Dan Rather on John McCain: He understood the press

Journalists had a lot of respect for Senator John McCain, even when he called to "take the hide off of you" ...

Posted: Aug 28, 2018 7:33 PM
Updated: Aug 28, 2018 7:33 PM

Journalists had a lot of respect for Senator John McCain, even when he called to "take the hide off of you" for doing a story he didn't like.

Dan Rather, the veteran news anchor who got to know McCain during his illustrious career, said it's because McCain was noble, down to earth, and believed in his work.

"He took his work seriously, but he didn't take himself seriously," Rather told CNN's Brian Stelter on "Reliable Sources" Sunday.

The senator was a straight talker, and he understood the value of journalism, Rather said. But he could be tough on reporters, too.

"McCain understood the press. He actually liked reporters," Rather said. "Now, that isn't to say he wouldn't take the hide off of you if he thought you were wrong, but he understood the importance of the press as part of our system of checks and balances."

McCain, the Republican Senator from Arizona, died Saturday at 81. He was diagnosed with a brain tumor last year.

His death has sparked an outpouring from reporters who appreciated his candor and accessibility.

Stelter said many reporters "learned from McCain even while challenging him." His death has left a "profound sense of loss in the country," Stelter said.

Rather, who anchored "CBS Evening News" for more than two decades, said McCain could be a valuable source at times.

"I can't remember a single story he ever leaked to me," Rather said. "But, what he was very good at, is you can say to him: 'This is what I'm hearing what do you think?' And he would say, 'I know, but I can't tell you' or 'I know what you've got is right' or 'You're way off base' — and that's invaluable to a reporter."

McCain had also long been a fixture on Sunday morning news shows, particularly NBC's "Meet the Press," where he appeared 73 times — more than any other guest. And he appeared on CBS News's "Face the Nation" 112 times, according to a tweet.

He was also a reliable defender of the news media in the wake of attacks.

Shortly after President Donald Trump was inaugurated last year, McCain appeared on "Meet the Press" to condemn Trump's anti-media rhetoric.

"We need a free press. We must have it. It's vital," McCain told NBC's Chuck Todd. "If you want to preserve ... democracy as we know it, you have to have a free, and many times adversarial press, and without it I'm afraid that we would lose so much of our individual liberties over time. That's how dictators get started."

Rather said McCain's willingness to transcend party lines in defense of his beliefs was evidence of his nobility.

His death "leaves a void," Rather added. "We better hope we have some John McCains in the future."

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