CBS’s Dan Rather saw an alligator the other day while fishing for bass near his Texas vacation home.

Any dangerous reptiles at CBS?

“CBS has no alligators … and no snakes and no coyotes,” Rather said, chuckling, in an interview Monday. “Every man and woman is a knight.”

Exactly three weeks after stepping down as “CBS Evening News anchor following the Memogate scandal, Rather debuts Wednesday as a full-time correspondent on “60 Minutes Wednesday.”

His interview with former GE boss Jack Welch and his new wife, Suzy, leads the 8 p.m. broadcast.

The transition from anchor-managing editor of a daily newscast to correspondent for a weekly newsmagazine has been far easier than Rather expected.

‘I’m very happy’

“I’m very happy,” he says. “So many people told me how difficult it was going to be, that I’d feel terrible for two weeks to two years. That has not happened in any way, shape or form.”

Rather, 73, who had an unprecedented 24-year run as anchor, was also surprised at how easy it was to relocate from the CBS Broadcast Center across 57th Street to “60 Wednesday” and mother ship “60 Minutes.”

“I moved from the “hard-news’ side of the street to what we called the “carpet-making, basket-weaving’ side of the street. It turns out it’s not basket-weaving at all. That was vastly overstated.”

Though he’s juggling several pieces with his usual intensity, Rather sounds almost, well, laid-back on his new voice-mail message. It begins, “Howdy, this is Dan Rather,” and ends, “For now, adios.”

“I always dreamed of having that voice mail. That’s who and what I am, the way I grew up. Now I’m able to let that side out a little more than before.”

Rather is scheduled to return to New York Tuesday night. For the past five days, he has been fishing, playing with his two young grandsons, visiting with close friends.

He loves the time in his native Texas, but “it’s not that hard to leave. I’ve had a lifetime of doing it. When I come down here, I hit the “off’ switch. I take it down. When it’s time to go back to work, I hit the switch to “on.’ It’s taken me years to develop that.”

Once back, Rather plans to “plunge hard into “60 Wednesday.’ April is our month of decision. We need to do well. We need to prove we’re valuable to the schedule.”

Like Rather, “60 Wednesday” is under fire.

The show has been on the shelf all month because of NCAA basketball coverage. With shaky ratings and no public endorsement from CBS czar Les Moonves, its future is dubious, at best. CBS announces its fall schedule in May.

“Dan has sort of given us new life,” says executive producer Jeff Fager. “People are pumped up. He’s a big figure, and he means a lot to the people working here.”

Four CBS News staffers lost their jobs because of Memogate, in which discredited documents were used in Rather’s report on “60 Wednesday” about President Bush’s National Guard service.

Rather was forced to leave the anchor chair a year before he had planned.

“Having Dan here is a way for us to move on,” says Fager, also e.p. of “60 Minutes. “It’s over. It happened. It was a bad mistake, and a lot of people have paid a very high price for it.”

The “60 Wednesday” staff threw a small gathering last week to welcome Rather. (Refreshments included beer and Rather’s longtime beverage of choice – Wild Turkey bourbon.)

Despite his stature, Rather doesn’t try to “big-foot” assignments from other correspondents, Fager says.

“What has always made “60 Wednesday’ and “60 Minutes’ unique is that it’s an ensemble of reporters. It’s not driven by one anchor, but by the team. There’s no one star.”

“60 Wednesday” will need many stars to avoid cancellation.

Clobbered by ABC freshman smash “Lost,” it averages just 8.6 million viewers this season, tying for 59th on Nielsen’s Hit Parade. By comparison, “60” delivers 14.6 million viewers to rank 17th.

Fager is used to being on the bubble – “60 Wednesday” almost got the hook after last season. But getting pushed off the schedule for three weeks doesn’t help matters.

“It’s not good. It’s a fact of life,” he says. “We need to be on every week. We just want to be on permanently. It’s business; the best way to run the network. I don’t even question it.”



(c) 2005, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Visit Philadelphia Online, the Inquirer’s World Wide Web site, at http://www.philly.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-03-28-05 1950EST


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