Solving the riddle of the Dan Rather beating
Originally from Harpers, December 2001.
By Paul Limbert Allman.
Dan Rather is the sphinx of our time, and his riddle is “Kenneth, what is the frequency?”
Who can forget our collective shock and bewilderment when we opened the New York Times and learned of the event? October 1986. A cool evening, upper Park Avenue, in the Eighties. Newsman and reservoir of trust, Dan Rather, dressed casually, walks home from dinner at a friend’s house.
Two well-dressed white men in their thirties—one six feet tall, with dark hair and a mustache—accost Rather, one of them demanding to know, “Kenneth, what is the frequency?”
“You have the wrong guy,” Rather replies.
One of the men responds with a punch to the newsman’s jaw, under his left ear. Rather flees into the lobby of a building on Park Avenue, and the thugs pursue him, punching, kicking, badgering Rather repeatedly with the strange query: “Kenneth, what is the frequency!”
A doorman rings for the super, the super bursts upon the scene of the cruel interrogation, and the attackers flee. Mr. Rather is briefly hospitalized. The attackers are not caught. Their motives are unknown. It is presumed a case of mistaken identity.
Mr. Rather returned to his news broadcast, unbowed, and made a statement about the incident. Who did it, and why? “Why and exactly by whom remains unclear,” Mr. Rather announced to a television audience estimated to be 18 million households. “And it may never be determined.”
* * *
Dan Rather looks anxious on television. He needs the answer. The incident haunts him, and it shows. “For a while,” he said, “I made it a point to hang out on the street corner opposite from where it happened and observe things.” During these poignant forays, he disguised himself with sunglasses and a baseball cap.
I want Dan Rather to be free. I want my generation to be free, not trapped by conspiracy theories, like those who wrestle with the bloody puzzle of Dallas 1963. Our generation must have an answer to our riddle. And we will all know we have it when Dan Rather comes on the television and no longer looks anxious.
One day, Rather signed off a broadcast with the single word, “Courage.” A noble gesture, at once commanding and empathetic. But it had no more effect than if he had said, “Porridge.” Such is the great ineffable quality of Dan Rather.
Yes, there are those who would like to keep him anxious. The same people who jumped and pummeled him on Park Avenue, calling him “Kenneth,” demanding the frequency.
I ask you: if the victim had been somebody named Kenneth, what would he have made of “what is the frequency?” Was this some intimate reference known only to Kenneth and his attackers? If so, how could the attackers—who knew their victim well enough to communicate with coded language—then stalk and attack the wrong man, especially when the “wrong man” was nationally famous?
They knew their victim. Rather’s face was broadcast to millions of Americans, on network television, five days a week. Nothing was taken from the victim: watch, wallet, or souvenir. Park Avenue is hardly a hot spot for random violence. The attackers had one motive: to punch Dan Rather, to punish him. If they had said, “Go to hell!” or, “Take that!” the whole thing would have been dismissed as random criticism and forgotten.
Instead, they taunted him: “Kenneth, what is the frequency?”
The taunt was obviously some kind of code. We can assume that, knowing their victim, the attackers were intentionally identifying Rather as “Kenneth.” Was he supposed to recognize the cipher? I think not. I think the riddle was designed for their pleasure alone, designed to further torture Dan Rather. The coded language was another implement of the punishment.
What of the second part of the taunt: “What is the frequency?” “Frequency” could refer to a radio frequency, or perhaps to something in Rather’s journalistic background. Or it might have been a scientific query, relating to the number of times a specific function or action is repeated within a given time.
But if the thugs were making a scientific inquiry, then their method was sloppy. The question, without a context, is meaningless, akin to asking somebody, “How much does it weigh?” without telling them what “it” is. Mr. Rather had every right to have answered the thugs with, “Frequency of what?” if he had been given the opportunity.
Rather did not have the opportunity, because the attackers were not expecting an answer. Rather was not expected to provide one. The encoded taunt was the verbal version of a sucker punch.
* * *
While I was puzzling over the case, I came across a story by a former professor of English at the University of Houston, the late Donald Barthelme. The story is called “The Indian Uprising.” It is a very beautiful and complex abstraction, in which wild, Hollywood-type Indians lay siege to the city. The outlook for the city, if the uprising succeeds, mirrors the fate of two lovers who are suffering from an uprising of bad feelings.
