Veteran journalist Dan Rather turned 86 years old on Halloween, but he isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. After a long career with CBS, he created the series Dan Rather Reports on cable network HDNet and then launched an independent production company called News and Guts. He recently embarked on a tour to promote What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism, which he co-authored with journalist and filmmaker Elliot Kirschner. During his latest stop at the Lisner Auditorium in George Washington (GW) University, Rather said the purpose of the book was to initiate conversations about patriotism, “a deep love of country.”
MSNBC contributor and Washington Post columnist Jonathan Capehart was at the helm of this Politics and Prose event, launching into an engaging interview about our country and the current political climate. It’s worth noting that Rather conceived the idea for the book at about the time of Donald Trump’s win of the presidency last year. While Rather never mentions Trump by name in What Unites Us, our current president was a frequent topic that evening at GW.
While many individuals in the United States are patriotic, Rather noted that a large number of people are nationalistic. Patriotism carries a sense of humility and striving to be better, whereas nationalism “carries inherent in it a certain amount of arrogance” that leads to trouble. “With the authoritative nature of the presidency, sometimes it’s only a short distance to extreme nationalism which can lead to nativism and tribalism,” Rather cautioned about society today. “If we ever descend into tribalism, then we’re through as the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave.’”
Rather delved into the concept of a swinging pendulum next, which ties in well with Tuesday’s election results that brought wins for Democrats in Virginia and New Jersey. “Inevitably in our history, that ebb and flow steadies itself more or less in the broad middle,” he observed.
However, it’s only the beginning of the electorate’s – specifically the suburbs – move away from the Right. “I think some Democrats are celebrating too early,” Rather said.
Capehart asked for Rather’s thoughts about recent movements like Black Lives Matter, women’s marches, and protests by football players. Rather stands for the National Anthem and the flag, but he said that he respects those involved in protests. “The radical of yesterday was the prophet of tomorrow. We’ve seen this time and again,” recalling Women’s Suffrage and the Civil Rights Era as examples.
Indeed, Rather had very strong words concerning Mr. Trump’s tweets and remarks about the football player protests. He continued, “This effort to shift the public perception of these dissenters as unpatriotic, against the military, against the flag is frankly unconscionable. That’s what is unpatriotic.”
Attendees also had an opportunity to pose some questions to Rather at the end of the talk. One person asked whether White House briefings were still worth attending. Rather characterized briefings in this way: “Sometimes it is a theater of the absurd” and a “propaganda operation as told by Hans Christian Andersen.” Nevertheless, briefings are important in a good journalist’s job. Journalists should know how to ask the tough questions and try to make the White House spokesperson give answers to the public.
Another audience member asked what actionable things millennials can do right now to move the country forward. It’s a great question that we should all consider for ourselves and our communities. Rather answered with his own extension of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, urging everyone to think “I want to help one other person today.”
“If you can make that a person who is of different race than you, different religion than yourself, different ethnic background than yourself, that this I am convinced will help you as a person,” he concluded. “It will also help your contribution to your country.”