NEW YORK — Dan Rather echoed a word he once briefly used to sign off the “CBS Evening News” — courage — in anchoring the program for the final time after 24 years on Wednesday.
In a brief statement at the end of the broadcast, Rather paid tribute to Sept. 11 terrorist victims, tsunami survivors, American military forces, the oppressed, those in failing health and fellow journalists in dangerous places.
“And, to each of you,” he said. “Courage.”
He seemed to savor each word of his signoff: “For the ‘CBS Evening News,’ Dan Rather reporting. Good night.”
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Long, storied career
Rather’s reporting career spanned the Kennedy assassination to this winter’s tsunami, and he’s been the public face of CBS’s legendary news division since replacing Walter Cronkite on March 9, 1981.
His first newscast included a story about English girls imitating the hairstyle of Prince Charles’ bride-to-be, Diana. On Wednesday, the lead story was oil prices causing a bad day on Wall Street.
He’s the second of the three men who dominated network news for more than two decades to step down in four months. NBC’s Tom Brokaw exited in November, leaving ABC’s Peter Jennings remaining at “World News Tonight.”
Bob Schieffer is Rather’s temporary replacement starting Thursday. CBS expects to name a permanent anchor team to succeed Rather in the coming months.
Rather, 73, is returning to full-time reporting for CBS’s “60 Minutes” broadcasts.
He flashed a steadfast defiance in reminding viewers of the phrase “courage.” He was mocked by some for using the word to end his broadcasts for a week in September 1986 before giving up on the idea.
For its first 20 minutes, Rather’s final broadcast was all business. No one — Rather or correspondents John Roberts and Anthony Mason — acknowledged it was a special night. Rather wore a dark blue pinstriped suit and striped red tie. His voice was hoarse.
His exit comes at a low ebb in his career. Rather took much of the public blame for a discredited “60 Minutes” story last fall about President Bush’s military service, and he’s a distant third in the ratings behind NBC’s Brian Williams and Jennings.
He has been a target for decades of conservatives who accuse the media of bias, since his coverage of the Nixon White House during the Watergate era, and many have exulted in his recent misfortunes.
But he had his supporters, too.
Marian MacNeil of Windsor, Calif., said she watched Rather regularly and admired him. “I feel terrible the way he’s being treated now,” MacNeil said. “I think they’re smearing a good reputation and overshadowing his 50 years. I hope he’s able to rise above this.”
Network anchors pay tribute
Both Jennings and Williams paid tribute to Rather at the end of their broadcasts. Williams called him a “very tough competitor” and a friend of nearly 20 years.
On “World News Tonight,” Jennings noted the National Guard story and said ABC took no pleasure in the pain it caused its competitors.
“For many of us, being a reporter turned out to be a calling,” Jennings said. “It is an identity for Dan. He would be the first to reflect — as all serious reporters do — that this opportunity to work on behalf of the public interest has been an unusual privilege.
“Dan and I are also friends,” he said. “It goes without saying that we wish him nothing but the best.”
When the lights went down at CBS’ broadcast center on Manhattan’s West Side, CBS News President Andrew Heyward and correspondents Ed Bradley, Vicky Mabrey, Jim Axelrod and Rita Braver offered toasts, a spokeswoman said.
Rather drank from a glass of “Wild Turkey” bourbon.
Meanwhile, a CBS affiliate in northern Michigan that had said it would let its viewers decide whether it should run Wednesday’s prime-time CBS tribute to Rather backed off those plans. The station in Cadillac, Mich., said Wednesday its poll had been grossly misinterpreted.
“We were simply trying to maintain the great tradition of local viewer input that is the foundation of our modern day broadcasting system,” said William E. Kring, the station’s general manager. “It was never our intent to embarrass Mr. Rather or the CBS network.”
Text of Dan Rather’s final sign-off:
“We have shared a lot in the 24 years we’ve been meeting here each evening. And before I say good night this night, I need to say thank you. Thank you to the thousands of wonderful professionals at CBS News, past and present, with whom it has been my honor to work over these years.
“And a deeply felt thank you to all of you, who have let us in to your homes night after night. It has been a privilege and one never taken lightly.
“Not long after I first came to the anchor chair I briefly signed off using the word ‘courage.’ I want to return to it now, in a different way, to a nation still nursing a broken heart for what happened here in 2001, and especially to those who found themselves closest to the events of September 11th.
“To our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in dangerous places. To those who have endured the tsunami, and to all who have suffered natural disasters and who must now find the will to rebuild.
“To the oppressed and to those whose lot it is to struggle in financial hardship and failing health. To my fellow journalists in places where reporting the truth means risking all.
“And, to each of you, courage.
“For the ‘CBS Evening News,’ Dan Rather reporting. Good night.”
© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.