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Sandra Sobieraj Westfall and Sam Gillette
November 07, 2017 11:04 AM

Legendary journalist Dan Rather may be 86, but he’s still hungry to attend White House briefings again — if given the chance. 

“I’d go in a heartbeat,” he tells PEOPLE in an exclusive interview for his new book, What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism, which publishes on Tuesday.

Written as a series of essays he hopes will help foster “civil” conversation during these divided times, Rather’s book highlights the common values shared by most Americans.

Rather, who anchored the CBS Evening News for 24 years, also reflects on personal anecdotes in the book. He recounts a recent road trip with his 20-year-old grandson — “[It] is about as close as I expect to get to heaven” — and shares his personal survival techniques for a politicized Thanksgiving dinner.

The veteran newsman, who has covered every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower and was present in Dallas the day President John F. Kennedy was assassination in 1963, also reveals the question he most wants to ask President Donald Trump.

He also opens up about how he views the role of our country’s leader, noting that “no president is stronger than a country as a whole.”

Read on for more from PEOPLE’s wide-ranging interview:

Why did you want to write this book?

We’re in a moment of crisis over our national identity … We’re having trouble answering the question, ‘Who are we?’ here in the second decade of the 21st century. What do we want to become? So I wanted to reflect a little about the world we live in … We’re living in a world in which our national leadership is in chaos and disfunction. More importantly, the leadership uses language that further divides us.

How will your book help bridge this divide? 

[I wanted to help define] what it means to be an American at this point in our history … What I wanted to do was, frankly, celebrate our shared values. I emphasize the word shared. Celebrate our shared values, remind ourselves what matters most in our great country —and it is great — and start a conversation about what patriotism looks like … The idea here is not for me to tell people what their view of patriotism should be, but to start a conversation. Part of the spirit of this book is we need to start talking to one another in civil ways … With the book, what I’m trying to do is just say, “Let’s take a deep, collectively, let’s take a deep breath.” Let’s say to one another, “Can’t we get along?” That doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything, but can’t we get along? Including President Trump and Mr. Bannon.

People will sit down at Thanksgiving tables this month, and it’s sort of the stereotypical cliché that people get into big political arguments. What’s your advice? 

Smile and say, “How the hell are you?” If we’re going to have a discussion, let’s make it civil. And then be prepared to listen. Too often what happens is, and I’m sometimes guilty of this myself is, and heavens knows political leaders, particularly some of the national and state leaders, just want to shout. Sometimes the shout is in a tweet. Sometimes it’s at a big rally … [My advice is] be prepared to listen to your fellow Americans who have different points of view, and listen. It’s one thing to hear, it’s another thing to really listen.

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Do you have a special dish you make for Thanksgiving? 

Well, I was usually asked to make a contribution by staying out of the kitchen. I’m not one of the people who is good in the kitchen, but sometimes, in fact most times if I had a specialty, my specialty was to mix the salad. I think it was considered dangerous to let me around fire at the time. I usually mix up a tomato, lettuce, celery, kind of a green salad to go with [my wife’s] turkey.

Well that’s a step up from opening the can of cranberry sauce. So, you’re doing okay.

Well the cranberry sauce fell to [my two] grandsons.

How was your recent road trip with your grandson, Martin? 

It really was great … I’ve forgotten how many miles it was, but it was a hell of a lot of miles over about four or five days. We listened to some of his music and some of my music and had long talks … We did not have one cross word, no tense moments. It’s about as close as I expect to get to heaven.

Do people recognize you when you’re out and about, like on this road trip?

Yes, which frankly surprises me. While I still do television (I do something called “The Big Interview” on AXS TV), I have not been regularly on mainstream television for about 12 years … [But] people do recognize me and come up and want to say hello. By the way, on the whole trip … I never heard a discouraging word or [met] anybody with any hostility … Without exception, people were really nice and friendly, and sometimes kidding a little bit, saying, “Well, you probably have to go into a bat cave now that Trump is President.” 

