In the last few years, Dan Rather, once a journalist, White House correspondent, and Evening News anchor for CBS, has reinvented himself for the digital era. One of the "Big Three" anchors of the late 20th century, Rather now takes to Facebook and YouTube to share his thoughts, the news, and his "Ratherisms". Rather's lengthy essays, unusual on the Facebook platform, soon gained notice amongst his audience and with other journalists. Many of his essays focus on living in America today–the division, the strife, and frequently, the heartache of losing your neighbors and loved ones to political difference.
Rather has long been known as a more sentimental newscaster than the typical journalist. Although some may find his emphasis on human connection disarming for a serious journalist, others have found immense comfort in Rather's affinity for empathy. The iconic anchor now uses that empathy to connect with millions over the latest news of the day, even if he's no longer the one reporting that news.
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In his most recent book, Rather concentrates his empathy into essays about the essential truths which continue to connect Americans. What Unites Us is an examination of patriotism, American identity, and a call to action to remember the humanity of those we view as our opponents. Below, you'll find an excerpt from the book in which Rather examines his experiences with empathy–from his parents' actions to his views on how more empathy could make the world a better place today.
Read on for an excerpt of What Unites Us, then buy the book.
I am not sure if the word “empathy” was in either of my parents’ vocabularies. It wasn’t the kind of word one heard growing up in my neighborhood in Houston. But my parents taught me about the importance of empathy through their words and deeds. And they made it clear that it was part of the glue that held together our family, our neighborhood, our community, and the United States itself.
My earliest memories are of times of despair and the Great Depression. Our family home was on Prince Street, on the extreme outer edge of what was the Houston of the 1930s. It was more of a big town back then, not yet really a city. We lived in the Heights neighborhood, which today is hip and gentrified, but back then our street was just a lightly graveled road. It was considered a rough, tough neighborhood, and there was only one street—a dirt street—between our house and the open country. Across that road was a large field, a creek, and, beyond that, a densely wooded pine forest. I thought of it as the Great American Frontier, and the truth was, in those days before interstate highways, you might have been able to find a path to walk from the end of my block to the Canadian border without seeing many, if any, other travelers.
Our house was nothing to brag about, but at least it had four sturdy walls, with two bedrooms, a small living room, a small kitchen, and one bath. My brother and I shared a bed, and my sister slept in the same room until she got a little older, when my father and uncle added a small room to the house. Across our street was a poor frame house in a state of semicollapse. A half block down lived a family who didn’t even have a house, just a corrugated tin roof held up by four posts in the corners and one in the middle. Their floor was dirt.
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Nobody in either of these families had a job. That was not unusual in our neighborhood during the Depression. And the families that were lucky enough to have work usually had only meager part-time jobs. A full-time job like the one my father had working the oil fields was rare and considered a blessing, no matter the pay, the hours, or the amount of backbreaking labor it entailed. This was what the United States of America was like not that long ago: a country where families struggled to live on dirt streets, with dirt floors and little or no income to pay the grocery or medical bills. None of this was considered particularly unusual at the time. It was just the way things were.
The father of the family in the dilapidated house had lost a leg. Exactly how he’d lost it was unclear, but the prevailing belief was that it had happened after a misjudged leap from a boxcar. Riding the rails was not uncommon then as a means to get to your destination, but it was uncommonly dangerous. His condition brought a crushing change to his fortune and that of his family. Before the accident, the father had been a day laborer for hire, a man with a shovel who could dig you a ditch. But there wasn’t much demand for a one-legged ditchdigger. He had likely not gotten good medical attention after the accident, and I remember him clearly as a frail man with a bad cough. He, his wife, and their four or five children had no money. Zero. They eventually applied for some form of relief, but it came only sporadically.
The family under the tin roof had a passel of kids as well, maybe as many as six. I remember thinking how elderly the father was, although he was probably much younger than he looked. A hard life will do that to a person. For some reason this other family, despite their abject poverty, didn’t seem to qualify for the government’s new “relief” program (otherwise known as “the dole”). Perhaps they didn’t know how to fill out the paperwork. Public support was far less systematic than it is today. Around the neighborhood, this family had a reputation for often being in prayer, and as a boy I wondered how God could be so seemingly blind to such suffering.
The neighborhood tried as best it could to help these families stay alive. If we had leftovers after supper, we would walk them across the street. One of my earliest impressions was taking that short journey with my father. You might think that these families were humiliated by the offerings, but there is no dignity in being hungry. And there was no judgment or disdain on the part of those offering assistance. No one wondered why those neighbors weren’t working, and no one passed moral judgments on their inability to fend for themselves. We understood that, in life, some are dealt aces, some tens, and some deuces.
Food wasn’t the only assistance we provided. One morning I watched my uncle John dig a ditch from our house across the gravel road to the ramshackle house. The family had been unable to pay their water bills, and my uncle was good with pipes. So he connected the two houses, and we shared our water with them. These acts of kindness were also not unusual among neighbors. Necessity was a great motivator for innovation and empathy.
“We do not feel sorry for them,” my mother said sternly. “We understand how they feel.”
On Christmas Eve, my father and uncle pooled their money, meager though it was, and bought toys for the families living in the dilapidated house and under the tin roof. I remember a rag doll, a small wooden train, and for some reason a tambourine—why these details are so vivid I couldn’t say. We waited until after the children had gone to bed to give the gifts quietly to the parents, so that when those children woke up the next morning they would not think Santa had forsaken them. That was the hope, anyway.
