Welcome to 10 years ago.... Dan Rather crying on the letterman show over being assaultedscotlandonsunday.scotsman.com/thereview.cfm?id=818282004
Tuning into an American mystery
MICHAEL Stipe believes it’s "the premier unsolved American surrealist act of the 20th century - a misunderstanding that was scarily random, media hyped and just plain bizarre". REM’s lead singer is talking about the mysterious attack on the distinguished CBS news anchor Dan Rather almost 20 years ago. In the puzzling incident, Rather ( famed for his many scoops from breaking the news of John F Kennedy’s death to a recent world exclusive interview with former president Bill Clinton) was remorselessly beaten in mid-town Manhattan by two well-dressed white men.
The assault inspired REM’s 1994 hit single, ‘What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?’. For this is the cryptic question to which Rather’s assailants repeatedly demanded an answer while viciously punching and kicking him, as he pleaded that they had got the wrong guy, despite the fact that his was one of the most famous faces in America.
Now, this curious event has become the basis of an intriguing play which gets its world premiere in Edinburgh next month. Staged by New York’s 78th Street Theatre Lab, whose previous experimental productions include Fringe First winners, Man in the Flying Lawn Chair and last year’s runaway success Boy Steals Train, the play is written by novelist and filmmaker Paul Allman. "It’s not so much a whodunit as a whydunit," he says.
His "absurdist" comedy is adapted from ‘The Frequency’, an award-winning essay Allman wrote for Harper’s Magazine in December 2001, in which he reckons he cracked the coded query and solved the riddle of Rather’s strange assault, linking it to prolific cult fiction writer Donald Barthelme, from whose works he claims the attackers were quoting.
Fortysomething Allman says the story, which turned Rather, now a grizzled but energetic 72, into "the sphinx of our times", has haunted him and his generation: "Hence the REM song." "Dan Rather looks anxious on television," wrote Allman in Harper’s. "He needs the answer. The incident haunts him and it shows."
To be fair to the veteran journalist, who refuses all requests to be interviewed about the incident, he has enough of a sense of humour that whenever he makes occasional appearances on David Letterman’s talk show his introductory music is always the REM song.
Shortly after the perplexing Park Avenue incident, the tight-lipped, stiff-backed Rather signed off his news broadcast with a single word: "Courage." It was a noble gesture, according to Allman, "at once commanding and empathetic. But it had no more effect than if he had said: ‘Porridge’. Such is the great ineffable quality of Dan Rather."
But what does the authoritative oracle of American broadcasting, who anchors not only the evening news bulletins but also 60 Minutes, the most-watched current affairs programme in the US, have to do with Barthelme, an icon of postmodern literature, who wrote "audacious and murderously witty" novels and plays, and who died in 1989?
Who was this former professor of English at the University of Houston who Allman calls "a misanthropic, fanatical genius". Well, Bathelme’s little-known "collage" stories have heavily influenced Allman’s own work, such as his multi-layered novel Otis, and a generation of American writers, as well as novelists closer to home - Kate Atkinson, for instance, is a huge fan.
Like Rather, Barthelme, who was six months his junior, grew up in Houston, Texas. A fact that gave Allman pause for thought only after he discovered a character called Kenneth in one of Barthelme’s most dazzling stories, ‘The Indian Uprising’. "I was pondering the Rather case, about which conspiracy theories abound. Then I recalled another Kenneth in another Barthelme story, ‘Can We Talk’.
"So I had found a running character in his work called Kenneth, not a name one sees or hears all that often in fiction, although in the second story this Kenneth is described as ‘a friend’, and Barthelme drew heavily from his own life to make his fictions," says Allman over coffee in an uptown bar-diner around the corner from the Theatre Lab. "I kind of stumbled across these messages, but I still thought it was just my own overheated imagination making all these connections."
Despite his fascination with the Rather story, Allman thought no more about this odd coincidence until, in the same Barthelme collection, 60 Stories, he came across the following line in a story called ‘Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel’: "Q. What is the frequency?" What were the chances of finding "Kenneth" and "What is the frequency?" in any way connected to each other, outside of the mouth of Dan Rather’s attackers? And yet here they were inside Barthelme’s book.
Immediately, Allman began researching Rather’s home-town career as a newspaper reporter and editor.
He discovered that both men went into journalism after stints in the military in the Fifties: Rather worked at a radio station, while Barthelme was a newspaper reporter. It’s almost inconceivable, ventures Allman, that in a modest-sized city such as Houston these men did not meet and know each other, given that they were living such oddly parallel lives.
And yet he could find no connection and no trace of a grudge, although in Barthelme’s story, ‘The Emerald’, he discovered the writer taking "a ham-fisted swipe" at an imperious "Editor-king", rejoicing in the name Lather, a greatly agitated and foolishly grand character.
"I then began to wonder how long Dan Rather had been wearing that anxious look on his face," says Allman.
In September 1961, while at Houston’s KHOU TV station, Rather covered Hurricane Carla from the eye of the storm. It was the first time a TV newsman had shown such derring-do and earned him a network job with CBS, where another renowned anchor, Walter Cronkite, declared: "We were impressed with his physical courage. He was ass-deep in water."
The violent storm may have made Rather’s name - but it also ruined Barthelme’s career as director of Houston’s Contemporary Arts Museum. Just how is told in thrilling, dramatic style in Kenneth - What is the Frequency? and it would ruin a wonderful evening of theatre to reveal more about the "burly, bristling, brilliant professor/writer’s feud with the eager, ambitious, glamorous, comparatively superficial news anchor".
"It’s such a great story," says Allman. "Of course the Rather myth is amazing, but what makes it so beautiful is that it’s just like one of Barthelme’s own stories. It’s so strange and so weird and that’s what makes it so seductive. Barthelme could have written it himself. I’m in love with his writing - it’s unique."
Nevertheless, in order to appreciate the play, you do not have to have read Barthelme’s collected works, of which there are volumes. Allman says that when the five-strong company started workshopping the piece last year, several of the actors had never even heard of the writer - "although everyone in the States knows who Dan Rather is".
The anchor is therefore a peculiarly American phenomenon, although few of Rather’s rivals can boast his nose for news or match his air of papal infallibility and man-of-the-people accessibility. He has interviewed every president since Eisenhower, covered every US election, the funerals of the Princess of Wales and Mother Teresa, reported from the frontline in the Bosnian war and twice interviewed Saddam Hussein.
He has survived Vietnam, boos from Richard Nixon supporters, being punched by Mayor Daly’s cops in Chicago, a confrontation with then vice-president George Bush, that infamous hurricane, those crazed, literature-spouting attackers, and falling ratings - and still racks up an estimated $7m a year from CBS.
But what is it with Rather, wonders Allman. Why do perfect strangers take pot-shots at him? For instance, Rather takes a cab in Chicago and half an hour later he’s hanging out the window screaming at pedestrians that the driver’s kidnapped him. The man who gets the news is a superstar, it seems, when it comes to making the news. "Danger is my business," he once boasted, or as Dan the man would say: "Courage!"