Veteran CBS newsman Dan Rather, a Houston native, came to the First Baptist Church in Austin at noon on Saturday (November 4, 2017) to talk about his new book “What Unites Us.” His appearance was part of the Texas Book Festival, which is one of the largest and one of the most prestigious literary festivals in the country, featuring 250+ nationally and critically recognized adult and children’s authors, 20+ venues (including the State Capital), 80+ exhibitors and live music.
Later in the day (4:00 p.m.), Rather’s spot would be taken by Tom Hanks, talking about his new book of short stories, a compilation united by his love for collecting old typewriters.
But at noon on Saturday, November 4th, Rather sat down with an interviewer and answered questions:
Q: When did nationalism become essentially white nationalism?
A: I think the sixties spawned this. It was a very difficult period. I do think that, coming out of the sixties, as an “experienced skeptic,” the tragedy of President Nixon and his appealing to Southern state white racists was not a good thing. Remember: Nixon was successful. He was re-elected two times with overwhelming majorities. He proved that you can win if you appeal to white supremacists. We’re now paying the price of what started in the sixties.
We need to pause and take a deep breath. Our national motto is “E Pluribus Unum”: “Out of many, one.” We can make it work.
Q: The slogan “make America great again.” It seems to be asking us to go back to the fifties. Is that true?
A: There’s no going back to the 1950s and, by the way, the 1950s were not that great (laughter from crowd). We can’t do it. Those who try will not succeed.
Moderator: “You’re literally whistling Dixie, Dan.” (laughter from audience). There’s a perception that all this started on January 20th with President Trump’s Inauguration. Is that right?
A: It started at least as far back as the 1970s or 1980s. We’re realists. We recognize when we’re wrong. After 9/11 we pulled ourselves together. Now we are at a decision point: re-dedicate ourselves to belief in the institutions, values, drive and forward movement of the American Dream.
Q: You have written your book in terms of 6 essays on such things as Freedom, Character, Responsibility, Science, Empathy and Exploration. I’d like to ask you about science, in particular.
A: We can’t move the country forward with post-truth. There are no “alternative facts.” I don’t care if you have a degree from Harvard or Stanford, it is ridiculous: 2 + 2 = 4. We know the difference between bullshit and brass tacks. Water does not run uphill: Gravity is a fact.
Q: What makes this unique? All Presidents have sometimes dissembled?
A: What makes this unique and not moral is these daily statements are not true. No President has ever told so many lies so brazenly and so perpetually. Also, his constant attacks on the free press are unprecedented. It’s a post-truth where facts don’t matter, and it’s dangerous.
Moderator: “In your empathy essay you say that we seem to have lost the power to be empathetic.
A: I don’t necessarily feel that way. We see empathy in the American people all the time: People are civil, wanting to help. These are very strong values that Americans prize, and we saw it following the recent natural catastrophes.
What is unworthy of us, as Americans, is a week-long debate about the President of the United States’ words to a grieving widow. Any decent person would have called her back or sent her a note of apology. That is the real spirit of the American heart.
Q: Let me ask you about your “Dissent” essay.
A: Yes. Dissent is being discouraged. Civil dissent in America is as American as apple pie.
Q: What makes our situation right now so perilous, in your view?
A: I want to be careful about drawing a line between Watergate and the place our country finds itself in now. Watergate was bad, but it was internal. Now, we have a foreign power intervening and interfering in our democratic process. That is an enormous difference. Also, the media landscape is different. It used to be that newspapers were important. Iphones and social media did not exist.
Q: Do you think it was better then, or better now?
A: Overall, I think it is better now to have the Internet. The Internet, when used properly, is a tremendous resource. Today, the greatest opportunity of the Internet is to educate, but a greater burden is placed on the user.
Rather ended his remarks to a standing ovation from a crowd of roughly 700 people and left the Church so that Tom Hanks could take his place at 4:00 p.m.