Texas

What’s Next For Texas: A Conversation With Dan Rather

In a wide-ranging interview, the legendary journalist talks Texas, the future of journalism, climate change, the Mexican border and more.

by Stranger’s Guide

When we first asked Dan Rather to talk with what lies ahead for the State of Texas, we expected a short and targeted interview about climate change. But Rather isn’t one to stick to just a single topic. The longtime CBS anchor and newsman is now nearly 90 years old, and spends his days working at his media start-up News and Guts and offering his candid, frank analysis of national events on social media. We spoke with him this fall, before the U.S. presidential election, about the role Texas might play in education, climate change, Trumpism and even space exploration. Rather also spoke about the critical roles journalism will play in the future and why so many journalists hail from the Lone Star State.

Stranger’s Guide: Why are so many journalists and storytellers from Texas? 

Dan Rather: Well, naturally, I’ve noted it over the years, and I’m not sure there’s a straight answer. I think, insofar as I’ve thought about it, and I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about it. But I think part of it is that Texas is so geographically large that it’s had more newspapers, more radio stations, more television stations than perhaps any other state, with the possible exception of California. But it’s had a lot and so that’s one factor. There have been jobs open, you could get a foothold in journalism. But I think something more than that—this gets a little misty, maybe. But I know in my own case and in talking to Walter [Cronkite] when he was still alive and well, there’s something in the Texas spirit that we always have our eyes on the far horizon or what’s beyond the horizon. And, you know, journalism offers, even at the most menial beginning jobs, it opens the possible prospect of adventure. And so wrapped up in all of that—you know, there may be, I don’t think it’s something in the soil or in the water. I do think it’s something as I’ve outlined on the practical side, so many outwards and on the other spiritual side, just something about the spirit of the state that does that.

Do you think that the sort of mystere things you were talking about around adventure are still unique to Texas now? 

Well, yes, and this will show my Texas bias. As you know, I’m fond of saying, because I believe it, that I’m not just from Texas and I am, of Texas. So I do believe that. I do wonder, as we get deeper into the 21st century and as Texas becomes increasingly urban, it’s already strongly urban, but has become increasingly urban. The sort of sense of being tied to the land may be disappearing. I hope not, and I can’t say that I have any specific examples, but something I asked myself: Well, here we are, already one-fifth of the way through the 21st century, and the whole idea’—of which is an idea on which I was raised—that to understand Texas and Texans you can’t do it without understanding you’re tied to the land.’ My grandmother, Page, at a very early age—when I was maybe four or five years old, six years old—one of my first memories: I was six, she lived down in Bloomington, Texas, which is down there near Victoria. It was very black, loamy, the land. ‘You know, Danny, put your hands in the dirt. Put your hands in the land and feel it.’ I mean, that’s Texas. And it was deep within her. 

Hell, we’re Texans. We don’t wanna be 38th in anything, much less with our school system. 

By the way, when I tell that story in other parts of the country, sometimes people’s eyes roll. But I do believe it to be true. So I was raised in that generation and I think that held to a certain degree all the way through the 20th century and into the 21st century—this sense of, you know, being tied to the land. But I’m not sure that’ll hold as we go along.

I want to start with whatever’s going to happen to Texas, the first thing I want to mention to you and the last thing I’ll mention to you is that Texas’ future depends—more than any other single thing we can discuss—on education. On schools. And particularly public schools. I’m a product of public schools, all the way through elementary school, junior high school (now called middle school), high school, college. I went to a state university: Sam Houston State University. I never saw inside of anything other than a public school. And I believe so firmly in the importance of public schools, but particularly for Texas, which its schools have never matched its potential for support of schools and ‘first rate’ education. That, until and unless something is made—and I hesitate to use the word ‘great leap forward’—but some real forward movement in improving Texas schools, and particularly Texas public schools, then Texas’ future is not going to be nearly what it could be. 

