Journalist Dan Rather on Trump, Patriotism, and 'What Unites Us' Veteran journalist Dan Rather thinks the U.S. is facing an 'existential crisis,' but one the country can survive. His new book is called What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism. Sam and Dan talked in front of an audience at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last month. Email the show at samsanders@npr.org or tweet @NPRItsBeenAMin with your feedback. Follow Sam on Twitter @samsanders and producers Brent Baughman @brentbaughman and Anjuli Sastry @AnjuliSastry.
NPR logo

Journalist Dan Rather on Trump, Patriotism, and 'What Unites Us'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/568282417/568431078" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Journalist Dan Rather on Trump, Patriotism, and 'What Unites Us'

Journalist Dan Rather on Trump, Patriotism, and 'What Unites Us'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/568282417/568431078" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SAM SANDERS, HOST:

Before we start the show, I need to tell you something. I don't win a lot. Growing up in Little League Baseball, I was so bad I quit mid-season. When I played Little League soccer, I was afraid of the soccer ball. I did not graduate at the top of my class in high school, college, anywhere. But right now, you, and I and us have a chance to win. There's a competition happening right now trying to see which NPR show host can drive the most donations to NPR stations across the country.

We have our own special link for you to give. Here it is. Write it down. Write it down - donate.npr.org/sam. If you do that and we get the most donations through that link, we win. By doing this, you don't just support this show. You support local stations. You support really all of the work coming out of NPR and our stations throughout the country. Let's win. OK, thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: Hey y'all. Sam Sanders' here. IT'S BEEN A MINUTE. Got a really good chat for you today. We taped it a few weeks ago in front of a live audience at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Howard Gilman Opera House. I was there in conversation with the legend Dan Rather. Dan anchored the "CBS Evening News" for 24 years. He has worked as a journalist since the 1950s. He has covered stories that have changed the world; JFK's assassination, Watergate, the civil rights movement. He's interviewed presidents, covered foreign wars.

Dan Rather has seen a lot, and we talked about a lot, including his new book. It is called "What Unites Us: Reflections On Patriotism." So one thing to know about Dan. He left CBS in 2006 - that's been a while ago now - and he's entered this new phase of his career since then where the chains are off. He has a new media outlet called News and Guts, and he's been doing crazy well on Facebook. About 1.5 million people follow him there, and he posts these commentaries on the regular that have been hit. To be fair, this Dan Rather that you'll here, he is more vocal, more political than he ever was as a news anchor. And you'll hear that today, and we talk about that new side of him and how he became, in his own words, free at last. So check it out. Here's me talking to Dan Rather on stage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: This is so nice. So I walk in before the show, and I'm like Mr. Rather, it's so great to meet you. And he goes, good to meet you too. I know exactly where you went to college. And I remembered that we're both Texas boys, which is great.

(APPLAUSE)

SANDERS: You're from the Houston area. I'm from the San Antonio area. But how much do you miss it? I miss it a lot, Texas.

DAN RATHER: Well, I miss it a lot - of it. I've lived in New York. The nature of my work has required me to live in New York. I live in New York happily for the last 38, 39 years. And I've grown to really love New York and particularly in the wake of 9/11. The way the city pulled together left me with a very deep love. You know, I'm Texas to the core. I'm Texas born, Texas bred. And when I die, I will be Texas dead.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: Well, it's such an honor to be here. I'm so excited to talk. I have two pages of questions. We'll probably get the half of that. But the book gave me a lot to think about. Just to let you guys know how this will flow, we have received some questions from folks through social media. I have them all here. We'll enter first those questions. But my questions - so let's get into it. Congrats on the book. Why this book now?

RATHER: Why this book now? Two quick reasons. One, I'm worried about the country. And I know a lot of people are worried about the country. However, I am by nature and by experience an optimist.

SANDERS: Yeah.

RATHER: So I wanted to do a book to say, listen, there's not only hope, but there's a lot of reason to hope. Provided that we put ourselves together and remember those core values. The core values on which country was founded, which the country has up and down by no means perfect over the years hold itself together. And let's remind ourselves - we're so divided about so many things. Let's remind ourselves of those core values that have kept us united and can going forward.

