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Rather says transition from anchor to correspondent easier than he expected

Gail Shister The Philadelphia Inquirer

CBS’ 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 says with a chuckle. “Every man and woman is a knight.”

Three weeks after stepping down as “CBS Evening News anchor following the “Memogate” scandal, Rather debuted this week as a full-time correspondent on “60 Minutes Wednesday,” interviewing former G.E. boss Jack Welch.

The transition has been far easier than he expected.

“I’m very happy,” says Rather, 73, who had an unprecedented 24-year run as anchor. “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.”

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,” he says. “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.”

While he loves spending time in his native Texas, he says, “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.”

Now Rather says he’s ready 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 Minutes Wednesday” is under fire.

Clobbered by ABC’s freshman smash “Lost,” it averages just 8.6 million viewers this season, tying for 59th on Nielsen’s most-watched list.

The show had been on the shelf this month because of NCAA basketball coverage. With no public endorsement from CBS czar Les Moonves, its future is dubious, at best.

As for Rather, four CBS News staffers lost their jobs because of Memogate, in which discredited documents were used in his report 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 “60 Minutes” executive producer Jeff Fager. “It’s over. It happened. It was a bad mistake, and a lot of people have paid a very high price for it.

“Dan has sort of given us new life (at ‘60 Minutes Wednesday’),” Fager adds. “People are pumped up. He’s a big figure, and he means a lot to the people working here.”

The staff threw a small gathering last week to welcome Rather.

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,” he says. “It’s not driven by one anchor, but by the team. There’s no one star.”

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