Let’s start with the University of Texas. And keeping in mind, I did not go to the University of Texas. My grades weren’t nearly good enough. I didn’t play football well enough. And also, it was just—it was a bridge too far to dream where I was to go to the University of Texas. With the University of Texas, several times in my lifetime, in fact, I would say at least three, maybe four times, it’s been right on the cusp, right on the cusp of being one of the great universities in the country, and certainly one of the great state universities. Usually when you talk about tremendous state universities, University of California at Berkeley and Michigan spring to mind. Not so much now, but North Carolina and Texas, several times have been right there. And then it gets pushed back or falls back, partly because either the legislature interferes with it in some way or refuses to finance it—help finance it as they should. And right now, partly because I live in Austin and partly because I have a lot of friends there and they’ve been nice to me, but we need Texas to be the University of Texas. We don’t need a sliding back into any direction, in the direction of mediocrity. But a case can’t be made unless it gets more support that either is happening or is going to happen. And that’s just indicative that, the last time I looked—I don’t know, we’d need to check on it—the Texas public school system was rated I think about 38th in the country. Hell, we’re Texans. We don’t wanna be 38th in anything, much less with our school system. 

Do you think that the role journalists have now is different than it was when you were coming up?

Not at base. I mean, why are we in journalism? We’re in journalism to get to the truth or as close to the truth as humanly possible. And that begins with gathering facts, analyzing the facts and getting as close as humanly possible. That’s the role of journalism, that’s the traditional role of journalism—that remains the goal of the journalists. So I would say at base, no. Who were supposed to be and who we try to be at our best hasn’t changed. 

You can know the facts and still not know the truth.

So there’s so many more platforms now that, you know, some [say]—your question is a fair one, in that a lot of people ask—well, you know, ‘Who is a journalist anymore? Who qualifies as journalists and who doesn’t?” Somebody can file on social media twice a week (in their pajamas, from their basement), are they a journalist or not? But the basic roles of journalism have not changed: to be honest brokers of information. And in that sense, when I said what I said about the education system, well, one of the roles, was administered to speak truth, not only to power, but to everybody else. And there’s a lot of bragging in Texas about our schools and our great universities, about our education system. It doesn’t match the facts. And so we salute journalists who call that out. 

How different do you see your role as a journalist now and how do you see it interacting with the role you used to play?

Well, certainly my role has changed. But if you’re lucky enough and blessed enough to live as we speak almost 89 years, a lot of changes will be made. And I’m in a different place in my life, both personally and professionally. We talk about my professional life. Certainly, it plays on that, for most of my professional career (from the time I first drew a check as a practicing journalist when I was 17 or 18 years old), for most of my career I was trying to be what, in a phrase, has become an anachronism, an objective reporter. My job was to gather the facts and try to be what I described before as an honest broker of information. And in what I would call the big four or five, which are sort of straight reporting, analysis, commentary, and editorials. Each of those is a different thing. I spent most of my career on the first two: straight reporting and objective analysis. Now, you know, I do a lot of commentary. Now, the difference between commentary and editorial, you know all this, but—

No, it’s great. This is great. 

Editorial urges a course of action. Commentary by my definition of news, you just, you make the comment. And my role, what I’m trying to do—others would have to judge how well—is to try, when I can, to give some context and perspective, particularly historical perspective, to current events. I don’t have a wide-ranging news organization to help get the other facts over the board. In fact, I have virtually no reportorial resources other than myself. So my role has changed. I now do social media. I do commentary. It’s fair to say that I certainly have shifted in tone since the advent of what I would call Trumpism, once it became clear that he was autocratic in nature. And that, frankly, when you first started hinting that somebody should make gunplay against his political opponent, Secretary Clinton at that time, and when he mocked The New York Times reporter with physical challenges, I said to myself, you know, this is this could put the country in very serious peril, which I would argue it has done, and that somebody, several somebodies, better start saying so. Sorry to say that during the last four, four-and-a-half years, what I offer in the way of context and perspective has been through the prism of the reality of how President Trump has changed the country and more importantly, perhaps in ways he’s been trying to change the country. 

