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Dan Rather
Dan Rather’s The Big Interview airs Tuesdays on AXS-TV.

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Dan Rather’s single biggest secret for interviewing powerful people

After nearly 70 years covering the presidency, the newsman knows a little something about talking to big names.

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Dan Rather is a broadcast journalism legend. He’s been active as a reporter since 1950, working consistently in both radio and TV, and even as he enters his late 80s, he continues to host a variety of TV programs on the cable network AXS-TV, including The Big Interview, in which he talks to fascinating newsmakers, artists, and other folks.

Because Rather has been working in journalism for so long and because he’s spent so much of his career in TV news (including a long stint in the CBS Evening News anchor chair from 1981 to 2005, when he was forced out after a controversial, heavily disputed report involving George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard), I invited him onto my new podcast, Primetime, whose first season (now available in its entirety) is about the intersection of the presidency and American television.

Over the course of speaking to Rather, I realized that our conversation in and of itself was as interesting as anything on my own show, so I’m presenting the majority of it here.

Rather was able to speak to what made some presidents (Reagan and Obama, for instance) so good at television, and what made other presidents (like Nixon and Trump) not good at TV, precisely, but hard to stop watching. He offered terrific analysis of just why some presidents spark on TV and others don’t, as well as a quick dissection of the several similarities between Nixon and Trump, and the biggest single dissimilarity between them.

But as somebody who does a lot of interviews, I thought I’d also ask him for some interviewing tips that he’s gleaned from such a long journalism career, which he was only too happy to provide.

Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

Dan Rather
Dan Rather was the host of CBS Evening News for 24 years.
Getty Images

Emily VanDerWerff

I have a question I want to ask you as someone who does a lot of interviews herself. When you started out in your career, who were the interviewers you looked to? And what did you learn from them?

Dan Rather

Well, the great name in radio when I started coming up was Edward R. Murrow, who founded electronic journalism as we know it and who was an excellent interviewer. I also listened to Eric Sevareid, who was a legendary CBS news correspondent. They were giants of radio news and I was transfixed by both of them and listened to them very closely. Both were very good writers and very good broadcasters, but they were excellent interviewers.

What I learned from them is that the keys to doing a good interview are ... the first three things are preparation, preparation, and preparation. Once you get past those three, the other key is to be a good listener. Often, the best questions come not from what you have prepared to ask, not from your list of questions in your notebook, but from listening to the interview subject very carefully and picking up questions from what your interview subject says.

One skill is to get the interview subject to be in the moment. Sometimes it’s not a problem. Sometimes the person hits the chair and is ready to go. Other times — and this is particularly true with people who have big names, whether it be in politics or entertainment — their minds are scattered on other things, and so one has to develop some techniques for getting them in the moment, to be present. Every interviewer’s nightmare is for the interview subject to be somewhere else mentally.

Emily VanDerWerff

What’s your secret for getting someone in the moment?

Dan Rather

There really aren’t any secrets. I wish I had some secrets. I think what your mother and father always taught you about a firm handshake and look a person in the eye when they first come into the room. A firm handshake, trying to make strong eye contact, sometimes helps.

If you see that the interview subject is somewhere else, then try to ask a question that is maybe your most unexpected question and the question that requires the [deepest] look inside themselves. Frequently people want to promote their album, or they want to promote their political message, and one way of getting them in the moment is to surprise them a little with maybe a personal question. “We’ll talk about who you are as a professional or a politician later, but who are you as a person?” That kind of question sometimes will jerk the person into the moment.

Emily VanDerWerff

We’re doing this show about the history of the presidency on TV. I wanted to ask you what the secret is to interviewing a president, or somebody else with a lot of power.

Dan Rather

Anytime one interviews the president, it’s a high honor. I always look at it that way. It’s an honor, it’s a challenge, and one always wants to be respectful. But you also want to ask direct questions. Let me take you inside the Oval Office for an interview with any president, doesn’t depend on party. First of all, whatever time they have given you for the interview, you have to be very aware of it, particularly with the president or any person who lives an especially busy lifestyle. I try to have a clock in my head.