SANDERS: That's a heavy ask, though. I mean, you're on Facebook. You see what it's like out there. Everyone's yelling. I mean, it was a pleasure to read your book because it was a lot of pages of not yelling. And it was soothing in fact.

RATHER: (Laughter).

SANDERS: But what stops the yelling?

RATHER: Well, first of all, there's no quick and easy way to stop it.

SANDERS: Yeah.

RATHER: Secondly, there's no way to stop it completely.

SANDERS: OK.

RATHER: It would help if the national leadership stopped yelling so much.

SANDERS: You don't say.

RATHER: However...

(APPLAUSE)

RATHER: ...But to answer your question, what we can do - this is not an all-inclusive list. We can say to ourselves, first of all, whatever our differences are let's try to talk in a civil, reasoned manner. Secondly, let's listen to other people, people of conscience who may have completely different political or ideological views. And you've got to get it out to vote. You absolutely have to get out to vote.

(APPLAUSE)

SANDERS: You write in your book that the country is in a, quote, "existential crisis right now," is it really that bad?

RATHER: I'm sorry to say I think it is.

SANDERS: Why?

RATHER: Be - quite honestly, because of the tone and substance of the national leadership. It's divisive. It's designed to be divisive. It's designed to set one group of people against another group of people. It's very heavily into nationalism as opposed to patriotism. And one of the points I try to make in this book is the difference between nationalism and patriotism. And not only is it into we're talking about the leadership. It's into economic nationalism, but it's also into racial nationalism. There's no mistaking if that's the case. And that presents an existential crisis. The crisis within ourselves is who are we, who are we really, what have we become, what are we in the process of becoming, what do we want to be and what we want to be going forward.

SANDERS: Yeah.

RATHER: And we're at a pivot point we're in a decisive hour for the country in my opinion. You know, we have to pull back what we call in television the wide shot. This country is still a very young country. It's an experimental country. We embarked back in the 18th century on an experiment the lengths of which history has never known. And that is a belief that out of many we can be united into one - E Pluribus Unum was our national motto, out of many one - which we thought we could do. And we still think we could do, but most of the world said impossible to do. You can't have a multiracial, multi-religious, multi-ethnic boiling pot mixed country and hold it together united on core values. Now that's what makes us something new in America. This what makes America new in history. I think we tend to lose sight of that. And now, as I say, there's this movement and no small part due to the leadership of the country. They say, you know, it's better for us if we just all get into our tribes. And if we - all this business of returned to yesterday that's business of let's, quote, "make America great again." They move back to the 1940s and 1950s. Number one, America in some ways was not as great then as it is now.

SANDERS: Race...

RATHER: Race relations being one of them.

(APPLAUSE)

RATHER: We have a - I don't have to tell you. You could tell me. We have a very long way to go in terms of race relations, but we're a whole lot further down the road now than we were a half century or more ago. Here's the point. Even if we wanted to return, even if we wanted to go back...

SANDERS: It's too late.

RATHER: ...The demographics of the country or what they are and we have to deal with it going forward as best we can.

SANDERS: But that's the thing. This difference between reality and the rhetoric. I've covered Trump during the election, and I went to a bunch of his rallies. And I was all through Iowa and everywhere else. And so many of the same people that would yell at the press pit during the rallies were crazy nice to me before and after. And I would be welcomed into people's homes, and they were living and working with people of color in their towns.

And sometimes I would talk to voters, and they'd say, I know he doesn't mean it. How big is this disconnect between the president you speak of and his rhetoric and the real lives that we live on the ground even people that support Trump or Hillary or whoever? I don't think that the majority of this country is everything that Trump's rhetoric is, right? It's different, no?

RATHER: No. Well, I will confess - if that's the right verb - that I was among those who thought well, when Donald Trump gets elected if nothing else, he's smart enough to realize...

(LAUGHTER)

RATHER: ...That his rhetoric would change and he will try to be president of all America.

SANDERS: And there was a week where it felt like that. You know, there was this speech when he...

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: I didn't say that to be funny. There was a week - so, I mean, his speech the night of the election. Do you remember that first meeting he had with Barack Obama?

RATHER: Yes.

SANDERS: And he was chastened. And that seems to be gone.