It is imperative that we talk about climate change and that we meet that now.

In your opinion, does autocracy challenge the distinctions between the “straight facts”-style of reporting and editorial?

You can know the facts and still not know the truth. Gathering facts, but we do not describe your straight news reporting as extremely valuable. I’m glad I spent most of my life doing it. I did it as well as I could, as I knew how. For whatever flaws and mistakes—and certainly I made my mistakes—which, by the way, is one of the things we journalists haven’t tried to explain to people often enough: That journalism at its very best, even at its very best, is not an exact science. It’s a cut on its very best days. It’s kind of a crude art. We’re going to make mistakes. Mistakes are made. Nobody can do it perfectly. Well, they failed to explain that. But back to your point, that knowing that we can know all the facts and still not know the truth. That’s one thing Bob [Woodward] said before. Objective analysis of those analyses and news helps you so-called ‘connect the dots’ and move closer to the news. Sometimes when you fact, fact, fact, fact, fact—that still doesn’t get at the basic truth. And that’s what we need: some other perspective. Which, as I say, actually even put into context and perspective, and particularly in my own case, I have no illusions. I’m not a historian. But because I’ve been very lucky and been a few places and seen few things, I hope that I can give some historical perspective. 

As Texans, how do we respond to climate change?

It’s going to have a lot to do with what happens in Texas. And, quite frankly, I’m sorry to say that this is generally true of the country so far as I can make it out, but especially true in Texas, where a lot of people don’t want to talk about climate change, don’t want to think about climate change. But if you’re going to think about the future of the state, if you care about the future of your state, it’s not an option. It is imperative that we talk about climate change and that we meet that now. Tied in with that is how do we—well, first of all, do we? And if so, how do we innovate our way out of such a dependence on the fossil fuel industry, basically the oil and gas industry. 

Yeah. 

The fossil fuel industry has more or less defined the state since Spindletop, well over a hundred years ago. And so we have to wrestle with that question. And then again, there doesn’t seem to be the political will of those who hold political power to be thinking about how we innovate our way out of that. So we’ve sort of been this way for 100 years and we’re gonna be this way for another 100 years. Well, I don’t think that’s true. I think we better start innovating. So what happens to Texas in the future has a lot to do with how we, first do we, and if so how do we innovate our way out of the fossil fuel thing? 

With the dramatic rise of natural disasters around the country, is there an opportunity for journalists and media to do a better job at advocating and raising awareness of climate change?

We talked earlier about, you know, you gather facts and then you try to connect the dots. Here’s a case that you take: the case of the fires in California, the increasing number of hurricanes developing every year, and you take the facts and then you try to analyze. Well, my own opinion, which is controversial even in my own family, the fact that we’re in a period of really immense and dangerous climate change is a demonstrable fact. Now while I believe—and the majority of scientists believe—that what we humans have been doing contributes tremendously to the creation of this climate change. That’s my own personal opinion, you can argue that. I don’t argue it. I think it’s true and certain that a heavy weight of science is in that direction. But what journalists can do is, as I say, connect the dots: they point out that, here’s what the vast majority of scientists say is the connection between climate change and, let’s say, wildfires or, for that matter, hurricanes or any other kind of weather phenomena.

Cowboys in their hearts, but they ride behind a windshield.

But at any rate, you know, I don’t know that Texans, including this one, are so accustomed to thinking of the state as kind of Spindletop-extended. Together with the—what shall I say? —the mystique and the legend of the cattle business. Which, I don’t know, Cormac McCarthy has written so beautifully about this in his novel, All The Pretty Horses. If you haven’t read it, I recommend it to you. Sort of was set about 1949 or so when Texas was passing out of being a horse and cattle culture. 

