Rather is shown the door

Dan Rather’s long career with CBS has been punctuated with odd incidents, the weird signoff, “Courage!”; the encounter with the wacko who demanded, “What’s the frequency, Kenneth?”; the flare-ups with Presidents Nixon and Bush senior; and most notably the unauthenticated memos about Bush the younger’s National Guard service that led to his retiring a year earlier than planned and the canning of four of his co-workers.

His last broadcast after 24 years as an anchor will be March 9, and you don’t have to be fan of Rather’s to be dismayed by the way he’s being treated as he heads for the door. Some of his CBS colleagues are volunteering that they don’t watch him, finding him boring, his delivery quirky.

His network bosses say the broadcast that replaces his will be faster, lighter, less “anchor-centric,” more celebrity-laden.

Even so, Rather, through no fault of his own, still had at least one brush with the strange left in him. He somehow became a point of contention between President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin. At last week’s meeting, Bush was stressing the need for a free press in Russia when Putin shot back, “We didn’t criticize you when you fired those reporters at CBS.”

A stunned Bush aide told Time magazine, “Putin thought we’d fired Dan Rather. It was like something out of 1984.”

This was a scary revelation. First, it revealed an appalling ignorance by Putin of the place of the press in American society and its relationship with the presidency. Second, it showed that Putin may have no concept of a free press. The remark betrayed an automatic assumption that, of course, you would fire reporters who criticized and embarrassed the leader.

Putin would have been on more solid ground if he had asked the president why the Bush administration is trying to jail two reporters for being the recipients of leaks the administration itself generated. But perhaps those are the kind of tactics the Russian president instinctively understands.

Once Rather retires, the White House might want to swallow its dislike of him and put the anchor on the task of explaining to the world at large how a free press works. Our government doesn’t fire reporters. And in a better world, it wouldn’t be jailing them either.

(Contact Dale McFeatters at McFeattersD(at)SHNS.com. Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, http://www.shns.com)