Inside Dan Rather's Unexpected Comeback 11 Years After CBS Exit: 'I Was Aching to Do Something'

More than a decade after retiring over a controversial report, the legendary newsman has made a surprising comeback as one of President Trump's most vocal critics

As a veteran journalist of 67 years, Dan Rather has had ample opportunity to master the art of keeping things in perspective even during the most unsettled eras — he was on the scene for JFK’s assassination, reported on Civil Rights and Watergate, and literally dodged bullets in Vietnam, for starters. Now, as America finds itself in what many consider another defining political and cultural moment, the legendary former CBS Evening News anchor has found more reason than ever to offer his steady, thoughtful point of view on the events of the day.

Rather’s most recent call to action came as the unprecedented 2016 presidential election hit a fever pitch as eventual victor Donald Trump clashed on the campaign trail with rival Hillary Clinton. “People were getting caught up in the day-to-day headlines — [Trump] sends a tweet, and everyone picks it up,” Rather tells PEOPLE exclusively in this week’s issue. “But there’s a larger picture — that is where historical perspective comes into it. I became convinced that maybe, in some small way, I’d have something to contribute. I was aching to do something of quality.”

Some of Rather’s colleagues suggested he should share his thoughts on Facebook, but the 85-year-old was admittedly skeptical. “For one thing, everybody tells me with Facebook you should write two paragraphs at most,” he says. “I had no idea about Facebook, whether it would work. But [my team encouraged me]. They had a better idea that it would succeed than I did.”

And succeed it did. In fact, says Rather, “The reaction to it amazed me.”

Jeremy Liebman

Rather’s hard-hitting take on Trump’s administration — including criticism of the President’s immigration policies and attitude toward the press — has won him a devoted following that frequently shares his posts more than 100,000 times.

It’s been a gratifying comeback for a man who was forced out of his anchor chair after a 2004 report on President George W. Bush‘s military service. The story relied on documents that had allegedly been forged and subjected Rather — long a target of conservatives — to a firestorm of criticism.

Rather signed off of the Evening News for the last time on March 9, 2005, with his reputation under a cloud. He stayed on at the company but says, “They wanted to offer me what many people would consider good money and an assistant to come and sit at a desk. I didn’t consider it for a second. That’s not in my character. I said, ‘What am I going to do? Just come in and sit?’ They said, ‘You don’t need to come in.’ ”

  • For more from Dan Rather, including insight on his relationship with Donald Trump, pick up this week’s issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

Rather left CBS entirely on June 20, 2006, and sued the company for $70 million for breach of contract the next year (the suit was ultimately dismissed).

“It wasn’t the best of circumstances,” he says now. “I have a lot of flaws and have made a lot of mistakes and have a lot of wounds — some of them self-inflicted, some of them still open. I have no illusions about myself. But I do care about this country.”

And the proof is in his continued fight these past 11 years to keep America true to what he considers the country’s true character, promise and power. In that time, he’s debuted several new series, launched his own media company News and Guts and, of course, found a new calling as an unlikely digital-media star.

“It’s one thing to worry about the country,” he says. “It’s another thing to say, ‘Well, what can I do?’ I’m dedicated to doing what I can.”

Rather continues to do his part by posting on social media, often multiple times a day, in an effort to hold the powerful accountable. But he also wants to make clear that he remains hopeful — and so should we.

In fact, he’s slated to release What Unites Us — a collection of essays meditating on patriotism and what it is to be an American — on Nov. 7, 2017, nearly a year to the day after Trump’s election.

“I think it’s part of the American character to be optimistic,” he says of what fuels his writing these days. “Personally I’m optimistic by nature and by experience, and mine is just a small, but I hope gentle, voice saying, ‘You know what? We’re going to be all right. It may take a while — it may take a long while — but we’re going to be all right.’ “

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