“What is the situation?” I asked.
“The situation is liquid,” he said. “We hold the south quarter and they hold the north quarter. The rest is silence.”
“That girl is not in love with Kenneth,” Block said frankly. “She is in love with his coat. When she is not wearing it she is huddling under it. Once I caught it going down the stairs by itself. I looked inside. Sylvia.”
Once I caught Kenneth’s coat going down the stairs by itself but the coat was a trap and inside a Comanche who made a thrust with his short, ugly knife at my leg which buckled and tossed me over the balustrade through a window and into another situation.
The appearance of the name “Kenneth” made me pause over the passage. As a character, Kenneth was thinly drawn; just an important, distant personage, a little pretentious. One seldom sees the name “Kenneth” or hears it. But “Kenneth” appears in another story by Barthelme, called “Can We Talk.” He is referred to as a “friend.”
One can safely conclude that Barthelme had a running character in his fictions named Kenneth. This is arguably the only case of a running Kenneth in the history of literature. And Barthelme drew heavily from his life to make his fictions. But I was not reading Barthelme to look for clues; I was reading him because he, to my mind, is great and better with each read. So I gave the “Kenneth” coincidence no more thought until, in the same collection, Sixty Stories, I came across this exchange, in “Kierkegaard Unfair to Schlegel”:
A. I use the girl on the train a lot. I’m on a train, a European train with compartments. A young girl enters and sits opposite me. . . . The book is in her lap. Her legs are fairly wide apart, very tanned, the color of—
Q. That’s a very common fantasy.
A. All my fantasies are extremely ordinary.
Q. Does it give you pleasure?
A. A poor . . . A rather unsatisfactory . . .
Q. What is the frequency?
Imagine my shock at finding, quite out of the blue, the words “Kenneth” and “What is the frequency?” combined within the same text, by a writer from Houston, Dan Rather’s hometown.
It was an odd coincidence. What are the chances of finding “Kenneth” and “What is the frequency?” in any way connected to each other, outside of the mouths of Mr. Rather’s attackers? And yet here they were, inside Donald Barthelme’s book.
The photo of Barthelme on the back of the dust jacket: a stocky fellow with a leprechaun’s face and beard, wearing a checked shirt and a leather vest, with a patch of Rorschach-style wallpaper behind his head. Was this mischievous but gentle soul the type to rough up a news anchor or hire goons to do the job? He looked capable of a prank but not one so violent.
The coincidence seemed to be just that: a strange, puzzling, but unintentional juxtaposition, one of life’s sublime jokes.
* * *
Intrigued by the Rather riddle, I researched Dan Rather’s career as a newspaper reporter and editor in Houston but could find nothing except the tale of a tireless, ambitious young man—what used to be called a B.M.O.C.—with something of a roving eye for what his biographer referred to as “coeds.”
Mr. Rather excelled first as the editor of a college newspaper. Eventually he broke into radio and then television journalism. Might there have been a grudge or a simmering jealousy from as far back as then? Somebody Rather stepped over on his way up the ladder of success, or the boyfriend or husband of one of those “coeds”?
Mr. Barthelme, just six months younger than Mr. Rather, also grew up in Houston. Barthelme attended the University of Houston; Rather attended Sam Houston State College. After their stints in the military in the fifties, both went into journalism. Rather worked at a Houston radio station, while Barthelme went to work as a reporter for the Houston Post.
Rather and Barthelme, same age, same military backgrounds, were now reporting for competing news outlets in a city of modest size. Is it possible that they could not have known each other, or of each other, in the Houston of the late 1950s and early 1960s? That they could not have attended the same journalistic functions? Or that Rather, the rising star, could not have been the object of envy and speculation on the part of his peers?
I tried to imagine an imbroglio between these two men, both titans in their field: the burly, bristling, brilliant professor/writer and the eager, ambitious, glamorous, comparatively superficial news anchor. Titans who left large footprints in Texas soil but no legacy of mutual distemper, no trace of a grudge. The implication—that a brilliant writer would somehow get himself involved in a hugger-mugger retributionary ambush of a prominent news editor over an undisclosed dispute—was difficult to accept. Yet these giants were undoubtedly linked together by that strangely magical refrain—Kenneth, what is the frequency?—and by their oddly parallel lives.
