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Remembering the Ratherisms

As Bill Clinton's richly deserved place in Bartlett's is being prepared in all its didn't-inhale, is-is, and didn't-do-that-woman-Miss-Lewinsky glory, perhaps the quote-keepers ought to be considering a page or two for another major American public figure.

How the schoolchildren of tomorrow would enjoy taking time out from Shakespeare, Mencken, and Mark Twain, so they could try to divine the meaning of those innumerable verbal oddities from CBS anchorman Dan Rather.

Rather's days at the top of the media food chain are probably numbered, but unlike most journalists, he will leave behind a legacy. We are going to miss the "Ratherism," that bizarre down-home specialty that only Rather can deliver, which he most often drags out during election nights. Many media critics now feast on these goofball delights; I selfishly credit the obsessive network-taping sleuths at the Media Research Center as among the first to put these cornpone quips on the radar screen (and the first to call them "Ratherisms," in 1992).

The CBS star insists that these phrases come from his Texas upbringing, which, if true, raises questions about Texas upbringings. "My father used to say, 'His chances were slim to none, and slim just left town,'" he told one interviewer.

Rather's father may have relished the colorful. But Dan has taken this form to its illogical extremes.

First, there are the animals. In 1988, as Senator Pat Moynihan cruised re-election, Rather said of his opponent, "a lot of people thought that McMillan had as much business in this race as a moose in a phone booth." In a 1998 appearance with David Letterman, Rather said Ken Starr could have found Monica Lewinsky without the Paula Jones case, but "that's like if a frog had side pockets he'd probably wear a handgun. It didn't happen that way." When Jesse Ventura was projected the new governor of Minnesota that fall, people were as surprised as "if Fidel Castro came looping through on a hippopotamus.''

After the 2000 vice presidential debate, Rather noted: "Senator Lieberman used the phrase 'big time.' Cheney shot him back a look as if to say, looked at him like he was a hitchhiker with pets." As Bush began to eke out a lead over Gore, thanks to the Nader vote, Bob Schieffer goofily suggested Nader get a cabinet post, to which Rather reprised the rampaging-hippo metaphor: "I think you are more likely to see a hippopotamus coming running through this room than you are to see Governor Bush appoint Nader to the Cabinet."

Then there's the descriptions for political negativity. His most common phrase is "this race was so nasty it would gag a buzzard." In the 1992 New York Senate race, Rather claimed, "These two men called each other names you normally only hear aboard merchant ships or on late-night cable TV." At the 1996 conventions, Rather claimed Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison was "expected to hit President Clinton rhetorically with everything short of a tire tube." Weeks later, Al Gore was "widely expected to hit Republicans with everything short of a window weight."

No one can overlook the imagery reserved for really close races. The 1996 New Hampshire Senate race was as "hot and tight as a too small bathing suit on a too long car ride back from the beach." In the 2000 New Hampshire primary, Dan found "Democrat Bill Bradley came close enough to Al Gore to crack his tail lights." The Michigan Republican primary "apparently is tighter than Willie Nelson's headband." On Election Night 2000, Rather suggested, "Bush has had a lead since the very start, but his lead is now shakier than cafeteria Jell-O." Later, he added, "It's Spandex-tight."

That's very close to his descriptions of last-minute balloting tension. In 1992, Rather promised, "It will be so exciting as to make the wax pop out of your ears," and "There's material here that will make their fingernails sweat." In 1996, he asked if Republicans found early Dole returns "scary enough to make you swallow your gum?" He also used another animal metaphor: "Democrats and Republicans are nervous as pigs in a packing plant over these returns." In 2000, he remarked, "This much tension you can't cut with a saw. It requires a blow torch."

Five years ago, Rather told the Los Angeles Times that he wouldn't still be front and center after 2000. To be precise: "you can sooner expect a tall talking broccoli stick to offer to mow your lawn for free." But whenever Dan vacates the anchor chair, you can bet that heir apparent John Roberts isn't going to attempt to play the bumpkin. That's about as likely as Rather riding through the studio on his favorite hippopotamus.

Or something like that.