The more powerful the person, the more likely it is that the person’s going to try to do what I call the old political sidestep, the side shuffle. They will try to answer the question they want to be asked, not the question you want them to answer. So you have to be particularly alert to not only asking direct questions but also to be sure to follow up and keep following up until it’s either obvious that the person is ducking the question or you get an answer to the question.

Dan Rather
Dan Rather speaks with then-first lady Barbara Bush in 1989.
The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

Emily VanDerWerff

Which president was the most challenging to cover, whether that stemmed from a particularly closed-off White House or something fundamental to their personality?

Dan Rather

I have talked to every person who’s been in the presidency since Harry Truman. Dwight Eisenhower, who was present 1952 to 1960, was the first president with whom I spoke. I didn’t speak with him long. I was a very young reporter and I had very limited time. But at any rate, anytime one interviews a president, that’s among the maximum challenges as an interviewer. Sometimes the most challenging interview was not with a person in a particular power or prominence. It may be a vicious criminal, it may be a working single mom with four kids who’s working three jobs, or something.

[But as for presidents,] interviewing President Nixon as the noose of justice began to tighten [during Watergate] — those got to be fairly hard, highly charged interviews.

Emily VanDerWerff

He was combative with the press, to be sure, but when I watch Nixon on TV, he’s really good at it in this innate way. What were the challenges of covering a figure like that, and in figuring out what was going on in his White House?

Dan Rather

What you say about President Nixon curiously being effective on television is true. This often gets overlooked by people. Nixon had made some mistakes on television. His best known might’ve been the debate with John Kennedy in the 1960 presidential race. So the widespread consensus on Richard Nixon is he was terrible on television.

But given his experience, there were occasions in which he could be effective on television. He was most effective when he was talking about some policy, particularly foreign policy, a subject that he knew well and that he knew he was in total command of the information. Anytime that Nixon knew he knew more about the subject than the people questioning him, particularly on something like policy, he could be pretty good.

But the challenges in covering him were that President Nixon was secretive, extremely secretive, even by standard political measurements. Most people in politics feel they have to be secret about a number of things, but just by nature, Richard Nixon was a secretive person. As it turned out he had plenty to be secret about.

His White House was a very tightly run White House compared to, for example, the current occupant of the White House, who seems to specialize in chaos. Whether you like President Trump or don’t like him, I think by any reasonable analysis you could say that the White House over which he rules is a chaotic scene.

Nixon was an organization man with a capital O. As a White House correspondent covering the Nixon administration, you were pretty sealed off from any reliable sources within the White House. So your chore, your duty as a White House correspondent, was basically to listen to what they said [via the White House press operation], and then your work started. It was no good calling around the White House and saying, “I’m Dan Rather with CBS News, tell me what’s going on.” Mostly you would get a fast hang-up, or you’d get a laugh, or an, “Are you kidding me?”

To be an effective White House correspondent, then as now, but particularly during the Nixon administration, you had to take whatever they were saying was going on and then go to work. Make your telephone calls. Wear out shoe leather. Call other people in other areas of government. Call people’s expense department. Call people in the Cabinet positions. Call sources you had in Congress. This was a daily challenge — I can’t say an always happy challenge, but a happy challenge for me because it was a very serious game of trying to find out what was going on.

Emily VanDerWerff

Lots of people want to compare Nixon and Trump for obvious reasons, but you really put your finger on the key difference between them: Trump thrives on chaos, and Nixon’s White House was locked down. But do you see other comparison points between them and their relationship with the press?

Dan Rather

There are some comparisons to be made between the Trump era and the Nixon era, but I do caution that it’s easy to overemphasize the comparisons. The Nixon administration is basically 1969 to 1974. Different time, different era, in many ways a different country. Demographically, the makeup of the country was so different then. I will point out some similarities, but I want to drop a cautionary note that one doesn’t want to overemphasize them.

