20 Years Ago Tonight: Dan Rather’s Failed Ambush of George Bush

Exactly 20 years ago tonight, January 25, 1988, millions of Americans saw one newsman’s liberal agenda laid bare, as CBS anchor Dan Rather attempted to ambush then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination, in a live TV interview on his CBS Evening News. But Bush held his own during the on-air confrontation, and the lasting effect was to reveal how Rather was driven by his personal biases, at one point lecturing the Vice President: “You’ve made us hypocrites in the face of the world.”

Shorter Video (0:31): Windows (1.00 MB), plus MP3 audio (155 kB). Full interview (9:15) Windows (5.81 MB), plus MP3 audio (2.72 kB)

Over the preceding weeks, the CBS Evening News had run standard profiles of the other 11 presidential candidates, encompassing each man’s career highlights and positions on key issues. As MRC’s MediaWatch newsletter recounted at the time, CBS News politics producer Richard Cohen sought an interview with Bush for a similar “candidate profile,” but the real aim of CBS was to zero in on the vice president’s role in the Iran-Contra scandal.

In their post-election book looking behind-the-scenes look at Campaign ’88, “The Quest for the Presidency,” Newsweek reporters revealed how Vice President Bush initially presumed that Dan Rather would take an honest approach to the interview (“‘He’s a fair man,’ the vice president said.”) but the campaign learned that CBS staffers were “running around the network boasting that they would take Bush out of the race.” Media adviser Roger Ailes reminded the Vice President of Rather’s most embarrassing moment on the air (up to that time), a point Bush used in the interview when Rather became contentious.

An excerpt (all italics from original text):

[Dan Rather] was the living symbol, in conservative circles, of the power and presumption of the media....Rather had been working on an inquiry into the story of the veep, the Ayatollah and the Contra comandantes, and in January CBS put in for an interview with Bush — an extended sitting, the network said, to be edited down to five minutes or so of tape for a “profile” of the vice president.
“Ab-so-lute-ly no!” [Roger] Ailes exploded in a staff meeting. You could never trust TV guys in a tape situation. They weren’t on your side; they could edit your guy into oblivion. “Jesus,” Ailes said. “No, no, no!”
The request was rejected, and after fitful negotiations Bush’s men followed up with a counteroffer: Rather could have his interview, but it would be live or nothing.
Not all of them celebrated when the network said yes. Lee Atwater, for one, didn’t like the smell of it. He was a medley of tics and twitches even in repose, all flittering fingers and jouncing knees, and the Rather interview looked to him like a setup.
“I’d really watch that guy,” he said when Bush phoned in from New Hampshire the day of the telecast.
Bush laughed. You’re wrong, he said; he had known Rather since Texas, twenty-five years before, when Bush was in oil and Rather in local news.
“He’s a fair man,” the vice president said.
“All right,” Atwater answered. He was still nervous.
Ailes wasn’t. [Pollster Bob] Teeter had alerted him the night before that they were caught in a classic bait-and-switch; the word was around that the subject would be Iran-Contra and that CBS was going to open up half the show for it, Rather’s piece first, then the interview. Ailes made some calls, confirming the rumors; one mole told him people were running around the network boasting that they would take Bush out of the race. The warrior in Ailes wakened, and when Air Force Two landed in a snowstorm at Andrews Air Force Base that Monday evening, he and [Bush aide Craig] Fuller were waiting.
The limousine ride to town was the only chance they would have to prepare Bush for the likelihood that, as Ailes predicted, Rather would be coming at him like a mad dog.
Bush seemed insufficiently worried. “I’ve answered the question five hundred times,” he said. “I don’t see any big deal.”
“This is a big deal,” Ailes said. “All they have to do is press you on dates and bullshit that you haven’t had time to review, and you’re gonna look like you don’t know what you’re talking about. If somebody asked me what I had for lunch last Thursday, I wouldn’t know, but I’d look guilty trying to think about it.”
“No, no,” Bush said. “Dan Rather is a good newsman. He won’t do that.”
“Hey, “ Ailes said, “his job tonight is ratings. His ass is on the line. He doesn’t care about you. If he thought he could get away with it, he’d shoot you.”
The message registered, and Ailes used their time in the car to get Bush ready for combat. “Don’t accept anything Rather says to you,” he said. “Don’t accept the premise of any question — I don’t even care if it’s right. Stay on offense the whole time and wear him out.” He studied Bush. The guy wouldn’t fight unless he got mad, and what dependably would get him mad was the feeling that he was being treated unfairly.
“Watch that opening piece,” Ailes told him. “That’ll get you up.”
As it happened, Ailes had thought about what to fight with: a notorious incident several months earlier when Rather, on location in Miami, had got sore at having his newscast held up by a tennis match and had walked off his set to call New York to bitch about it.
The tennis match had ended in his absence, and CBS, with nothing else to put on the air, had gone to black — an empty screen — for six minutes. It was the ultimate embarrassment for a network, as Ailes reminded Bush; Rather would deny afterward that that had been his intent, but he caught heat for it.
“Look,” Ailes said, “he’s trying to judge your whole vice-presidency by this stuff. That’s like judging his whole career in broadcasting by six minutes when he acted like an asshole.”
After Rather had again embarrassed himself with his opinionated attack on the Vice President (full transcript here), he tried to drape himself in the cloak of professionalism.

As MRC’s MediaWatch recounted, “The next night, Rather refused to apologize, declaring ‘to be persistent about answers is part of a reporter’s job.’ His inability to comprehend the public outrage over his obnoxious behavior just proves how out of touch with his viewers the $2.5 million a year anchorman really is. For the American people, the exchange represented an abuse of power by a media elite that considers itself more important than the second highest elected official in the United States.”
Rich Noyes
Rich Noyes
Rich Noyes is the Senior Editor for Newsbusters