RATHER: Well, what we now know now, speaking of reality, not only has he not changed from his rhetoric of the campaign. In many ways, he's doubled down on it. And we know now that he isn't going to change. Borrowing some biblical standard...

(LAUGHTER)

RATHER: ...change of fortune isn't going to change. Their hope should that over which is all the more reason that we the people - you know, no president are stronger than the country. Unfortunately, the country is a whole lot more civil, a whole lot more stronger...

(APPLAUSE)

RATHER: ...Than Donald Trump. So we the people now have to deal with reality. No, he isn't going to change from the campaign. No, he is not going to present the kind of noble tone for the presidency that we all ache for sure. So that leaves it up to us.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah. I talked to a lot of folks who say I'm just tired. I wake up. I read the news. I see Twitter. I'm just tired. It's too much. It's too much. It's too much. I even thought of myself. Like, as a journalist, since I've started in the business, every day I wake up excited to, like, see what the hell is going on today. And it seems as if for the last year and a half, I'd wake up with this sense of, like, dread, kind of like, what the hell is going on today?

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: How do you - dare I say - what is your self-care regimen? But, like, how are you - how are you taking care of yourself?

RATHER: Well, you know, I have a lot of faults, but I do have a passion for my work. I'm the son of a mother and father who worked with their back and hands (ph). I like to work. I like to work. And I like this work. So I have a passion for it. I understand not everybody can have that passion, but I have that passion to work. But the other - one thing I often say to myself - and don't misunderstand me - I go through those mornings where I'm saying phew. But one of the things I remind myself is the value of not being cynical.

SANDERS: OK.

RATHER: Cynicism is bad disease. Skepticism - yes. Reporters get paid to be skeptical. And I would recommend to every citizen wanting to meet their responsibilities with a certain amount of skepticism (unintelligible) but never cynicism. You know, in journalism, that old saying that your trust your mother, but you cut the cards.

(LAUGHTER)

RATHER: Well, so it is, but - and stay optimistic. You have to have a guiding star, a polar star of hope. And if you keep hoping and you're prepared to pay the price to have the hope fulfilled, you'd be surprised how many times it does.

SANDERS: Yeah. I would go to your church.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: You should start a church.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: It's funny you talk about cynicism, and I immediately thought of, like, cynicism's weird younger brother sarcasm, which, like, runs the Internet. And I think of the places that I engage in, like when I - the language of Twitter is sarcasm. The language of most of Facebook is sarcasm. The language of how we speak online is sarcasm, which is just a - sometimes a pretty package on top of cynicism...

RATHER: True.

SANDERS: ...You know? And I see it all the time, and people think that's, like, how we should be. It seems so ingrained in the culture of the Internet to not be earnest, to not be outwardly optimistic, to not do any of those things you speak of. I don't know if there's an answer to it, but how do we change that culture?

RATHER: Well, I think the culture can be changed. And this is reminding ourselves of the advantages of civility.

SANDERS: Say that again.

RATHER: And part of what you're talking about is just, you know, it's, hey, we're in the age of the Internet and this is the, quote, "smart way to be," kind of smart aleck and...

SANDERS: Exactly, smart aleck, that's the thing, yeah.

RATHER: ...And cynical and sassy.

(LAUGHTER)

RATHER: But - and the temptation is large to succumb to that. But I think it's worth reminding yourself under our general heading of steady, just steady here, and remind ourselves of the advantages of civility, not just to the country as a whole but to individual life. You'd be surprised how a dedication to listening to other people and being at least minimally civil pays big dividends.

SANDERS: Yeah. I want to get to some of the ideas expressed in the book. One of them is your definition of patriotism, which I want you to talk about. You say that patriotism takes work. I think that for a lot of us in this country we think that patriotism is a thing that is defined and is static and you are it or you're not it. And I found myself leaving your book with this idea that for you patriotism is this ideal which we're always kind of workshopping.

RATHER: Yes.

SANDERS: I want you to talk through that for me.

RATHER: Well, what I wanted to make clear is if necessary just go to the dictionary. There's a different definition for patriotism than there is of nationalism.

SANDERS: Tell us about it.