One similarity is that when President Nixon came to the presidency, the television era was just beginning to really monopolize people’s attention as a source for news. The television era in news had reached its peak just about the time Nixon came into office. Nixon was fearful of television. He was uncertain about just exactly how to use this new, powerful tool. He felt he had been so burned by his previous experience with television back in the race against Jack Kennedy, and that sort of thing.

By the time Trump came into office, social media was so prevalent that he was seeking to use it to his advantage. I hope the point is clear: Nixon was uncertain about how to do it and leaned heavily on his advisers, including [eventual Fox News CEO] Roger Ailes. Trump was very confident. He knew television very well and he thought he knew how to master social media, and in fact he did.

Nixon was taught by Roger Ailes and others that as a political candidate and as a political officeholder, one must seek to command any landscape that you occupy. When you walk into a room, or you walk in front of a television set, wherever you are you must seek to command the whole area. It’s what old Hollywood actors used to call having command of the set. Now, in the same way, while Nixon had to be tutored in that and was never particularly good at it, with Trump, he seeks to command any landscape that he occupies. There’s that similarity.

We’ve talked about one dissimilarity: the chaos. Nixon had a very buttoned-down, very organized, very solid and clear chain of command, and prided himself on, “We are super organized.” President Trump has a tremendously chaotic administration, and I’ve come to believe, rightly or wrongly, that President Trump in his own mind sort of thinks the chaos is an advantage for him in commanding the airwaves and that sort of thing.

If anything, it becomes more clear as the years go by that Nixon’s presidency was a tragedy. He came to the presidency as well prepared as any person in the 20th century, certainly, and you can make an argument he came to the presidency prepared about as well as anybody. He’d been in the Navy during World War II. He’d been a congressman. He’d been a senator. He was a two-time vice president. He was a lawyer and indeed a distinguished scholar as a lawyer. With Donald Trump, he had no experience. He had no military experience, never had held any elected office.

I’m not saying that Donald Trump is not as smart as Richard Nixon, but in terms of school smarts, no comparison. What’s always been a little interesting to me is that President Nixon, if you gave him the SAT test, he would score very high. If you gave Donald Trump one of those tests, I don’t think he would score all that high. But if the test was on street smarts, Nixon would score low and Trump would score pretty high.

Dan Rather
Dan Rather covers Nixon’s resignation speech on TV.
The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Emily VanDerWerff

Trump also has Fox News in his corner, and Nixon didn’t really have anything like that. What do you see as the effect of that network on how we think about the president?

Dan Rather

That’s a good point. Neither satellite nor cable television existed to any great extent during the Nixon presidency. Nixon would’ve loved to have had his own channel dedicated to him and his presidency, his own propaganda apparatus, if you will. He would’ve loved to have had it, but he didn’t.

Present Trump is operating in a completely different era, and he does have a network, which, part of the time — and I do want to underscore this — part of the time, in primetime especially, Fox is, in effect, his channel. It’s dedicated in its primetime programming to the promotion of President Trump and his policies and his administration.

There are some good reporters working at Fox, and some of their daytime programming and very early evening program does make an effort, and I think frequently succeeds, in being a straight news organization. But, Fox is best known for its primetime programming, and their morning program also would fall into that same category.

This is a tremendous advantage for Trump, and it’s one of the reasons he got elected. It’s not the only reason, but it was certainly helpful, and it has been very helpful to him. Richard Nixon could only dream of it.

Emily VanDerWerff

What’s tricky about covering a president like Ronald Reagan or Barack Obama, where their sheer skill at going on TV to talk directly to the public meant that sometimes they could largely evade the press?

Dan Rather

There have always been presidents who had this ability to reach the public in a way that makes them very effective. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was terrific at it. John Kennedy was very good at it. Ronald Reagan was good at it. Bill Clinton was pretty good at it. President Obama was good at it.

