Dan Rather Brings it On.

We interrupt the latest episode of L’affaire Par, (note the corrected, improved gender-appropriate French), for a comment on Dan Rather bringing a $70 million lawsuit against his old bosses at CBS over their shabby treatment of him in the wake of the infamous “60 Minutes II” National Guard story.

The early consensus among marquee pundits is bewilderment at why Rather would do this now, 15 months after getting the axe, (and there is no doubt he got the axe, velvet-sheathed or otherwise), and that it demonstrates a degree of muddled, misguided thinking on his part.

In my limited interactions with Rather — barnstorming through Minnesota, press tours, a brief chat in NY — he always struck me as an odd duck. A little too tightly wound for a high-profile job like his and very old school with his almost jingoistic respect for the hierarchy of journalism, where he was very near the top. Which isn’t to say he was arrogant. In person, he was almost overly self-effacing. But he was stiff even when trying to be casual, and self-consciously aware of his place on the landscape.

There was never any comparison to say, Tom Brokaw, who remains my idea of the gold standard for network anchor unflappability and gravitas. Brokaw, who has a memory for names and details worthy of Hubert Humphrey, is a listener — an absolutely vital quality to any journalist — constantly absorbing clues and cues which translates into a remarkably deft touch for both individual and group interaction. Rather … not so much.

Anyway, as I follow the legal assessments in this latest twist, it appears Rather may be able to make some head-way on the issue of whether CBS was contractually obligated to return him to the Sunday night version of “60 Minutes” after departing the anchor desk, and feature his work at least as prominently as Lesley Stahl, Steve Kroft and Morley Safer, etc.

But no one thinks Rather is in this for the money. (His lawyer says he’ll donate any awards.) This is about his legend, and odd duck though he might be, Rather is a big time student of history and has to know that that George W. Bush draft deferment/Alabama Air National Guard story will be in the second paragraph of his obituary if not on his tombstone. For a guy who did everything any big company could ask of a major player — running around Afghanistan with U.S. armed Taliban-types firing rockets at Russian tanks and strapping himself to a street lamp for every hurricane that hit the Gulf Coast — Rather has a right to be … real … pissed off at the way CBS buckled and how he was led out the door.

But the whole case will turn on Bush’s service record, and whether the story was as screwed up as is popularly believed. Or whether CBS, which had been taking big-time anti-Rather fire for years, simply didn’t want to deal with him/it anymore — what with Viacom CEO Sumner Redstone’s eye on good relations with the freshly reelected Bush White House — and instead of defending him concocted a clubby, wallpapering investigation to get themselves off the hook and Rather out of the building.

Rather says that based on some kind of new evidence his own private investigators have dug up he is now eager to force CBS in to court and get them under oath over who knew what when and what was said to whom? Personally, I think that would be real interesting.

Three things have always stood out with regard to what I’ll call the Bush AWOL story.

1: Even the so-called independent investigation ordered up by CBS held back from saying that the essential story, that Bush got preferential treatment to avoid Vietnam and then never showed up in Alabama, was false. The investigation’s much narrower focus was on the validity of type-written 30-some year-old letters and the reliability of Bill Burkett, the very funky guy who delivered the letters to Rather’s production team.

On one fundamentally relevant level — whether CBS accurately represented the opinions of professionals who examined the letters — Rather and his (very) veteran producer, Mary Mapes, will have to convince everyone watching that they did indeed seek out and accurately reflect the best opinions of the best professionals available. If they can’t do that, they risk sinking even deeper than they already are, just for the chutzpah of bringing a suit with so large an unpatched flaw in it.

But … if they’ve come up with some kind of exculpatory evidence that makes their explanations to date credible and returns the focus to the essentials of the story — and, who knows, CBS-Viacom’s discomfort with running it weeks before an election — we’re off and running again.

2. I was never comfortable with the speed at which the response/backlash to CBS’s Bush AWOL story erupted in the blogosphere. This astonishingly rapid response was led by Atlanta lawyer, Harry MacDougald, a.k.a. “Buckhead”, a very well connected Republican partisan.

And by “rapid”, we are talking almost instantly, and not only that very night but already with a laser-like focus on the bogus letters and the era of the typewriter involved. Even allowing for the intensity of animosity constantly pressing on Rather, and on CBS for having Rather around, that combination of speed and specificity always seemed much too convenient for my tastes.

The conspiracy theory that has floated on this one suggests the bogus letters were planted, via Burkett, by pro-Bush partisans aware of the avidity of CBS’s interest and investigation. Moreover the plan was linked to a tactical hair-trigger set among conservative bloggers to scream “foul” in a highly specific way the second Mapes and Rather bungled so badly they actually used the fake letters. (If that is true the fact Mapes and Rather used them at all once again consigns the two gullible old pros to the scrap heap.)

3. On the validity of the essential charge and the heart of the story — that Bush got preferential treatment to avoid service in Vietnam and then never even bothered to honor his Alabama Air National Guard commitment, while other guys his age were dying for what rock-ribbed conservatives like Ronald Reagan called, “a noble cause”, I found always found it remarkable that no one ever stepped forward and provided evidence of Bush’s presence in Alabama to pick up the $10,000 “prize” offered by “Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau.

New Yorker writer and CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin was on Terry Gross yesterday talking about his new book about the US Supreme Court, “The Nine”. The most provocative chapters concern the starkly partisan division within the court over Bush v. Gore, the 2000 re-count fiasco. Toobin’s point was that the Justices hated the specter of their fundamental partisan beliefs being betrayed so publicly and in such an epochal decision. They prefer to think they are bigger than that, different from mere mortals and other people of influence.

The same, I strongly suspect, is true down deeper in this Rather-CBS story.

CBS News and Viacom live and succeed or perish in nothing close to a vaccum. Most of the time they have the finesse and connections and mouthpiece to deny partisan influences. But when the heat really comes down, when access to and political favor from a freshly reelected administration with enormous power over the growth strategies of the corporate parent are hanging in the balance, “objective” players give service to who and what butters their bread.