Dan Rather is one of the world’s best-known journalists, having covered almost every major headline story of the past 60 years. And right now, the two stories that concern him the most are the future of genetic engineering … and the future of his nation.
“We’re going through a very difficult period, a very perilous period of transition,” Rather says, “in which the ground underneath what we thought was a very solid political foundation, a very stable culture, is now coming into question.”
He makes that observation from a unique perspective.
Rather’s career spans reporter, correspondent on 60 Minutes, and host of news-magazine show 48 Hours. He replaced the legendary Walter Cronkite as the face of CBS Evening News, anchoring for an astounding 24 years until his time behind the desk ended in 2004 when the accuracy of a story about President George W. Bush’s military service was questioned — a report Rather still stands by.
Now 87, the veteran journalist shows no signs of slowing down. He’s still actively involved in telling stories with the independent production company News and Guts that he founded to create non-fiction content.
Rather’s latest project is a science documentary called Human Nature, a film he’s producing about one of the biggest breakthroughs in recent science — the revolutionary genetic engineering technology known as CRISPR.
“I’ve been mightily blessed and really lucky as a journalist, I’ve covered my share of big stories. I don’t think I’ve ever covered something that has the potential to be as far-reaching and as consequential as this scientific breakthrough to do gene editing,” he says.
Rather adds that this technology is still in its infancy, and one of the reasons he made the film was to get people to have a conversation about how it should be used.
CRISPR has lots of potential to do good, but he also recognizes that there is a dark side to gene editing, particularly in the wrong hands.
“We literally know, in theory, how to design babies — we now have the biological breakthrough that will allow someone to do that.”
Rather says he wants people to start asking the tough questions.
“What do we need to regulate this? If it is to be regulated, who is to do the regulating — is it the UN, individual governments? And how do you do that?,” he says.
“This is the conversation we need to be having with ourselves right now.”
He recognizes this is not just a matter of science, but also a philosophical, religious, and even a political issue.
And that segues into the other topic occupying his thoughts these days — the political and social turmoil in America.
Questioning core values
As someone who has interviewed every president since Eisenhower, Rather has unique insight regarding the machinations of U.S. politics. And what he sees right now worries him.
He tells The National’s Andrew Chang that what’s at stake is nothing short of the future of America as a nation:
Rather says Americans are left asking themselves what their core values really are, and what kind of country the U.S. should be.
He adds that this national soul-searching is being deeply influenced by the man he interviewed 20 years ago for 60 Minutes, Donald Trump. Rather says the interview he did then gave him an early impression of the current leader of the nation.
At the time, Donald Trump was talking about making a bid for president, but didn’t really intend to run. What the interview revealed was a man set on publicizing himself and his business interests, Rather says, and not much else.
Rather adds that while Donald Trump wasn’t serious about running for the presidency that first time around, when Trump got involved in the 2016 campaign Rather realized that he had a real chance of winning.
“Donald Trump recognized that so many people had deep-seated fears. Many of them would never express these fears, many of them tried to cloak fears about what they see as the rapid change in the cultural society and the democratic makeup. And he sought to and succeeded to a certain degree in exploiting those fears.”
That exploitation has stoked those fears and further divided the country, Rather says, as have the controversies that have dogged the Trump administration.
Rather has covered many past presidents, and points out that scandals are not new. But he says tampering by the Russians in the U.S. presidential election and the fallout from the Mueller report, very much like Watergate, have ripped not only the government but the nation’s cohesiveness apart.
Rather says nobody has seen anything like this before in his country, and he’s angry about how divided the nation has become.
He adds that he’s an optimist by nature, and as a journalist with a wealth of experience watching the U.S. deal with various challenges over the decades, he’s confident that America can regain its sense of unity.
But he admits that first, it has to find the will to do it.