WALNUT CREEK -- If you grew up listening to CBS News in the second half of the 20th century, you grew up listening to broadcast journalist Dan Rather. Greeting the audience as he began his Lesher Newsmakers lecture series talk on Nov. 4, his familiar voice triggered a waterfall of cascading memories -- the Vietnam and Iraq wars, Tiananmen Square, Watergate, the civil rights movement and 18 hours of hardline reporting during the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Well-known for his coverage of every presidential campaign since 1952, Rather wasted no time showing his true, red-white-and-blue, patriotic colors.
"I ask an indulgence -- a moment's thought in silence, for soldiers fighting to protect and preserve freedom for our country," he said.
Saying he was lucky in career and life, and quoting Jean, his wife of 57 years, he said, "She said there's a first time for everything, so why don't I try to be funny and brief."
His 35-minute talk achieved both aims, with humorous stories about the 250-watt radio station in rural Texas where his career began ("It was an outhouse with an antennae sticking up," he said) and the time he played a canned, 30-minute news recording so he could run out and grab a burger during a long shift.
It was a recording of the station owner's brother, who was a preacher. When a call came into the restaurant, Rather knew he was in trouble.
"Have you listened to the broadcast?" the owner asked. Rather listened and what he heard was this: 'Go to hell, go to hell, go to hell ... " The recording had gotten stuck on what Rather said was about the worst thing you could air, especially repeatedly, on a small-town-Texas radio broadcast.
But his career wasn't sidelined, and Rather began his 44 years with CBS shortly thereafter, in 1962. A scrap over a disputed news report involving then-President George W. Bush's National Guard service caused a rift between him and the network in 2006, and Rather departed. He landed immediately in the greener pastures of AXS TV, a network founded by Mark Cuban.
"I have total, absolute, editorial control of a one-hour news show," Rather said. "I've never been happier."
He's often asked, of all the people he's interviewed, who impressed him the most. Suggesting he could name multiple foursomes, Rather named his top four: civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, South Africa's Nelson Mandela ("A man with a heart as big as a locomotive," he said), and the late Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai.
Acknowledging his final pick might be considered a swing-and-a-miss for Enlai's part in the Chinese Revolution, Rather praised the man's "gilt-edged intelligence."
Great world leaders, he said, all have character, vision and the ability to communicate. And great stories hold the power to change lives. Covering the fight for civil rights had changed him as a person and as a reporter, he said.
"It moved the country forward, but there's still a great deal to be done. When the history of the United States is written, the last line will be how we dealt with race."
The assassination of President John F. Kennedy was the most compact, most challenging story he has ever covered.
A new, youthful day, represented by Kennedy's 1,000 days in office, was cruelly cut short.
"What's happening in Washington today?" he asked. "We like to bitch and moan about Washington, but this is up to us. It comes back to courage, at the testing point. It is fundamentally American to be optimistic. Down-in-the-trenches work is noble work."
Audience members asked about "fake news journalists," naming Stephen Colbert and John Stewart, and the pubic perception of the media.
Rather said Colbert's and Stewart's impact was considerable and, overall, positive. "They speak truths that sometimes shame people like me into pursuing stories," he admitted. "But the standards have changed: the spine of journalism was once being objective. Now, the public wants news that reinforces their views."
Asked to rate President Obama and offer advice to young journalists, Rather whipped out a long, off-the-cuff, play-by-play account of every President since Truman, then closed with a Ratherian zinger.
"Only become a journalist if you have a hot heart flame burning to do it. It's hell on relationships and a tough craft. Learn to write, then dedicate yourself to getting better.