Dan Rather Surfaces on CNN To Report North Korea Can 'Eat On Your Mind'

July 6th, 2006 8:35 PM

Disgraced former CBS anchorman Dan Rather resurfaced Wednesday night on CNN, where he was a guest on "Anderson Cooper 360." Cooper didn't apologize for calling dibs on some of Rather's "60 Minutes" real estate, but maybe the air time was a bit of a thank-you card. The first thing a viewer might notice is that Cooper let Rather speak for large chunks of time, more hesitant to jump in than....a horned frog crossing the highway, to speak in Ratherisms. Michelle Humphrey said it seemed like he was being indulgent because it was Grandpa's story time. Notice how long Rather is allowed for his answers about how North Korea's tight control can "eat on your mind."

There isn't really any outrageous liberal bias here in the exchange, unless you count any attempt to rehabilitate the man who ruined his career to make the less than earth-shattering charge that President Bush missed a National Guard flight physical in Alabama. A look at the transcript:

Cooper: Well, few outsiders get a look, a good look, inside North Korea. Luckily, for all of us, Dan Rather has made a career out of getting a good look at places where few others get to go. In more than four decades with CBS News, he's been to Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation, Iraq under Saddam Hussein, and, more recently, North Korea. It's a privilege to welcome Dan Rather to the program tonight. Dan, thanks for being with us. What -- what's it like when you -- when you first arrive in North Korea?

Dan Rather: First of all, it's a pleasure to be with you, Anderson. It's like nothing anybody who hasn't been there has ever experienced. It's very difficult to describe. It's a robotized twilight zone, otherworldly, in more ways than I can recount. The package that preceded us teed up the fact -- and it is a fact -- this is a totalitarian regime. It's not just authoritarian, not just dictatorial. It's a totalitarian regime. And in the capital, Pyongyang, there's this eerie quality of everybody being programmed. An example would be, you come out in the morning. Mind you, you don't go anywhere without your controllers. That's what they call themselves, government people who go everywhere with you. If you say "Good morning" to someone, they are very polite, and they will smile and say: "Yes. Our maximum leader told us this morning on the radio that it was going to be a beautiful day. And you know what, sir? It is a beautiful day." The first few times you hear that, you're at least bemused, if not amused, by it. But, hour after hour, day after day, there's an unsettling quality to that. (Answer length:190 words)

Cooper: That's incredibly creepy. I have never -- I have never heard that. [What? Anderson's never heard that North Korea is regimented? What kind of babe in the woods is CNN putting in charge of the store here?]  And the controller, I mean, how controlling was he? Were you able to talk to people on the street, go to people's homes?

Rather: No, and no. As a matter of fact, the penalty is severe in North Korea if you allow a stranger into your home. We were allowed to talk to people, but a -- only a limited number of people, and under very controlled circumstances. You said how controlled? The control was complete, absolute. We went nowhere without the controllers. We spoke to no one without the permission of the controllers. The people we spoke to tended to be official guides at museums, other public monuments, that sort of thing. But, again, Anderson, I come back to, it's -- it's hard for anyone in the West -- I would say hard for anyone who has never been to North Korea -- to imagine what it's like, because it -- it -- it is -- the discipline is so great, that everybody you are allowed to talk to gives you what are clearly programmed answers.

And, sometimes, they're non sequiturs. If you say, well, what was here before this building, and they didn't want to answer that, they will say, 'the sunset from this view is just gorgeous.' When -- we were there, I think, about 10 days. And, after a while, that begins to -- to really eat on -- on your mind. Keep in mind that -- I'm seeing pictures here on the screen of young people. We went to a special school. It's an after-school school, if you take my point, for particularly gifted and interested students. And while what you're seeing here is sort the proverbial dance, they had very young children with mock guns in military uniforms repelling the invaders. That's shorthand for the United States. Now, here, this is an inside stadium which seats more than 100,000 people. And across the way -- you can see it there -- they have the most -- and I hesitate to use the word incredible -- the most incredible sign. See, when we first came into the stadium, the scenes across the way were changing. And I thought it was a television set. I would like to think I didn't just tumble off the turnip truck, and I know a -- a huge television screen when I see it. It turned out it wasn't a television screen. It was school-age children using change cards, placard cards, like you see in this country at football games, but doing it so effectively, and changing scenes on cue and without error. You found yourself thinking, how many hours, how many days, weeks and months must they practice to pull this off? (Answer length: 413 words)

Cooper: Yes. And -- and, I mean, you have been in a lot of countries where the official line was, you know, hatred of America, down with the USA. Clearly, that is the North Korean line. Do you -- were you able to get any sense of whether people actually believe it there? I mean, was there any overt hostility toward you as an American?

Rather: No, no overt hostility toward me. But I do believe it, which is to say, we're now working on a -- if use the biblical 33 years as a generation, at least three generations of North Koreans have come to believe, they have been taught -- it's been preached to them -- that: The only thing keeping the United States out is our military. And we viewed this military parade, which you're seeing here now. And while it was very impressive, by the goose-stepping discipline, and the close-drill of infantry, I thought it was fairly significant that we didn't see much heavy artillery. We didn't see much mechanized tanks, troop carriers, anything of that sort, and no air flyovers. Now, that said to me -- I'm not a military expert, but that said to me that their equipment, in terms of their conventional army, is very dated. And, therefore, they didn't want to show off those parts of it, to show how dated it is.

Cooper, very timidly: And...

Rather: But, Anderson, make no mistake. When you're there and you see this -- these huge demonstrations, military and otherwise, this is a country that is very proud of itself. And they will tell you in a second, the officials that one speaks to, including General Bok, who is responsible for defending the demilitarized zone, that they expect the United States to invade. They expect the United States to try a regime change. And they look you clear in the eye and say, we, unlike the Iraqis, will fight to the last man, woman and child. (Answer length: 258 words, and the teeny-weeny "and" doesn't count.)  

Cooper: Hmm, and with, allegedly, the third largest army in the world, those are certainly strong words. Dan Rather, appreciate you joining us. Thanks very much. It's great to have you on the program.

Rather: Thank you, Anderson.

Personally, I would point out the idea of answering journalist questions with non sequiturs is not totally unknown to Rather. Some of us still remember the 1992 Republican convention in Houston, when local DC reporter Tom Sherwood decided to put the Clinton question to national reporters, asking if they had been faithful to their wives. As we chronicled it in MediaWatch:  

A squirming Rather tried to evade the question by bravely throwing a colleague to the wolves: "You've been asking this to Tom Brokaw, have you?" Then he asked Sherwood if he'd ever had an affair. Sherwood assured him "I'm going to answer the question at the end of my story." As he walked away, Rather turned on his robotic anchorman persona, saying cryptically, "Well, thank you very much. Pleased to see you."