“It’s a long road to Tipperary,” Dan Rather sang, tentatively, in a whisper-soft baritone. He paused, searching for the next line.
“It’s a long way to goooo...”
Mr. Rather squinted and scratched his nose. It was 7 p.m. on Labor Day, and he was sitting at a corner table in a coffee shop on the Upper East Side, his back to a window looking out on Madison Avenue. Periodically, a city bus would drive by behind him, bearing—as all city buses currently do—the giant, smiling visage of about-to-debut CBS Evening News anchor Katie Couric on its front grille.
Mr. Rather rotated his coffee cup in its saucer.
“I can’t remember the rest of the words,” he said finally, after a long silence. “But you get the idea.”
Mr. Rather looked tan and rested, maybe a few pounds sturdier than in his days at the CBS anchor desk, and healthier, too. He wore jeans, black leather work boots, and a navy blue polo shirt under a khaki-colored safari jacket, the kind with several tiers of pockets and pouches, fit for an international adventurer. There was a Band-Aid around the tip of his left index finger, covering a minor fishing injury.
Asked if he would be watching Ms. Couric’s first broadcast the following night, he put the bandaged finger to his temple.
“The only reason I’m thinking about it is, I’m traveling tomorrow,” he said. “I have to go to the West Coast on a story. If I can, I will be.
“That’s not a dodging answer,” he said. “I’m just not sure if I’m going to be in the air or what.”
Since his tense and chilly negotiated retirement from CBS in June, Mr. Rather has spent most of his summer traveling on assignment for his new job, as the star anchor and reporter for HDNet, the infant television network created by tech billionaire Mark Cuban. He is developing a weekly show called Dan Rather Reports for Mr. Cuban, who is best known as the hands-on owner of the N.B.A.’s Dallas Mavericks.
“I wish we’d been on the air this summer,” Mr. Rather said, “particularly when the Israel-Hezbollah events were happening. Everything in me wanted to go. And if we had been on the air during that time, I certainly would have.”
In his last year at CBS, after being deposed from his anchor duties, Mr. Rather had filed the occasional piece for 60 Minutes and watched as his replacement, interim anchor Bob Schieffer, bested his ratings by 250,000 viewers a night.
Mr. Schieffer left the broadcast on Aug. 31. At a big party that night, network president Leslie Moonves described Mr. Schieffer, to wild applause, as “possibly the man who saved CBS.”
At 9 p.m. the following day—the Friday before Labor Day, the single lowest-rating day of the broadcast calendar year—CBS aired the hour-long tribute to Mr. Rather it had promised when announcing his retirement. In New York and Los Angeles, the nation’s two largest markets, the leading local affiliates pre-empted it in favor of N.F.L. exhibition games (WCBS aired it late at night, after the Jets’ third-stringers finished beating the Eagles’ fourth-stringers). Mr. Rather’s wife, Jean, tried to watch, but she couldn’t find it on TV.
Mr. Rather, who had given an interview for the special, had been traveling that night, too—on his way back from Cordova, Alaska, where he had been fishing with his grandson and researching a story for HDNet. On the Alaska trip, he said, he had been reading a collection of essays: a short one about friendship by Francis Bacon, another one by Bacon that “was just sparkling” on the subject of revenge.
And he had come across one by George Santayana, about British soldiers singing of Tipperary in the battles of World War I. He had read it many times before, he said, but this time it stuck with him.