Veteran CBS newsman Dan Rather showed the strain of reporting last week’s devastating attacks on America as he twice broke down in tears during a guest appearance Monday night on comedian David Letterman’s late-night TV show.
The normally cool-under-fire Rather lost his composure during an unusually subdued but emotional broadcast of the CBS “Late Show with David Letterman,” the first since last Tuesday’s coordinated assaults on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon by airline hijackers.
Foregoing his usual walk-on entrance to rousing music, an opening monologue and a Top 10 list, a deadly serious Letterman began the show seated behind his desk, paying tribute to New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the city’s police and firefighters and the spirit of the city itself.
“If you didn’t believe it before, you can absolutely believe it now, New York City is the greatest city in the world,” Letterman said to loud applause, his own voice trembling with emotion.
Rather, who anchored four straight days of round-the-clock CBS News coverage last week, then joined Letterman for a discussion of the recent crisis and choked up as he talked about firefighters digging through the rubble of the demolished World Trade Center in search of survivors.
Fighting back tears, Rather reached out and clasped Letterman’s hand in his. “Take it Dave, will you,” he muttered, then insisted, “I can finish,” before Letterman went to a commercial break.
Back on the air, Rather apologized for getting emotional, saying, “I get paid not to let it show, and I’m sorry about that.” Minutes later, however, he broke down again while reciting a verse from “America the Beautiful,” as his eyes glistened and he choked back tears. “You can never say that song — again — that way.”
The spectacle seemed to transform both men, as the ever-sardonic, irreverent comedian found himself consoling the usually dispassionate, seasoned journalist momentarily overcome by emotion.
“You’re a professional, but good Christ, you’re a human being,” Letterman told Rather as the audience applauded.
Rather regained his composure and went on to finish the segment, during which he criticized what he called “the total, abject failure” of U.S. intelligence agencies.
Letterman opened the show telling viewers that he was hesitant about returning to the airwaves so soon after the attacks but did so in response to Giuliani’s appeal to New Yorkers to get on with their lives.
He lavished praise on the mayor’s conduct during the crisis, calling Giuliani “the personification of courage.”
Letterman grew almost angry as he talked about the hijackers who flew jetliners into the World Trade Center and Pentagon last Tuesday, leaving thousands dead or missing.
“We’re told they were zealots fueled by religious fervor,” Letterman said. “Religious fervor — and if you live to be a thousand years old, will that make any sense to you? Will that make any God-damned sense?”
Letterman got some comic relief from the night’s only other guest, fellow talk-show personality and friend Regis Philbin, who hosts the ABC game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?”
“I think it was time for you to come back,” Philbin told Letterman. “The American people want to see you. It’s not going to be the same kind of show, but the American people want to see you back.”