RATHER: Now, the purpose of the book is not to convince anybody to have my view of patriotism. It's to start a conversation about patriotism because I think we said in the beginning it's really important we have a conversation with ourselves, each individual, and with our other fellow Americans of what is patriotism in this second decade of the 21st century. And to me, patriotism is a deep love of a country together with a belief that the country is not perfect, it hasn't been perfect and an acknowledgment of where the country needs to improve and a dedication to be part of helping to ever improve the country. That's patriotism - not a preaching the world we are the strongest, we are the mightiest, we get our damn way whether you like it or not. Extreme nationalism leans in that direction; patriotism doesn't.

SANDERS: So then looking back on your experience covering the country for decades, we've lived through periods of extreme patriotism and extreme nationalism. Historically, what takes us from one moment to the other and back? And does that offer any guidance of what we should expect or try to prepare ourselves for going forward?

RATHER: Well, here's where I do think we can offer some historical perspective - that extreme economic nationalism led to the Great Depression. We had extreme economic nationalism during the 1920s. That resulted in the Great Depression. But listening to the voices of the extremists about economic nationalism, racial nationalism, is very perilous for the country. And that's why I say we are in a very difficult period, but I always come right behind that and say let's don't forget we've been through very dangerous, divisive periods before. The 1960s - there are many people who are alive today who were not alive in the 1960s and others who for one reason or another have forgotten it. But we were...

(LAUGHTER)

RATHER: ...Right on the brink of a very, very difficult, divisive period in the '60s - assassinations, race riots in the streets, all the division about the Vietnam War, and of course we had the catastrophic Civil War in the 19th century, which killed - you know, we lost almost 700,000 people, brother against brother in battle. So this is a dangerous period. We're - it's a dangerous period because we show some signs of splitting, of fragmenting apart. But we've been through these periods before, and now just because we've made our way through them before doesn't necessarily mean we can do it now, but keep the flicker of hope going. Try to make it into a flame. That's the way we've gotten through before, and we can do it again.

SANDERS: Yeah. You know, when you talk about many of the challenges that face the nation in a period like the '60s or the Great Depression, they were extremely prominent and visible and you saw them every day it seemed. Well, I don't know. I wasn't there, but this is what I discern (ph). But there are certain conflicts that can go under the radar for a lot of Americans. You know, we've been in Afghanistan for some - what? - 16...

RATHER: Going on 17 years.

SANDERS: Going on 17 years - and my generation will be the first American generation since pre-World War II who grew up without a war that cost at least 100,000 lives. So then how do we acknowledge the reality of some of these problems when it's so easy to not be forced to see them?

RATHER: Well, what a good question. Particularly at this moment, there is a greater danger of a war with North Korea now than I think most Americans realize, that whether you put it a 20 percent chance or as many foreign policy advisers think it's 40 or 50 chance...

SANDERS: Now, Dan, be optimistic now.

(LAUGHTER)

RATHER: I want to be optimistic, but our optimism is realism.

SANDERS: Yeah.

RATHER: And as we talk here now, there's a real and present danger of a war with North Korea. And this puts into some perspective - the reason your question is right on point - that there's a disconnect between the American public at large...

SANDERS: Yes.

RATHER: ...Which is caused in no small degree by the leadership of the country. And I would say in this instance - I'm not going to get into false equivalency and don't want to fall into that trap, but in some cases, some Democrats as well as Republicans have contributed to this, of a disconnect between the country's leadership and the country's military and its war operations. And that leads to a greater chasm between the public at large. The idea that we're at war and we've had presidents say now - at least two - in effect don't think about the war, don't show the flag-draped coffins coming back (unintelligible), you know, leave the war to our professional military people and to your leadership, you go out and shop, we'll handle the war business, has created this - and led the people just not even thinking about it.

For example, in Afghanistan, where I have been - and I don't mean this in a bragging way - I think I've been to Afghanistan 16, maybe 17 times over the last 25 or 30 years. And the reality for American fighting men and women in Afghanistan today is an almost - we're asking them to do something impossible. On the one hand, withdraw; on the other hand, continue to fight the war.

But back to your point, we have American armed forces in well over 60 countries around the world, and there are Americans fighting and dying as we speak here in places like Yemen and Somalia, not just in Afghanistan and Iraq. And it's this gap between the country as a whole and the leadership in the military grows greater. It's extremely dangerous for us, and I think the remedy for this, if you will, first of all, is more transparency and more of a dialogue between the leadership and the led. That is the country as a whole.