But we still think of ourselves in that way. When we talk about the future happiness of Texas, there’s a lot of new things that have to be done without saying how do we adjust to the demographic changes. Demographic changes have already been—I wouldn’t say overwhelming, but they’ve certainly been tremendous. But this will continue. And how we handle that long-form will determine the future. By the way, back to climate change, one of things I talk about when you talk about Texas’ future is water. We have seldom even tried to have a statewide water plan for the conservation of water. And the projections on climate change, which our scientists have put forward to us, that vast sections of Texas are going to have much hotter temperatures and much less water and much more need for water now exists. I don’t know of anybody in our state government or anybody in politics who recognizes, who is really concentrating on, what we do about what will be the increasing need for water as we go forward. The population is exploding. The temperatures are getting warmer. Oh, where’s the water going to come from? Obviously, San Antonio and, for that matter, Austin, Houston, and so forth, we’ve been blessed with a lot of rivers, but we already wasted a good deal of time in trying to get a statewide water plan going forward. I would not be surprised, given my age, but I don’t expect to see it. I wouldn’t be surprised that the day isn’t coming when we have to pipe water in from Canada to places like South Texas. Some of them could say, ‘Oh, well, that’s scare tactics,’ but I’ve thought about that. If you look at projections of what the average temperatures are expected to be in 2055 and 2065, even as close as that may be, without a very effective water plan, it’s not going to be a pretty picture. 

What does it mean to be ‘rural’ in the 21st century?

I don’t find much talk about this and as we know, the state is swinging every year to rural because we have vast open spaces. We’re destined to have a rural population. But, they say, what will even be ‘rural,’ what will it mean as we move forward?

Do you believe there are any consequences to the growth of suburbs into rural, Texas communities?

That’s a very, very good point in the growth of what we used to call ‘windshield cowboys.’ Cowboys in their hearts, but they ride behind a windshield. But it’s a good point that’s partly wrapped up in this question of, ‘OK, how do we deal with it?’ As urbanization grows, the definition of rural needs a new definition and then there’s this sort of, what Willie Nelson called the “ol’-mister-in-betweener,” the suburban population. These are things that require thought and planning and also education. 

How should Texas handle its current relationship with Mexico?

Obviously, the border, what is the border, the growing problem of cartels. There is the danger, Mexicans hate it when we talk about it, but you have to talk about it. If we aren’t careful, we could be dealing with a failed state right on our border, in Mexico. Now, Mexico is not a failed state now. I hope it doesn’t become one. Well, we have to face it—if we don’t, again, if we don’t get our stuff together, it’s a real possibility. But we have the border, issues of immigration, the cartels problem, some of the water problems that we have now will go far into the future, will also involve Mexico. How we handle our relationships with Mexico—a lot of people don’t like to hear it—will have a great deal to do with what the future of Texas is going to be.

How do we refocus our attention on Texas as having a major role in space exploration?

We had a major role in space exploration for a very long time. One prerogative, we still have a very big role. What I do think is important to our future, particularly our long-range future, but I think short-, medium- and long-range, that we identify what our role can be. Every maxim. Because the future is up there, out there on what we used to call the final frontier. And we will either have a major role in the future exploration of the cosmos or not. And a lot of the decisions being made today will determine what that role will be.

Do you believe that the private space push that we’re seeing in Texas holds the same promise as that of NASA during the space race?  

Well, I think I think the answer is yes. But to have a major role in the future of space exploration, I do think it has to be a combination with the private [sector], which we didn’t have before. For what, at least a quarter of a century? National government enterprise was in the lead. But it’s hard to imagine us going forward as a country, never mind as a state, without a strong role from taxpayers at large, and that would include the [U.S.] Defense Department. So I think it has to be a combination. But having said that, I will emphasize that that combination has to, in my opinion, have a large component of overall tax dollars, including those in the military, but it’s absolutely imperative to have a private enterprise component of it as well, which we have the beginnings of that now. But now back to Texas terms. Some states are going to benefit greatly from the continuing—and I expect to be widening—exploration of space. Whether we’ll be one of them, as we have been in the past, I’m not at all sure. 

Watch our full interview with Rather below:

 

 

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