Written by Robert Parry
George W. Bush, in his memoir Decision Points, says he was shown a copy of a purported memo about his shirking of his National Guard duty before a story citing the document appeared on CBS’ “60 Minutes-2,” and the former president gloats over the resulting controversy that cost the jobs of anchor Dan Rather and his star producer Mary Mapes.
Bush’s account also suggests that the White House may have had a larger role in discrediting the memo than generally understood.
According to Bush, he was shown the purported memo by White House aide Dan Bartlett after stepping off Marine One late one night in September 2004.
“Dan told me CBS newsman Dan Rather was going to run a bombshell report on 60 Minutes based on the document,” Bush wrote. “Bartlett asked if I remembered the memo. I told him I had no recollection of it and asked him to check it out.
“The next morning, Dan walked into the Oval Office looking relieved. He told me there were indications that the document had been forged. The typeface came from a modern computer font that didn’t exist in the early 1970s.”
Though Bush does not specify whether Bartlett’s assessment of the memo’s authenticity came before or after the “60 Minutes-2” segment was aired on Sept. 8, 2004, Bush adds that “within a few days, the evidence was conclusive. The memo was phony.”
White House press spokesman Scott McClellan later said CBS had provided several of the purported National Guard memos in the days prior to the broadcast and that the White House subsequently released them to other news organizations so they could be examined.
“We made those documents available to everybody else so you could look at them yourselves,” McClellan said at a press briefing on Sept. 15, 2004. “Since that time there have been a number of questions that have been raised about these documents and their authenticity.”
However, Bush’s recollection about Bartlett’s initial examination and the speed at which right-wing bloggers seized on alleged inconsistencies in the memos immediately after the CBS broadcast suggest that the White House recognized the memos as a weak link in the story and helped feed the furor.
Though the CBS report cited other evidence about Bush’s failure to fulfill his National Guard duty, the accusations of memo forgery raced through the right-wing media – based in part on an early false assumption that IBM Selectric typewriters couldn’t produce superscripts that appear on some of the memos allegedly typed in the early 1970s.
As the right-wing media defined the story, the mainstream media quickly fell into line. The press corps downplayed the overwhelming evidence that the then-president had ducked out on his National Guard assignment, which had kept him out of the Vietnam War, and instead competed for scoops about shortcomings in CBS document vetting.
Instead of Bush being the focus, the harsh spotlight swung to Rather and producer Mary Mapes, who just a few month earlier had broken the story of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in Iraq.
A Secretary’s Recollection
Several days into the controversy, Marian Carr Knox, the secretary of Bush’s ex-commander, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, told Rather in an interview that she doubted Killian, who died in 1984, had typed the purported memos.
However, Knox confirmed the substance of the memos, recalling that Killian was “upset” that Bush had refused to obey his order to take a flight physical and that Bush’s refusal to follow the rules had caused dissension among other National Guard pilots.
Even though Bush was U.S. president in 2004 and was sending young National Guard soldiers to serve and sometimes die in Iraq, the news media couldn’t get enough of the intricate analysis offered by document experts who generally agreed that CBS had failed to adequately authenticate the memos.
CBS News soon created an “independent” board, co-chaired by former President George H.W. Bush’s Attorney General Richard Thornburgh, to examine the procedures followed by Mapes and other CBS producers, not the question of whether Bush actually had blown off his National Guard duties.
The investigation concluded that Mapes and three other producers had violated internal CBS protocols although the panel could not establish definitively whether the questioned documents were indeed forgeries. Despite her past accomplishments, including the Abu Ghraib disclosures, Mapes was booted out of CBS along with the other producers. Rather was soon to follow.
It seems that even an honest mistake is a firing offense when a member of the powerful Bush Family is involved.
In his new memoir, Bush gloats over the outcome. Referring to the “60 Minutes-2” broadcast, Bush wrote, “I was amazed and disgusted. Dan Rather had aired a report influencing a presidential election based on a fake document. Before long, he was out of a job. So was his producer. After years of false allegations, the Guard questions finally began to abate.”
But Bush left out the context for the CBS review of his spotty National Guard record. During the summer of 2004, pro-Bush groups, including the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth, had lodged false accusations against Sen. John Kerry by claiming that the Democratic nominee exaggerated his heroism during combat in Vietnam.
At the Republican National Convention that re-nominated Bush, pro-Bush delegates wore Purple Heart Band-Aids as a way to mock Kerry’s war wounds.
However, instead of holding Bush’s campaign at all accountable for the ugly smears against Kerry, the U.S. news media instead piled on Rather and Mapes for failing to follow proper journalistic procedures. George W. Bush came out as the victim en route to a narrow election victory and a second term.
