Dan Rather Visits to Pitch Education Award. We Ask Him about Trump.

Dan Rather and his grandson Martin.
Dan Rather and his grandson Martin.
Stephen Young

We're certainly not above a little promotion, especially for a good cause. So when we got word that venerable newsman Dan Rather and his grandson Martin wanted to tell us about The Rather Prize, a $10,000 grant to be given to the Texas student or educator who could come up with the best idea to help Texas' flagging school system, we invited the duo to our offices. We ended up talking about Texas education, Donald Trump, Rick Perry, Ted Cruz and that time Rather shot up heroin with the help of the Houston police.

Martin says he came up with the idea for the prize after a conversation with his grandfather late last year.

"We talked about [Dan Rather's] background in Texas: Texas public schools, nothing but Texas public schools and how he'd been able to live the American dream and was able to do anything from that background," Martin says.

Martin, an incoming freshman at Rice, had just seen a set of national education rankings that placed Texas at 39th in the country. A state with as many resources as Texas shouldn't be 39th in anything, much less education, Martin says.

From there, the two Rathers worked out a plan to solicit proposals from those on the ground of the Texas education system. Starting Monday, Students and teachers have been asked to submit proposals for something they could do with the $10,000. Those closest to the problems faced by Texas schools are best equipped to address them in a non-ideological way, Martin says.

"Houston schools were not then [when Dan Rather went to school] and are not now paragons of virtue," Dan says, "but they gave me the most education I was capable of absorbing at the time. In terms of what's changed: The political climate nationally or for that matter on a state and local basis was not nearly as polarized as it has become. [When I went to school] there was not just a consensus but a unanimity that the number one thing was as good of quality schooling as the community was capable of providing."

Submissions will be judged in the spring by Rice University’s Center for Civic Leadership and members of the Rather Prize advisory board. The winning idea gets the money and a trip to present at SXSW. After the winner's trip to Austin, the Center for Civic Leadership will help with the development and implementation of the idea.

The elder Rather will turn 84 on Halloween, so his memories of Love Elementary in Houston came from 75 years ago. With age, though, comes an almost unfathomable depth of experience for Rather. Still, he says, the 2016 Republican presidential primary is unlike any election he's covered, going all the way back to Dwight Eisenhower's victory in 1952.

"I've never seen anything like this and neither has anybody else," he says. "With all of the negative aspects of trying to have 17 candidates — how to split them up — and the fact that, by and large, Mr. Trump excluded, they work off script. It's all scripted, it's all practiced. Even taking that into account, it's starting the information process to inform the citizens. That's to be complimented, but this is way too early."

Rather views current Republican front-runner Donald Trump as having tapped into the anger felt by Americans across the political spectrum, not just Republicans. He may have just about reached his ceiling in the Republican primary but Trump might have similar appeal among certain Democrats and Independents, were he to run as an Independent presidential candidate next year.

"I'm not saying he's topped out, but if you had to bet the rent money — I hope you don't — but if you had to bet the rent money you'd bet that that's the case," Rather says. "It's not limited to the Republican Party. Trump is smart enough to know that, that why he leaves open the possibility of running as a third force, but somewhere between 18 and 27 percent of Republican voters are in his wheelhouse."

Trump will likely wither — at least as far as the GOP primary goes — when the field tightens, Rather says, but with the field as large as it is, Trump's devoted chunk can carry him. As for who is positioned to pick up Trump's scraps, Rather points to Texas' very own Canadian-born junior senator, Ted Cruz.

"Ted Cruz is like a desperado waiting on a train, in this case a train wreck," he says. "He hasn't said anything critical about Trump. When Trump is out of the race, however that goes, Cruz wants to inherit, and he's positioned himself to inherit with what the pool players call shape. Ted Cruz is playing shape and he's put himself in position [to pull in Trump's supporters]."

Cruz is the best off-the-cuff speaker in the Republican field, Rather says, crediting Cruz's stint as a debater at Harvard, and has enough smarts and polish to climb in the polls rapidly when Trump drops out. As for the other Texan in the race, former Governor Rick Perry, Rather is less optimistic.

"I think it goes back to the botched campaign in the last presidential campaign, because he had a great opportunity and it didn't work out. I think the residue of that is too much baggage for him to carry," Rather says.

We couldn't let Rather go without asking him about one of the most notorious tales of participatory journalism we've ever heard: the time in the '50s when Houston police dosed him with heroin. 

"Let me emphasize, it's been a long time ago. It wouldn't happen today because no police force would do it and no journalist would do it. Look, in the 1950s, it's hard to imagine, I didn't really know what heroin was. Drugs were not recognized as any big problem, I know it's hard to imagine. Occasionally, a group of musicians would move through town and get arrested for heroin or cocaine, but it was rare," Rather says. "I was covering the police beat. I was new, serving my apprenticeship as a reporter, and [Houston police] made an arrest for heroin. I had no idea what it was, or why anybody would take it."

Unable to find anyone who could describe the drug with firsthand experience for a series of stories he was working on, Rather took the drug himself at a Houston police station.

"Outrageous, no question and ill-advised to say the least," Rather says, "but that's how it happened."

As Rather prepared to take over for Walter Cronkite as anchor of the CBS Evening News, he was being interviewed by a magazine. The reporter asked him how he was qualified to report on modern American society, and Rather told him the heroin story.

"It got out, [the reporter] added some context, but the short of it was, 'Dan Rather admits to heroin,'" he says.

Rather, who hadn't even taken over the chair from Cronkite, got hauled into the CBS news division's president's office.

"He said 'What the hell are you doing, what is this heroin thing?' I said, 'Well, what do you mean?' He says, 'I've got station managers from all over the country calling me and saying how in the hell could you put a heroin addict in the anchor chair,'' Rather says. "I go through this explanation and I'm just digging my grave deeper and deeper, 'You did what? Where?' he asks me. Fortunately it all passed."


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