The hardest thing to watch about Dan Rather's guest appearance on the David Letterman show Monday night -- the first Letterman show since last Tuesday's attack -- wasn't that Rather broke into tears twice. It was the way he apologized for crying.
"I'm a professional. I get paid not to do that," Rather said briskly to Letterman and the audience, directly following the commercial break that Letterman quickly called after Rather first lost his composure. Rather had been talking about the time he'd spent with rescue workers at the World Trade Center site, when, it seemed, he simply lost touch with whatever internal mechanism it is that keeps any of us on an even keel in times of distress. It could happen to anyone -- it just happened to strike a man whose livelihood depends on a measure of detachment from the events around him, and he scrambled to regain his footing like a cat who's fallen off a windowsill.
Rather knows what his role is, and his determination to fit into that role, rigidly and stalwartly, is what made his apology -- an apology he repeated during the course of the appearance -- so wrenching. He knows America, and the world, expects detachment from its newspersons.
But that was in the old days, before last week. The newsroom is not, and never will be, an appropriate place for outpourings of emotion, a fact Rather is more conscious of than anyone. But at a time when people around the world are trying in vain to process the meaning of an inexplicable event, the tried-and-true newscaster's façade, maintained at all costs, seems disingenuous at best. Rather's moments of reckoning on Letterman were something else again, a different and intensely personal kind of reporting: He has never seen anything like what he saw last week, and his refusal to pretend otherwise may have manifested itself in tears, but it was really a shout -- a voice calling out to us in the middle of what has come to seem like a vast, dark hole.
The American news media, after showing remarkable professionalism, urgency and level-headedness on the day of the attack and immediately following, have returned to their usual pattern of turning every story -- even this one -- into a melodramatic arc, an ongoing, never-ending miniseries complete with marketing-slogan titles ("America Rising"; "America's New War"), special logos and even syrupy theme music.
Local newscasters here in New York try valiantly to lend gravitas to their reports -- it's impossible to be a New Yorker and not be perpetually cognizant of the smoldering mass grave downtown -- but they're really just going about their jobs in the only way they know how. Their methods include trying to maintain calm, measured but not sleep-inducing tones (keep those viewers alert and awake! As if any of us have actually been sleeping these days) and furrowing a brow or otherwise affecting concern whenever appropriate. Before last week, many of us were annoyed but grudgingly tolerant of the puppet show that so much TV news has become. This week, the puppet show is its own unbearable travesty -- it's not that the TV news media doesn't grasp the scope of the tragedy and the events it's likely to set in motion. It's just that they know no other way to be.
Rather's two moments of spontaneous, bone-rattling despair on Letterman weren't signs of weakness, cracks in judgment or evidence of an inability to be impartial. They were a newsman's personal and immediate reckoning with how to be -- a nonverbal acknowledgment that no one, not even those who have been trained to keep their composure at all costs, is immune to the emotional fallout of events like last week's. That should be a comfort, and not an embarrassment, to the rest of us.
Rather's appearance on Letterman was as a news personality, not a news anchor; he was wearing a different hat. His views of last week's attack didn't make for particularly incisive news analysis: He spoke of the inevitability of American retaliation, a statement that probably seemed jingoistic to some viewers but wasn't particularly strident considering most Americans' simmering (and ongoing) anger and confusion. He made it clear that the enemy was not Islam itself but a relatively small contingent of religious extremists. He spoke of those extremists' "jealousy" of America and Americans, for its riches and apparent unassailability. And he made no bones about the attack as a manifestation of pure "evil" -- a word that in the past week has proved to be resolutely practical in attempting to explain the inexplicable.
Rather maintained his evenness until he told Letterman that a song Americans have sung since they were school kids, "America the Beautiful," will never sound quite the same to him: "Oh beautiful for patriot's dream/That echoes through the years/Thine alabaster cities gleam/Undimmed by human tears." His voice broke as he got to that last line.
The United States is peopled by all kinds of patriots: Repressive ones, even-handed ones, annoying ones, lazy ones. The most sensible patriots, and the ones that are most needed now, are the ones who have come to terms with the difference between the real America -- the messy one, the one that often makes mistakes, the one that has plenty of enemies -- and the dream America that we sung about as school kids. Nonetheless, there's a place where those two Americas intersect. In the space of that verse Rather saw that America, that inextinguishably bright oval in the Venn diagram, and the sight of it was too much for him, in that moment, to bear.
He pulled himself together and apologized again. "Yeah, you're a professional, but good Christ, you're a human being," Letterman told him without missing a beat, clutching for his hand. Rather, a consummate professional whether you like him or not, might never cry on-camera again. But in the midst of a world gone wrong, a world where so little feels good or right or natural, it's no small relief to see a human being and not a puppet in the newscaster's seat.