The Bush Guard Record
The dust-up over the memos also left many Americans with the impression that Bush was innocent of the charges that he had skipped out on his National Guard duty. However, the evidence against Bush had been accumulating for years, although rarely getting much media attention.
As a young man, Bush said he supported the Vietnam War. “My first impulse and first inclination was to support the country,” Bush recalled in an interview. [NYT, July 11, 2000]. But Bush avoided service in the war by joining the Texas Air National Guard, which was nicknamed the “champagne unit” because so many sons of the rich and powerful got in to avoid Vietnam.
Bush has said no one to his knowledge helped him get into the National Guard. “I asked to become a pilot,” Bush said. “I met the qualifications, and ended up becoming an F-102 pilot,” The Associated Press reported. Bush insisted that he knew of no special treatment. [AP, July 5, 1999]
But the record indicates that, despite having the lowest acceptable score for entry, Bush jumped over other young men waiting to get into the unit.
Other accounts suggest that a “good friend” of Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, then a congressman from Houston who supported the war, weighed in with Ben Barnes, the Texas Speaker of the House, to arrange a slot for George W. Bush. [The Guardian (U.K.), July 29, 1999]
Sometime in late 1967 or early 1968, Barnes “personally asked the top official of the Texas Air National Guard to help George W. Bush obtain a pilot’s slot in a Guard fighter squadron,” The Washington Post reported. [Sept. 21, 1999]. On Sept. 27, 1999, Barnes submitted a sworn statement that he helped Bush by contacting Brig. Gen. James M. Rose.
Bush also had a one-year gap in his National Guard duty from 1972-1973 when he was supposed to have transferred from the Texas Air National Guard to the Alabama Air National Guard, a move permitted so he could work on a political campaign.
According to the Boston Globe, “In his final 18 months of military service in 1972 and 1973, Bush did not fly at all. And … for a full year, there is no record that he showed up for the periodic drills required of part-time guardsmen.” [Boston Globe, May, 23, 2000]
Bush has said that he has “some recollection” of attending drills that year, but has not been more specific. Under Air National Guard rules at the time, anyone who did not report to required drills could be inducted in the draft to serve in Vietnam, according to the Globe. That never happened to Bush.
Ironically, another clue that Bush shirked his military duty emerged from U.S. government records about a week after the CBS memo flap, with the release of Bush’s hand-written resignation letter from the Texas Air National Guard.
After moving to Boston to attend Harvard Business School, Bush was supposed to finish up his National Guard service in Massachusetts. Instead, in November 1974, Bush scribbled a note saying he wanted out of the Guard.
Bush explained that he had “inadequate time to fullfill (sic) possible future commitments.” His request was granted. He was given an honorable discharge. [Reuters, Sept. 29, 2004]
Bush’s note received little attention in the U.S. press, much the way the story about Bush’s National Guard record usually was treated during his rise to power. Intermittently, the U.S. press reported on these gaps in Bush’s record, but never in a sustained way.
Nor did the major American news media treat the Bush-Guard story as suitable for pundit show commentary. Similarly, Bush’s implausible answers did not lead to questions from the media about Bush’s veracity.
By contrast, during Campaign 2000, the press dwelled extensively on Vice President Al Gore’s supposed exaggerations about the dangers he faced as a U.S. Army reporter in Vietnam. Gore volunteered for the war, although he and his father, a senator from Tennessee, opposed it.
It was never clear how today’s reporters, who were not present with Gore in Vietnam, would have any way of checking how much danger Gore actually encountered. But they judged him a liar nonetheless.
Similarly, CNN and other major U.S. news outlets gave significant (and respectful) treatment to the anti-Kerry allegations from the Swiftboat Veterans for Truth during Campaign 2004.
No journalist who promoted those smears, which were later debunked by more careful examinations, was subjected to any known punishment. There was no high-profile humiliations like those meted out to Mapes and Rather.
A different press standard always seems to apply to the powerful Bush Family.
Curiously, one world leader who dared confront George W. Bush with the issue of his (and America’s) hypocrisy on the news media was Russian President Vladimir Putin.
In Decision Points, Bush recounts a meeting at which he called Putin on the carpet for a “crackdown on the free press” in Russia.
According to Bush, Putin responded by saying, “Don’t lecture me about the free press, not after you fired that reporter.”
Bush wrote, “It dawned on me what he was referring to. ‘Vladimir, are you talking about Dan Rather?’ I asked. He said he was. I said, ‘I strongly suggest you not say that in public. The American people will think you don’t understand our system.'”
However, the sad truth may be that the authoritarian Putin understood how the American system worked all too well.
Bush’s new revelation that the White House was quick to spot – and presumably exploit – inadequacies in the CBS memos suggests that the removal of Dan Rather wasn’t entirely without high-level manipulation.
About the author
Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It’s also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & ‘Project Truth.’
Robert Parry’s web site is Consortium News