In 1959, Rather became a TV reporter for KTRK in Houston; two years later, Barthelme became director of the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston. Rather eventually transferred to New York City for CBS News, and Barthelme also landed in the city, teaching at City College.
I will never know what wrong Donald Barthelme perceived was done to him by Dan Rather during their mutual incubations in Houston. No one will ever know. It will have to be the one unknown that haunts our generation as we ponder the Rather/Barthelme connection with the incident on Park Avenue. But there are at least two well-dressed white men out there (now in their fifties) who know the complete truth. Did Barthelme know what they were doing? Or were the avengers acting on their own, loose cannons armed with quotes from Barthelme’s canon?
* * *
In Barthelme’s “The Emerald,” a reporter named Lily is interviewing a witch about her magic potions, and Lily wants to know if she can get one too, for her “problem.”
I have a problem.
What’s the problem?
The editor, or editor-king, as he’s called around the shop.
What about him?
He takes my stuff and throws it on the floor. When he doesn’t like it.
On the floor?
I know it’s nothing to you but it hurts me. I cry. I know I shouldn’t cry but I cry. When I see my stuff on the floor. Pages and pages of it, so carefully typed, every word spelled right—
Don’t you kids have a union?
Yes but he won’t speak to it.
That’s this man Lather, right?
Mr. Lather. Editor-imperator.
On the following page, Mr. Lather himself telephones Mad Moll:
Hello is this Mad Moll?
Yes who is this?
My name is Lather.
Yes Mr. Lather what is the name of your publication I don’t know that Lily ever—
World. I put it together. When World is various and beautiful, it’s because I am various and beautiful. When World is sad and dreary, it’s because I am sad and dreary. When World is not thy friend, it’s because I am not thy friend. And if I am not thy friend, baby—
I get the drift.
All hell breaks loose in the story: a foot kills a man, an emerald begins to speak, and devils appear . . .
Three devils showed up! Lily’s interviewing them right now!
A free press is not afraid of a thousand devils!
There are only three!
What do they look like?
Like Lather, the editor!
Just as I was prepared to dismiss the coincidence of finding “Kenneth” and “What is the frequency?” fifty pages apart in the same book, written by a Houstonian whose career mirrored Rather’s, and who was reporting in the same town at the same time as Rather, I discover this rather ham-fisted swipe at an imperious news editor with a name so close to Rather’s own that it seems almost unfair. An agitated, anxious, irritated man is said to be in a lather. There is something slightly foolish implied by that kind of lather, in a foamy, worked-up way. Donald Barthelme’s editor-king, Lather, is a newsman in a lather, greatly agitated, foolishly grand. One begins to wonder how long Dan Rather has been wearing that anxious look on his face.
* * *
One cannot address the issue of the Rather beating without addressing the perplexing strangeness of the popular anchorman and, in the context of the crime committed against him, the exceedingly dubious attempt to pin the crime on a confessed murderer.
In January 1997, the Daily News published an article that connected the Rather mystery to a confessed killer, William Tager, who fatally shot NBC technician Campbell Theron Montgomery on August 31, 1994. The supposed scoop was written not by an investigative reporter but by a TV critic.
The tenuous connection was first made by Dr. Park Dietz, a celebrity forensic psychiatrist who interviewed Tager to see whether he was fit for trial. According to the Daily News, Dietz said there was “no question that it was William Tager who assaulted Dan Rather. The degree of consistency was exactly what I expect to find when the people were involved in the same incident and they’re all telling the truth.”
If both parties are indeed telling the truth, then someone has some explaining to do, and the Daily News obliges. The published reports of “two well-dressed men” who accosted Rather, one of them demanding to know, “Kenneth, what is the frequency?” becomes, in the revised version, “An agitated man [who] directed a stream of near-gibberish at him, including the question ‘What’s the frequency?’ and a word that Rather told police sounded like the name ‘Kenneth.’ ”
The merging of two carefully identified assailants badgering Rather repeatedly with the strange query, “Kenneth, what is the frequency!” into one gibbering madman slurring his words is explained away by the Daily News: “Some news accounts at the time referred to two attackers, but Rather said he had told police it was just his impression that the attacker was accompanied by another man. Only one person actually beat him.”
These are the rather clumsy footprints of a cover-up, and one wonders why.