What sticks with me more than even that act of kindness was how my mother talked to me about it. I was an inquisitive child (perhaps not surprising considering my later path in life), and I was always asking questions. So I asked my mother why we gave those families gifts at Christmas when we ourselves didn’t have much. I remember then answering for myself: “It was because we felt sorry for them, right?”
“We do not feel sorry for them,” my mother said sternly. “We understand how they feel.” It was a lesson that is so seared in my mind, I can see her face and I can hear her tone of voice as if it were yesterday.
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What my family did was not heroic. I like to think of it more as neighborly. And it was in line with a national ethos in those dark days, repeated countless times in countless communities across the country. We understood that those who were suffering weren’t lazy or lacking the desire to do better. Fate had the potential to slap any of us. In another family in our neighborhood, the father had a part-time job as a watchman. One morning a neighbor noticed that he had come home from work early, and then she saw his wife crying. When she went over to find out what had happened, she learned the man had lost his job. The news spread from neighbor to neighbor like an unwired telegraph. By the time my father came home from work, people were gathering to grieve with the unlucky family. Their house had the feeling of one mourning the death of a loved one. Everybody knew that a lost job was not likely to be replaced.
I worry that our nation today suffers from a deficit of empathy, and this is especially true of many in positions of national leadership. It is a phenomenon that is born from, and that exacerbates, the broader divisions tearing at our republic. We see a rising tribalism along cultural, ethnic, economic class, and geographic lines. And the responsibility for these divisions should fall more squarely on the shoulders of the powerful, those who need to be empathetic, than on those who need our empathy. When we live in a self-selected bubble of friends, neighbors, and colleagues, it is too easy to forget how important it is to try to walk in the shoes of others. Technology and social media can be tools for connecting us, but I fear these advancements are in many ways deepening and hardening the divisions between us.
Very few families escaped the wounds of the Great Depression and World War II. In the intervening decades, however, the wealthy and the powerful largely have been protected from economic, social, and military upheavals by a shield of immunity. A commonality of understanding has been lost. Where once the American experience was one of a spectrum from the rich to the poor, now we live in pockets that insulate us from others. We have more in the ranks of the extremely wealthy, many fewer in the middle economic class, and a larger pool falling further and further behind. So we grow more isolated and less empathetic. The threads stitching our union together begin to fray. We see others, but we cannot imagine what their lives are actually like. We don’t even think we should have to bother.
Empathy is not only a personal feeling; it can be a potent force for political and social change. And thus the suppression or denial of empathy is a deliberate part of a cynical political calculus. Dividing people and stoking animosity can pave a path to power (and in many recent elections, it has). This has been well known since the time of the ancients. But these divisions inevitably come at the expense of the long-term health and welfare of the nation as a whole. We have seen many examples from our history where the economic and social needs of one group have been pitted against another’s—on immigration, labor rights, environmental protections, racial justice, and so many more. Such clashes usually do not end very well. In contrast, there have been moments where we reached out to one another as a nation, channeling what unites us rather than what separates us. It might be hard to imagine today, but there were times when the common purpose of the United States seemed to rise above pettiness and narrow self-interest.
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One often finds the greatest lack of empathy in those who were born lucky. They tend to misidentify that luck as the superiority of their character. There are some notable exceptions: The incredibly successful investor Warren Buffett once speculated about what would happen if, before birth, a genie gave us the opportunity to choose the political, economic, and social system into which we would be born. “What’s the catch?” he said. “One catch—just before you emerge [from the womb] you have to go through a huge bucket with seven billion slips, one for each human. Dip your hand in and that is what you get—you could be born intelligent or not intelligent, born healthy or disabled, born black or white, born in the U.S. or in Bangladesh, etc. You have no idea which slip you will get. Not knowing which slip you are going to get, how would you design the world?”
It is a wonderful thought experiment that lays out a provocative case for empathy. Mr. Buffett calls his construct “the ovarian lottery.” Now, take a moment to imagine the most sanctimonious of our current national voices. Imagine those who lecture most loudly about morality and personal responsibility from the perch of privilege. Imagine those who blame the victims of discrimination and poverty. How would these men and women fare in such a lottery as Mr. Buffett outlines? What would their message be if they themselves had been born under far different circumstances? These people are in dire need of humility, a humility bathed in the refreshing waters of empathy. We can all afford to drink more from that spring as well.
Want to keep reading? Purchase What Unites Us now.
Dan Rather began his career as a journalist in 1950 with the Associated Press. After working his way up through the Houston market, Rather broke through to national coverage with his work on the JFK assassination. He became a foreign and a White House correspondent for CBS over the next decade, then became one of CBS's main anchors. Rather was the anchor of CBS Evening News from 1981 to 2006. In 2004, Rather reported on a series of memos, known as the Killian documents, that claimed to show that President George W. Bush's conduct in the Texas Air National Guard was less exemplary than previously reported. These documents failed to be thoroughly authenticated, and led to Rather stepping down from his anchor job. Since leaving CBS, Rather has hosted shows on AXS TV, SiriusXM, and YouTube's The Young Turks, in addition to his social media work. What Unites Us is his seventh book.
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