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Giving himself a black eye: Rather sues CBS long after his fall

There's no joy in saying this, as Dan Rather still says with sometimes numbing regularity. But the former CBS News steam engine likely is making a fool of himself by suing his former employer.

Rather and his attorneys filed a $70 million lawsuit Wednesday afternoon, contending that CBS brass, led by Leslie Moonves, had railroaded him in the aftermath of a Sept. 8, 2004 investigative report that questioned President Bush's Texas National Guard service during the Vietnam War era. Now anchoring a weekly program for Mark Cuban's HDNet, the 75-year-old newsman plans to elaborate on Thursday's edition of CNN's Larry King Live.

Subsequently dubbed "Memogate," the Rather-anchored 60 Minutes II piece led to the ouster of four CBS News staffers after an in-house investigation co-chaired by the first President Bush's attorney general, Richard Thornburgh.

Rather eventually left the CBS News anchor chair under duress in March 2005, a year earlier than he had planned. Transfered to 60 Minutes, where he had little to do, he then exited CBS entirely in June 2006 after negotiating an early out. Through his attorney, Rather then said that CBS "had not lived up to their obligation to let me do substantive work there (at 60 Minutes)."

CBS of course says the lawsuit is without merit. But Rather simply has waited too long to make what now looks like a money grab. His old network recently settled an accusatory lawsuit filed by Don Imus, who barely waited a minute to take CBS to court.

Rather, very belatedly, says his final indignity at CBS was being denied an opportunity to report from New Orleans in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The 32-page lawsuit filed by his attorneys lauds Rather as "the most experienced reporter in the United States in covering hurricanes. CBS refused to send him . . . furthering its desire to keep Mr. Rather off the air."

Rather's retaliation reflects poorly on him at this point. CBS indeed may have treated him shabbily, or at least unceremoniously, in the twilight of his 44-year career at the network. But it also built him into an overpaid superstar, enduring considerable flak along the way when Rather seemed to go off various deep ends.

He has always billed himself as a consummate hands-on reporter, an "all-news, all the time" grinder who sniffed out stories like a hound on a fox hunt. But in the lawsuit, Rather now presents himself as little more than a reader of the hotly disputed Bush report. Others prepared it, and he simply recited their words on the air after being persuaded by CBS News management to devote most of his time to Hurricane Frances and Bill Clinton's heart surgery.

At least that's the story now. And if true, Rather should be ashamed to admit it. The Bush investigation, principally prepared by longtime trusted producer Mary Mapes, was no mere trifle. It potentially had explosive consequences for Bush's re-election campaign just two months removed from election day. So how could Rather not devote his full attention to it?

It's a shame and a pity that it's come to this. I interviewed Rather at length many times during his long career at CBS. He invariably underscored his loyalty to the network, joking more than once that he had the famed CBS Eye tattooed on his backside. Now he's making a way too tardy attempt to fight back, contending that his once beloved benefactor made him a "scapegoat" and "seriously damaged his reputation."

Mapes, who was fired, at least had the courage to tell her side very vividly in a book that mostly fell on deaf ears. Rather at the time wouldn't even comment on it, or mention her name when questioned about it. I can attest to this personally. Dan wasn't much of a standup guy then.

CBS News is no paragon of virtue either. There are still plenty of vipers in place. But the network seems to hold almost all of the cards against Rather, who mostly looks foolish. He'd be far better off writing a book in his defense rather than seeking a last payday from a network that paid him far more than enough to set him up for life.

Rethink it all, Dan. Because really, there's been no joy in writing this.