SANDERS: All right. Time for a quick break. When we come back - how Dan got a late career boost from Facebook and why his success there surprised even him. All right - BRB.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SANDERS: I want to hit on another theme in the book - well, two themes that some might see as conflicting. One of the big themes of the entire book is finding a way for the country to show some unity, which is very commendable. But you also spend a lot of time in the book valuing those who dissent, valuing the place and the role of the grass-roots activist. A lot of folks might say you can't want both at the same time. How do you square a desire for national unity with another desire for the ability to and the presence of dissent?

RATHER: Good question, and we begin by remembering - recalling our history. Dissent is as American as the American Revolution, to say nothing of...

SANDERS: It is the American Revolution.

RATHER: It is. And it's one of the things that have made us what we are as a country. It's one of those core values that traditionally - not in every moment of every decade and not by everybody - but overall and in the main, the arc of American history has been support for understanding the importance of dissent. And today's dissenter who is ostracized sometimes turns out to be tomorrow's hero. An example that would be the women who were talking in the 19th century - in the 1800s about needing the women's vote. They were ostracized. They were damned. They were called unpatriotic, among the easier titles.

But looking back on it - and it still astonishes me, and I'm somewhat ashamed of it - that it wasn't until virtually the first fifth of the 20th century that women finally got the vote in the country. But I just use that as an example. So we remind ourselves. Dissent is a very important part of what has made us - peaceful dissent particularly, a very important part of it. And we have to listen to dissenters because frequently dissenters are on the front edge of history.

SANDERS: I want to step away from the book for a little bit and talk about the media and journalism and your place in it. A lot of the questions we got from social media touch on those themes. So I guess first - and this is just personally of interest to me. Like, walk me through your process of becoming this Facebook star Dan Rather Unleashed.

(LAUGHTER)

RATHER: Well, thank you for asking.

SANDERS: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

RATHER: Because - look. It's one of the best things that ever happened to my life and my professional life.

SANDERS: What? Facebook?

RATHER: Social media.

SANDERS: OK.

RATHER: Here's the thing. When social media first began emerging, that I had people - primarily people much younger than myself, including my daughter. My daughter Robin is my oldest child who said, you know, you have to get into social media. And I was opposed to doing it. But I work with a small staff of people in my production company, News & Guts. And some other younger members of staff came to me one point and said, Dan, if you want to be relevant, if you want to be anywhere close to relevant, if you want to be in the conversation, it's not a choice. It's an imperative that you get - at that time, get on Twitter or get on Facebook. Instagram didn't exist at that time.

SANDERS: Are you on Instagram too?

RATHER: No.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: You should get on Instagram.

RATHER: But...

SANDERS: It's the nicest platform. It's just pictures.

RATHER: Stay tuned because we just had a conversation tonight about how we got to get on Instagram.

(APPLAUSE)

RATHER: I just had this conversation. But I never - I will tell you. I never dreamed when we started that we would have a Facebook following anywhere near what we have now. Don't misunderstand it. There are plenty of the people who have a larger Facebook following than we do. But to have, you know, roughly two-and-a-half-million followers on Facebook - and sometimes we have posts that reached many millions of people. We've had - posted to in the 20, 30 millions. It's still awesome to me.

SANDERS: It is awesome...

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: ...To all of us.

RATHER: Well, what I hadn't realized in social media is this sense of a community having a conversation with itself - including yourself. You post something, you get almost immediate reaction to it. Now, neither I nor anybody else can read every comment that comes to me. But this is something that one doesn't have at network television. I mean, the audience sometimes will call you, or sometimes they will write in. But there wasn't this sort of regular sense of a conversation with the audience. It was a one-way conversation. Anchorman speaks to the audience. A few people in the audience respond back most of the time. Now this is completely different. And I must say it's is really satisfying and gratifying to have that.

SANDERS: It seems also as if you are a little freer from some of the editorial constraints that might come from being in the anchor chair.

RATHER: Well, no question about it. And don't misunderstand what I'm saying here - that in some ways it - quietly to myself, when I'm writing a post for Facebook, I paraphrase the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. of free at last, free at last, free at last.

(LAUGHTER)

RATHER: Free at last.

