When you get the chance to sit down with legendary newsman Dan Rather, you quickly realize that he’ll discuss just about anything. Because he knows just about everything. As Rather enters the 4th season of AXS TV ’s one-on-one talkfest “The Big Interview” (airs Tuesdays, 8pm) applying skills he learned over decades interviewing everyone from Saddam Hussein to Martin Luther King, Cablefax staffers enjoyed a conversation with him while at the Television Critics Press Tour winter tour in Los Angeles.
CFX: When you’re focused on one subject, it must be difficult to keep things fresh and get people to say things they haven’t said before.
Rather: Well, you’re right on both counts. The goal each time is to succeed by our own standard. We need to have the person we’re interviewing to reveal things about themselves. Our chance to be something different and unique is to start asking questions like “Who are you as a person? We know who you are as a talent. But who are you as a person?”… “Who do you think you are? What makes you angry? What’s been the low point in life and how did you come back from it?” Those kind of questions give you the best chance.
CFX: You definitely got recording artist Jack White to open up when you interviewed him. He talked about spirituality and other things he hasn’t said much about before.
Rather: He was very interesting. He talked about a not so very successful movie he did… he talked about what he did with that movie. It didn’t fail, necessarily, but it didn’t succeed. It’s an old lesson we all have to learn over and over again. That you learn more from your failures, things that don’t go well, than you learn from the times when you’re Oscar nominated. This is a great time for me professionally, though. It’s one of the most enjoyable times I’ve had. I’ve been really lucky. Among the things that surprise me is that I have been told any number of times from people of my generation that as the years accumulate that the fire begins to ebb. That hasn’t been the case with me.
CFX: That’s the thing. In The Big Interview, you go out and visit your subjects in their environment rather than sit in a studio and wait for them to come to you. Is that important to you?
Rather: It is. We want to be different. We want to be unique. We go to them. We don’t ask them to come to us. If they want to, we can do it that way. But the main point is that I prefer to do it in their environment rather than an artificial environment… The other thing we do is that we really work at making it a narrative. We want it to be a magazine interview. It’s one thing to sit them down and just drop in a few clips. It’s another thing to professionally edit it and to make the clips part of the narrative. It’s a challenge, but it turns out to be a happy challenge. I wasn’t sure it would be when we started. When Mark Cuban asked me to do this… and Mark has been so good to me and good to us… I’d fall on broken glass for him. I’d go to Hell and back for him. And that’s not kissing up to him. I’ve reached the age and stage where I don’t have to kiss up to anybody.
CFX: Here’s a random question: When you think of great interviewers in history, who do you think of?
Rather: There have been so many. Edward R. Murrow, who was always my North Star. He was not only a great reporter, but also a terrific interviewer. Here’s a guy who was with Franklin Roosevelt in the White House the night the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He was a terrific interviewer. Mike Wallace was a strong interviewer. He was a certain type… Jack Paar was a great interviewer. David Letterman is a great interviewer. Letterman made his reputation as a great comedian, and he was a great comedian. But he was a terrific interviewer, a great interviewer.
CFX: What’s thread between all those people that you think makes them so great at the art of interviewing another human subject?
Rather: I think the thread is preparation, never go into an interview under-prepared, and listening, being a powerful listener. Those are the two musts for any interviewer. Whether you’re a late night talk show host or a hard news interviewer, whether you’re interviewing Sadaam Hussein or some B-list movie actor, it’s always the same: Preparation and listening. Listening is important because your best questions come from listening to the interview subject and sparking questions off of that. It also depends on what kind of interview. For “The Big Interview,” I want the subject to be as comfortable as possible. I want them to feel at ease. I want them to view it as a conversation. Maybe we should call it “The Big Conversation.” What I’m looking for is an intelligent conversation with a person. But these all fall behind preparation and listening. If you interview Sadaam Hussein in Baghdad Palace, you’re not trying to get him comfortable, and he’s not trying to get you comfortable.
CFX: What interviews are the most memorable for you?
Rather: When I first started at CBS News, I covered Dr. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights movement. It changed me as a professional, and it changed me as a person. Mother Teresa—I’m not Catholic, but it was impossible to be in the presence of Mother Teresa and not to know the sacrificial work that she did. Nelson Mandela—I never met anyone of any race, color, creed or religion or gender that I felt was more sincere in not forgetting—I think that’s a mistake about Mandela. He didn’t forget. This is a guy who was in prison for 27 years. He didn’t forget, but he did forgive. And I said to myself that man is a better man than I could ever be… Interviewed Sadaam Hussein twice, once after he invaded Kuwait and the other time maybe 72 hours or so before the war started.
CFX: I can’t imagine that. Did you literally fear for your life as you were sitting there in his country, in his palace, asking this brutal dictator questions he probably didn’t like?
Rather: No. I don’t say this in an overly dramatic way, but on some days in some ways, danger is my business.