Posted: Apr 06, 2001 12:00 AM
It's happened. The man who almost always described Kenneth Starr to his TV audience as a "Republican independent counsel" (hinting that the first adjective canceled out the second) is now an established "Democratic objective newsman." The Washington Post gave front-page play on Wednesday to Howard Kurtz's report that Dan Rather helped raise $20,000 for the Travis County Democratic Party in Austin, Texas. When he was confronted with the story, Democrat Dan had some curious things to say. Rather said he "wouldn't be surprised" if critics use the incident to call him a closet Democrat. "I'm going to get that criticism whether I deserve it or not." If he's undeserving of the label, perhaps -- perhaps -- he'll finally understand how this is precisely what he did to Kenneth Starr. Rather waved Starr's Republican affiliations around like a bloody shirt and endlessly characterized him as a partisan prosecutor while Starr was investigating Bill Clinton. For the record: Starr wasn't headlining GOP fundraising events. Sounding an awful lot like Al Gore tumbling out of a Buddhist temple, Rather claimed he hadn't realized beforehand that the event was a fundraiser. But Dan "stopped short" of "saying he would not have attended had he known in advance that he was being used to raise money." But why stop short of making such an easy, perfunctory statement? Because the event was co-sponsored by Robin Rather, the anchorman's daughter and a "Texas environmentalist and marketing executive" who's eyeing a run for mayor of Austin. Rather also tried to get out from under this story by emphasizing how he'd had his picture taken the night before with Texas GOP Gov. Rick Perry. So? Rather didn't help raise $20,000 for Perry, so there's not even a hint of balance there. "Over a long period of time, I've met with political groups large and small, Democratic and Republican, Green Party, mugwumps, you name it, because that's what reporters do," Rather claimed. But there's an enormous difference between circulating your charm and circulating the collection plate. Reporters don't headline fundraisers for political parties.This is not to say reporters don't cross the line. They do so all the time, and get away with it. Over the last decade, major anchors, editors and reporters have attended fundraisers for liberal interest groups. Transafrica has drawn Bernard Shaw, Bryant Gumbel and Ted Koppel. The Children's Defense Fund drew Roger Rosenblatt and Jane Pauley. ABC's Carole Simpson headlined a fundraiser for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. Some are even revealed to donate to Democrats. Dan Rather's transgression is in another league altogether. He's the only major figure to star at an event that says, "Please join us for an evening with DAN RATHER" that comes with an RSVP envelope asking for $1,000 for the Democratic Party. An anchor who cares one iota about the appearance of impartiality -- and one has to assume Rather cares -- couldn't do much worse for his image than this. This isn't the first time Rather's sympathy for Democrats of the Texas variety has led him to a fundraiser. In November of 1988, gossip columnist Liz Smith reported a "gang got together" in New York City and "gathered up money in buckets" for Ann Richards' (eventually successful) 1990 run for governor. Richards had just delighted journalists that summer with her wisecracking about George Bush being born with a silver foot in his mouth. Among the guests at the Richards shindig: Rather and his wife, Jean. Like most of the liberal media's thinly disguised political operatives, Rather could easily skip the fundraisers and contribute far more to the Democratic Party at the office -- by loading up his newscasts with woeful tales of Republicans sneaking arsenic into the drinking water, trying to turn the planet into a global sauna, and the like. Why would Rather feel the need to take those regular rhetorical extremes to an entirely new level? Perhaps the most annoying thing about Rather's appearance is the arrogant double standard of it all. There's one rule of civilized behavior for humanity, another for the press. After all his protests about unregulated "soft money" for political parties, he's now helped to raise it. And how many times have Rather and his colleagues throughout the establishment media railed at the American system being twisted by the nefarious machinations of so-called "partisan politics"? He now claims he's "truly sorry" about his appearance, but won't say so on the air, to the viewers to whom that apology is owed. Still, nothing explains Rather's complete lack of judgment on this call. Maybe this explains it: "I had someone at the Houston police station shoot me with heroin so I could do a story about it," Rather told the Ladies Home Journal in 1980. "The experience was a special kind of hell." Residual side effects?