SANDERS: Yeah.

RATHER: No, but it's not a complaint. But when you are part of a large corporate bureaucracy, which any network news operation is - where it is now, that - you know, I own and operate this.

SANDERS: Hell yeah.

RATHER: And I only have to answer to myself. Now, there are plenty of critics out there who say, yeah, and that's what's wrong with you, Dan. You only have to answer to yourself. But there is this great sense of being free to write what I want to, when I want to. I'm really thankful. I'm really grateful. To use one of my new favorite words, I'm really grateful that I've lived this long and reached the stage where I can write my heart, write my experience and answer only to myself.

SANDERS: Yeah, how much of this new role that you occupy is a function of the freedom you now have? How much of it is a reaction to the time that you see us in? And if the persona you've become on Facebook is a reaction to the times that we find ourselves in, is that then also a sign to other journalists that we need to be doing some things differently? And if so, what are they?

RATHER: Well, I don't think - what a good question.

(LAUGHTER)

RATHER: No, I really don't. And this is not sort of any kind of false modesty. I don't really feel that my experience qualifies me to tell anybody else how they should do it.

SANDERS: I would disagree.

(LAUGHTER)

RATHER: No, but we can talk about it. Some of it - it began with just where I was in my career, which is to say I left CBS News after being there 44 years - 24 years in the anchor chair. So part of it was once I got out on my own, as I say, was liberating. So a lot of what I'm experiencing now is because of that freedom. But there's no denying it's absolutely true that a great deal of it is also because of the times in which we are living.

For example, my Facebook page, it was doing well. It didn't really take off until the Trump campaign. To the nomination, it was maybe a fourth - a fifth of the way through. But I remember the time when we did a post - when I did a post when he basically, not too subtly, suggested violence against Hillary Clinton and his presidential opponent.

SANDERS: This was - I was at that rally. He was in North Carolina.

RATHER: Yes.

SANDERS: And I remember he said it. And he didn't quite know what he had said. But the audience was like yeah. And then he was like yeah. And he just kind of doubled into it. I digress.

RATHER: Well, at any rate, at that point - whenever that was in the Trump campaign, I wrote a post with Elliot's help really pointing out, you know, folks, this is not normal. This is in fact unique - that never before in any presidential campaign - we've had some very rough campaigns and very nasty campaigns before.

But there's never been a time when a candidate for president suggested - even suggested lethal violence against his major competitor in another party. And that post did fairly well. And from that time forward, our growth on Facebook came up. So in answer to your question, it's some of both. But it is true that the temper of the times - the times we're in has been, in no small way, responsible for the success of our posts.

SANDERS: Yeah, I mean, because I think what we're seeing - you know, there are opinion writers, and there are reporters. And there are gradations of who is doing what. But I see, you know, as someone who functions in a newsroom that tries to put itself forward as kind of just the facts, ma'am - some analysis but most just the facts. There is a pressure on those newsrooms to give their audiences not just the facts anymore but to give them an opinion - to give them the same emotion the audience is feeling, to give them something else. What do you make of that?

RATHER: Well, here's the way I would suggest that as a pro you may want to consider thinking about it. And I recommend to suggest to the audience that they may want to think about it. I'd put it in categories. There is what I would call straight news reporting, which you described as just the facts - nothing but the facts. There's analysis. Then there is commentary. Commentary says, OK, I may throw out some facts for you. I may do some analysis. But I'm just going to comment on the facts and the analysis.

SANDERS: You know, it's funny though. It's like we're sitting here talking about facts like there's one set of facts anymore. I mean, there's such division over what the facts are - over what the right language and rubrics and frameworks for these discussions are. Do you think - well, I'd say we both think that there is a - there's a lot of division over what constitutes the facts. Is that another thing where unity will get us through it? Or it's more than that, no?

RATHER: Well, I try to deal with this in several places in the book "What Unites Us." It helps, I think, to start with the following. There are people, and there are several movements that, for their own partisan, political and-or ideological purposes, want to move us into a post-truth political era, where truth doesn't matter. Now it - we haven't moved completely into the post-truth political era. But we've moved much further in that direction than I would have thought possible five, eight, 10 years ago.