Speaking of the President, you write in your book that the press needs to ask the hard questions. Is there something that you’re dying to ask President Trump or a question that you wish people ask him?

One of the questions that I’d like to ask him is: ‘What are you afraid of?’ He’s obviously afraid that Special Counsel Mueller and others are going to find out something. What is it that he’s afraid of? Day in and day out, week in and week out, he indicated in all kinds of ways that he’s fearful … There’s something he doesn’t want them to find out. He would be much better with whatever it is, to get out front. Acknowledge it and say, “I made a mistake.” Words you’ve never heard from him.

Don’t you think it’s less about some misdeed that will be uncovered, and more about being seen as a loser, and a ratings failure?

That’s what I think it is, but I want to hear from him. You might say, “Well, he’s not about to tell you if he’s that afraid of it.” But, I think if you followed up the questions, and say to him, “What is it you’re afraid of? Is it your taxes? Is it there is something with the Russians? I mean, what is it? Let’s get it out into the open.” Specifically, what is he afraid of? This business of consistently never admitting a mistake, never saying I’m sorry, attack, attack, attack all the time. This is the earmark of someone who’s fearful. We want our president to be brave and noble. And by any objective analysis, that’s not the image that he’s projecting out.

What about his supporters?

I do find that a good many people have [stood] behind President Trump and remain staunchly behind him. Not all of them, but many of them will acknowledge that they wish he behaved better. They ache to have a president at least trying to be noble. It’s an old-fashioned word, [but the desire] to be noble runs very deep in the country.

How would you handle the White House daily briefings?

Well, I probably wouldn’t have handled it half as well as some of the people … I’d be troubled. Because you see a prime example of why so many people, including myself, think that we’re in dire danger of moving into a post-truth political era, where truth doesn’t matter — into this world of “alternate facts.” Where every fact is fungible. Wait, this is ridiculous, that some things are fact. Water does not run uphill. Two and two does equal four. There’s no alternative facts … The briefings are a kind of theater of the absurd.

What is your advice for reporters? 

The best ones sit there, listen, do their best to ask a question, and then get a straight answer, which is very hard. Then they leave the briefing and start making the telephone calls and wearing out shoe leather to go to talk to other people and say, “What’s really going on in there?” And we’ve seen some really good reporting on that: The Washington Post, New York Times, USA Today, and even some of the networks have bolstered their investigative reporting units. 

Many people, including the president, are upset with the media. Did you ever have a bad experience because you’re a journalist? 

This was the height of the national division over the widespread criminal conspiracy led by the President [Richard Nixon], shorthand Watergate. I was the chief White House correspondent and, because I was the chief White House correspondent, I was on point covering all these crimes of the president and his associates had committed. And was, fair to say, high profile. I was on a flight. I think the flight was New York to Los Angeles and … I was pretty far back in coach … A woman from first class came back to my seat. She was wearing a sable coat … She said, “Are you Dan Rather?” And, I said, “Yes, ma’am, I am.” I unbuckled my seatbelt and started to get up, and she had a glass of scotch in her hand. She poured it right on top of my head. Full glass of it, all over me … So, it wasn’t my best moment, but it was indicative of the strong feelings at the time. This was maybe four or five months before the president resigned. Feelings were running very strong. The country was divided … Let’s just put it, she didn’t look kindly toward my reporting.

So it’s fair to say then that you’ve experienced bad episodes on airplanes, which is common these days, and attacks on the media. What gives you hope that we can pull out of the tailspin today?

I think we will … I’m an optimist by experience and by nature. We’re in not a good place right now as a country, as a people, as a society. But we’re going to get through this. It may take a while. It may be a pretty dark valley to go through, but we will come out stronger at the other end. I’m confident of it. I hope I live to see it.

What Unites Us: Reflections on Patriotism is on sale now. 

For the review of the book, pick up this week’s People, on stands beginning Nov. 8.

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