Each of those presidents learned to use what, for them in their time, was new media, and to use it to their advantage. Radio was just beginning to come into popularity during Roosevelt’s administration. He realized that that medium was the new way of communicating with people — in your phrase, a way of going over the head of the press and reaching people at a level that his predecessors could not.

Kennedy realized the growing power of television and grew to be able to use it to his advantage. With Ronald Reagan, the emergence of cable television and his skills as an actor allowed him to use that medium. Obama was the first to use social media in a way that Donald Trump has taken far beyond what Obama was able to do.

But I will say that each of these presidents, in addition to realizing the most effective media for communication at their time, also understood that one of the principal powers of the American presidency is the power to persuade. To persuade, you must establish a high degree of communicable trust between the leadership and the led.

Franklin Roosevelt became our only four-time president partly because he had such a level of communicable trust with the people he sought to lead. Jack Kennedy had a remarkable ability to communicate a sense of trust. Ronald Reagan, whether one likes his policies or not, he had this sense, this ability to use whatever media was around in order to say to himself, “Look, I have to build trust for the people I’m trying to communicate with, and that will be a strength of my presidency.”

By contrast, Lyndon Johnson started out with a high degree of trust with the public, because he became president after the assassination of President Kennedy when the country wanted to pull together. But almost from the very beginning, it was obvious that President Johnson was having great difficulty. He couldn’t master television, and he wasn’t able to establish that level of communicable trust that the more successful presidencies had been able to.

Dan Rather
Well into his 80s, Dan Rather is still interviewing the big newsmakers of the day.

Emily VanDerWerff

Finally, we’re in an age of hyperpartisanship, where people have their own methods for getting the news and even for choosing which news they want to believe. What do you see as the role of objectivity in an era when plenty of people don’t believe what the media says is the objective truth?

Dan Rather

The spine of American journalism from the mid-20th century forward has been what a reporter should try to do. The answer to that, traditionally in journalism, has been, “What I’m trying to do is get as close to the truth as humanly possible.”

The journalistic standard, then, has been that I’m going to try to be an objective reporter. Look, it’s not humanly possible to be unbiased every second of every day, but the role of the journalist trying to be “an objective journalist” is to come as close to [being unbiased] as you possibly can. It’s not that the journalist never makes any mistakes and you never see some bias showing through, but over the course of time — the longer, the better — how hard does the reporter try to meet that standard?

That’s been the standard for a very long time. It’s been under increasing attack, in recent years, not least of which because journalists have made mistakes, including myself. I do not exclude myself from having made mistakes.

This is a new kind of test for journalists, where we are today with the Trump administration. To say that one is out every day trying one’s best to get to the truth, or as close to the truth as humanly possible, to say that one is trying to be objective in the best sense of that word, trying to be fair — that doesn’t mean that you have to acquiesce to everything the people in power want. Indeed, quite the opposite.

I’m now 87, soon to be 88 years old, and I still sometimes whisper to myself, at least in my own head, “Pull no punches. Play no favorites. Keep knocking on doors and saying what’s going on in there.” When you’re under constant attack, it is a political tactic to keep hammering and make it a constant message, as the present president has done, that the press is the enemy.

He doesn’t say individual members of the press. He’s prepared to do that and sometimes does it, but his basic message is, “The press is the enemy. All they do is fake news.” In that atmosphere, it’s very difficult to be out there every day. I really admire the corps of White House correspondents and other journalists all over the country who are basically saying, “No, I’m not going to let that deter me. I’m going to continue to try to get as close to the truth as I possibly can.”

The press is to be part of the system of checks and balances. In order to be part of the system of checks and balances, you have to ask the tough questions, the questions that people in power don’t want to answer. You have to keep trying to find out what the people in power are hiding, that they don’t want people to say.

If that results in people calling you names, including left wing, right wing, or chicken wing, you just keep your eye on the navigational star. What am I out here trying to do? I’m trying to get as close to the truth as humanly possible and tell it.

The full first season of Primetime is available now. The Big Interview airs Tuesdays at 8 pm Eastern on AXS-TV.


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