So to answer your question - we start with be aware that there are people in our forces who want to move us to a post-truth political era, and a great part of that is to convince us that facts are fungible, that the so-called alternative facts are the new way of thinking. Now, here's where my optimism says to me - I am hopeful about it - you know, the American people as a whole are pretty good about separating brass tacks from bullshine. And I think they're onto this business of, no, wait a minute. There are facts of - definition of fact - there are fact - look, two and two is four. There is no alternative to that. There's no way that two and two is five or two and two is nine. Two and two is four.

Water does not run uphill. Gravity is a fact. There are certain facts. And I do think as we move deeper into this battle against the post-truth political era, it's important for citizens to remind themselves, no, there are facts. Now, sometimes there can be an argument - there often is an argument - is it a fact or isn't it a fact? I've given two rather classic examples of that. There's no argument about it. But, you know, a dedication of not buying into the idea - the truth still matters. The truth matters a great deal. And we're not going to go into an Orwellian period...

(LAUGHTER)

RATHER: We are not as Americans going to move into an Orwellian period where the truth doesn't matter. We're better than that, and we know that, and we are not going to accept a world in which there are no facts that aren't susceptible to alternative facts. One of the most dangerous things to develop out of the Trump presidency was this experiment, this effort to convince people, well, there - or every facts is an alternative fact. I do think that people - by and large, people recognize it's not true. I certainly hope so.

SANDERS: We have seven minutes and 20 seconds left.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: I want to get in one question from social media, and then I have one more question for you.

RATHER: Sure.

SANDERS: This question from online says (reading) have you suffered any unnerving kinds of backlash because you've spoken out so much in the past year?

RATHER: Oh, there certainly has been a backlash that - you know, I'm fond of saying because it's true that when you do the kind of work we're trying to do, you have to face the furnace and take the heat. Not everybody likes it, but I haven't had any anxiety about it. And forgive me, you must - frankly, at this stage in my life and this stage of my career, to quote the old Clark Gable line, frankly, my dear, I just don't give a damn.

SANDERS: OK.

(CHEERING)

SANDERS: We might have time for two more questions. That was a quick answer. You write in the book that empathy comes out of suffering. You have a chapter on empathy. And one of the things you point to is some empathetic policies that were results of the Great Depression - WPA, Social Security, Fair Labor Standards Act, the S.E.C. These were results over a great period of suffering for the country. If this is a period of suffering for the country and if we can gain empathy from it, what are the positive outcomes not just in policy but policy would be a good thing...

RATHER: Not just in policy but...

SANDERS: But also whatever else.

RATHER: Well...

SANDERS: But policy first.

RATHER: By the way, for whatever it may be worth, the "Empathy" chapter may be my favorite chapter of the book.

SANDERS: It's a good one.

RATHER: Obviously I like every chapter of the book.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: I like "Steady" a lot. "Steady" is good.

RATHER: No, but, well, I like - thank you.

SANDERS: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

RATHER: No, look, we know whether - we know and we acknowledge where some of the great challenges are - one, the disparity and the growing disparity between the ultrawealthy and the destitute poor is growing, and the middle economic class has been shrinking. And we need to address those things.

And to the point that - and this is a larger subject for a conversation with him on another day - that capitalism will be challenged in the 21st century, every bit as much as it was by Marxism who was in the 20th century, because the idea of capitalism being a great engine for the creation of wealth and with the potential and the demonstrated accomplishment of bringing along masses of people to economic betterment left strictly to its own devices - as many people argue it should be - it leads to unchecked greed. And I think you saw in the Bernie Sanders campaign even in this country. I, for one, thought - and I was wrong - that a 74-year-old socialist...

SANDERS: Self-declared.

RATHER: Self-declared socialist - and has been for a long time - wouldn't get anywhere. Well, with Sanders campaign - you tell me, you covered the campaign - is that many young people, it doesn't bother them at all that he's an avowed socialist. As a matter of fact, they're rather attracted to it. So I don't want to digress here, but the capitalism is going to be challenged as an economic system, going forward.

So in this effort to narrow the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest, to stop the decline of the middle economic class is going to require a rededication to trying to strike a balance. And that's one of the things, going forward, we're going to have to decide, that there are forces who say, look, capitalism can be devastating on some people, but in the long run, it helps everybody, and then others who say that that's too heavy a price to pay. So that's one area. The other is in race relations, and this is something I feel very strongly about and have for a very long time.