The official eagerness to accept the ravings of a criminal who is described by his friends as “loony toons,” and by his psychiatrist as mentally incompetent, is highly questionable. Likewise, the willingness to accept Rather’s identification of a picture of his supposed assailant—provided by the Daily News—more than ten years after the fact is troubling, when Rather has difficulty remembering even how many attackers were on hand for the fracas.
Every news account specifies two assailants, who were both described in great detail by Rather himself, on the night of the assault. Rather’s description was supported by the doorman and the superintendent—Robert Sestak—who came to Rather’s rescue. Are we to believe that all three men were suffering some form of group hallucination?
* * *
Donald Barthelme is one of my literary heroes. Thomas Pynchon—no stranger to Houston, I might add—described Barthelme, lovingly, as “perhaps a species of anarchist curse.” Dan Rather, while not one of my heroes, is a victim. He was minding his own business, set upon and pummeled, and sent to the hospital, which isn’t fun and isn’t funny. As a victim, Rather will have to live with the memory of that episode for the rest of his days. I hope that the revelations contained here will help him deal with the calamity.
Rather’s eagerness to put the issue to rest is understandable. The event, fueled by rumor and gossip, has dogged him. The rock band R.E.M. turned the cryptic mugging into a song, “What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?” Rather’s curious misfortune has clearly entered the public consciousness and become a touchstone for a generation. I’m sure he would like it to go away, and there are undoubtedly many out there who would like to help Mr. Rather in this effort.
I am one of those. I want to release Dan Rather from the prison of his own perplexity. The bogus attempt to close the case via the Daily News must eat at Mr. Rather, for he knows better. If they had told him the Huntsman from Snow White had confessed, Dan Rather would have agreed, just to get it behind him.
My strong suspicion is that Mr. Rather does not know who did this to him, or why. “Why and exactly by whom remains unclear,” he stated on TV. “And it may never be determined.” I want Mr. Rather to be liberated by the truth: Donald Barthelme, or avengers acting on the master’s behalf, did the nefarious deed upon you. The startling evidence is contained within the pages of Barthelme’s oeuvre; you can read the stories for yourself. May this knowledge set you free. May you feel the yoke of mystery lift from your shoulders.
But there are forces that do not want my revelation to be known. Dan Rather—who once, by his own admission, “made it a point to hang out on the street corner opposite from where it happened and observe things,” now sits tight behind an impenetrable fortress, protected by gatekeepers. Word filters down from his aerie that he doesn’t want to know. He is selling a book now; his face remains strangely tense. He weeps on TV and has expressed a wish to enlist in the military. I wish I could save him.
Rather is like Rapunzel, locked in a tower, peering out from his window, giving the evening news. Dan Rather, Dan Rather, let down your hair! But no, he’s cut it short. He doesn’t want to be saved.
Barthelme’s brother Frederick has refused to comment. Perhaps he knows nothing, but one wonders. There are two younger Barthelme brothers, including Frederick. Maybe they know something about the two attackers. Maybe they know why brother Donald had it in for the Texas newsman.
The building super who came to Rather’s aid and frightened off the attackers, Robert Sestak, has passed away. I spoke with his family, and they graciously recounted his remarkable tale of two well-dressed men and Dan Rather in a Park Avenue vestibule. It is those two men who know the truth. But they have disappeared, as if they had stepped out from the pages of a book and ducked back inside as the covers slammed shut.
* * *
Donald Barthelme liked to compare his work to a collage. “The point of collage,” he said, “is that unlike things are stuck together to make, in the best case, a new reality.” He was king of the irrational, the surprising juxtaposition. Dan Rather is king of the rational: news, facts, reports. Why did the irrational attack the rational? Is it always the way with these two? Rather’s very name is contained within the name Barthelme. Barthelme’s last novel was The King, about King Arthur. Rathur? Lather? Editor-king? Who can say?
There is Dan Rather, up in his tower, a prisoner of perplexity. He doesn’t want to be saved, and yet, and yet . . . he gazes out, and the look on his face speaks volumes. His lips move and we hear the news, but if you read his lips you might see the words of Snow White, from Barthelme’s novel of the same name, as she gazes out from her own tower:
There is something wrong with all those people standing there, gaping and gawking. And with all those who did not come and at least try to climb up. To fill the role. And with the very world itself, for not being able to supply a prince. For not being able to at least be civilized enough to supply the correct ending to the story.