, I shudder to think what would have happened to me.”

Benjamin Rybeck agrees. “It’s cool to see this guy who came from pretty humble beginnings and got his start here in Houston. It’s been fun to see people come into the store and talk about Dan Rather and the book. And he’s always seemed to me to be one of the more nimble and humane journalists.”

Dan Rather interviews President Lyndon Baines Johnson at his ranch in 1967.EXPAND
Dan Rather interviews President Lyndon Baines Johnson at his ranch in 1967.

Surprisingly, the 86-year-old Rather is incredibly active today. He oversees a news/media production company (News & Guts), hosts an AXS TV show which has him chatting with rock and country musicians (“The Big Interview”) and has garnered a whole new fan base with his musings on social media including Facebook (2.7 million followers) and Twitter (320,000 followers). The latter was the main subject of an entire recent article in Texas Monthly.

“A good journalist reports and speaks to people through whatever medium is most readily available. He’s finding different ways to get his voice out there,” Rybeck says.

Rather’s work has admittedly drawn the ire of some conservatives over the years for perceived bias. As when he was roughed up on the floor of the 1968 Republican convention, or had a famously testy interview with Bush 41 and what turned out to be a partially erroneous report about Bush 43's military service that led to his dismissal from CBS News.

But Rybeck feels that what Rather offers in What Unites Us is objective and free of any bias, and important for all Americans to consider, regardless of political party or opinions.

“If you’re not willing to listen to what Dan Rather has to say – regardless of what side of the political divide you’re on – you’re just not paying attention!” he says. “Dan Rather has nothing left to prove – he’s not out trying to make a splash to start his career. And he’s speaking from the heart. There’s a lot of wisdom about being an American and a human being and that goes beyond partisan politics.”

Finally, we’ll let Rather himself have the last word, as he writes in the book when considering all the monuments and buildings there in Washington, D.C. that became second homes to him over the decades.

“The true foundations for those buildings are not brick and stone, but our Constitution, our rule of law, our traditions, our work ethic, our empathy, our pragmatism, and our basic decency,” he offers. “As I have seen over the years, when we cultivate these instincts, we soar. When we sow seeds of division, hatred, and small-mindedness, we falter. As a wave of anxiety sweeps our nation, as big challenges loom before us, I feel an urgency.”

“In Conversation with Dan Rather” is December 13, at 7:30 p.m. in the ballroom at Bayou Place, 500 Texas. Sponsored by Brazos Bookstore. A $25 ticket includes admission and a copy of the book, with general seating.

A similar event will be held December 14, at 7 p.m., at James E. Taylor High School at 20700 Kingsland  in Katy. Sponsored by Books-A-Million. A $25 ticket includes admission and a copy of the book, with general seating.

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