SANDERS: Well, you covered the movement.

RATHER: I did. And covering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the early 1960s changed me as a person and as a professional. As I write in the book, I grew up in a segregated society where there was institutionalized racism. So it changed me, is how I - but partly because of that experience, my own opinion - clearly labeled - is that 500, a thousand, 2,000 years from now, when history writes the final line about the great American experiment, that final line - what it says will depend more on how we handle race relations going forward than any other single thing.

As we said near the beginning of this conversation, we have made strides on racial justice, but we have many, many strides to go. As we can see in this perilous time of 2017, moving toward 2018, the discussion about race and how we all get along - and not just a white-African-American race question...

SANDERS: It's more than that now.

RATHER: It's much wider and deeper than that. I hope people understand how important it is. It's a painful discussion to have sometimes. It's frequently very uncomfortable to have the discussion, but this is a conversation - again, a civil conversation - we need to have, and speak honestly with one another. I don't know what your experience has been, but mine, even now as an older man - I can't bring myself to say old man. But as an older man...

(LAUGHTER)

RATHER: No, it's very difficult to get white people to talk honestly about their feelings of, you know...

SANDERS: Well...

(LAUGHTER)

RATHER: And I think it's very difficult to get African-Americans to really speak their heart about...

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah.

RATHER: But this is a conversation we've got to have. I'm not preaching about it. There's nothing in the book that's preachy about it. But I do think that this will determine our destiny more than any other single thing - how we cope with the problems of racial injustice.

SANDERS: And I think - yeah.

(APPLAUSE)

SANDERS: You know, to hear you talk about the progress we still need to make on race - I talk about a lot on my show, and I'm going to keep talking about it. But one of the things that I notice is that there are people who come to the show or come to me personally and basically ask me for ways to have a conversation about race that is not uncomfortable. So they want me to guide them, or they want me to tell them the right book or they want me to say, I give you permission to say whatever you want to say. And it's like, no, I can't do that.

And I think that there is - not just with race, but with lots of other issues, there is this inability for us to enter into conversation unless we know beforehand that we won't just win the argument, but that it won't be uncomfortable. And I think reminding America that a lot of this stuff is just going to be uncomfortable till it's figured out, and you do it anyway, and you talk about it anyway. That's the challenge, you know? That's the challenge.

(APPLAUSE)

RATHER: It's also a patriotic duty.

SANDERS: Yeah.

(APPLAUSE)

SANDERS: All right, we've hit the clock, but I'm going to ask you one more quick, quick, quick, quick question, and then we're going to go because yeah, I want to. You're back in the anchor chair. You've got Donald Trump for a sit-down. But you only get one question, but you know he will answer it with the utmost truth.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: What is your question?

RATHER: I know he's going to answer it with the utmost truth?

SANDERS: Yeah.

RATHER: So I'm going with a question of, of what are you afraid? He's terrified about something. What it is, I don't know. In word and deed...

(APPLAUSE)

RATHER: There is something's he's very afraid of. So I'd want to pose a question, should we get one question and it was guaranteed he'd answer the truth of it - of what are you afraid? What is your terror? I'd love to know the answer to that question. If you can find a way to get at that question and that answer...

(LAUGHTER)

RATHER: Call me collect.

SANDERS: I will. I will.

(APPLAUSE)

SANDERS: Dan Rather - loved you. He's such a delight.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Dan Rather - such a nice guy, probably the nicest guy in the industry. Thank you, Dan. His new book is out. You should read it. I read it. It's called "What Unites Us: Reflections On Patriotism." For our Friday show, also, listeners, we need your help. As always, I ask our listeners to share the best thing that happened to them all week. No victory is too small. No victory is too weird. Go there.

Did you successfully steal someone's Netflix password? Did you cancel your gym membership because - be real, save your money. Did you perfect your internet meme game? I don't care. Let me know. Whatever made you feel good this week, your wins - tell me about it. Email me with the best thing that happened to you all week at samsanders@npr.org. Samsanders@npr.org. All right, all right, we're back on Friday. Thank you for listening. Talk soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

Copyright © 2017 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.