Why CBS pulled the trigger too soon on the Bush National Guard story

Texas Monthly
Joe Hagan unravels the tangled tale of “the great untold story of modern Texas politics” — the story of the story of George W. Bush’s National Guard service in the early ’70s. It’s a fascinating piece of forensics about the shadows Texas politics cast on national politics for most of the 2000s, with many names appearing in unexpected supporting roles: Harriet Miers, Margaret Spellings, Joe Allbaugh, Dan Bartlett. It’s also the story of how Dan Rather’s career ended, after CBS aired a story about the controversy based on some documents that many thought were fake.  “I believed at the time that the documents were genuine,” Rather tells Hagan, “and I’ve never ceased believing that they are genuine.”

The picture Hagan produces is of an investigation that got derailed. Questions about Bush’s Guard service dogged him from the time of his first gubernatorial race onward, but it took Walter V. Robinson’s investigations in the Boston Globe to shake the dust off of them when Bush was first running for president. They bloomed again in 2004, when Bush ran for re-election.

The Bush camp’s timeline on their explanation “shifted,” Hagan notes. And in his telling it appears that the Associated Press, via a lawsuit seeking documents from the Pentagon, was closing in on the real explanation of Bush’s so-called “lost year” (which Hagan suggests may be as banal as privilege and incompetence colluding) when CBS producer Mary Mapes, who’d been gathering string on the story since 1999, pounced on memos that purported to be a smoking gun. The AP’s John Solomon advised Mapes to wait for what it was seeking: “Solomon,” Hagan writes, “told Mapes that new documents were about to emerge from the AP’s lawsuit, but CBS was under competitive pressure to air its report as soon as possible.”

When CBS got the documents, they sent them to the White House for response. Bush communications director Dan Bartlett sent them to an expert who said they were fakes. Still, Bartlett told CBS that they “reaffirm what we’ve said all along.” CBS aired its now-famous story, which inspired immediate pushback, especially from bloggers.

Hagan talked with Harry MacDougald, the Atlanta lawyer who made the much-bruited arguments about proportional spacing; MacDougald later told Hagan he was inaccurate. But the documents’ bizarre provenance (they came to CBS via a mysterious person who handed them to a source at a cattle show), published alongside the documents by USA Today, plus the firestorm of criticism and what Hagan calls a “humiliating forensic examination” that showed correspondent Dan Rather’s “virtual absence from the reporting process” tanked the whole story (and in a sideways way that you really have to read Hagan’s piece to understand, may have helped torpedo Miers’ botched Supreme Court nomination). After that, the issue became radioactive.

Walter V. Robinson, the Boston Globe reporter whose 2000 investigation had triggered much of the subsequent reporting, agreed. “The CBS story, and the furor that caused, buried the story so deeply that you couldn’t possibly disinter it in 2004,” he told me. “Inevitably, the only candidate who ended up with a serious credibility problem about his military service was John Kerry, who had absolutely nothing to hide or be ashamed of. To me, in a close election—and it was a close election—who knows, that could have been the difference.”

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  • http://profile.yahoo.com/RVN6OYDGN4HEPRIBA6NHCUEZOU Jiyu

    That does NOT say it all. Thousands of Guardsmen served in Vietnam, most of them in combat zones, and thousands more were called up to replace other units sent to Vietnam.  Almost 100 Guardsmen fell in battle in The ‘Nam, and their names are engraved upon the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C.  Bush and others may have finagled the system to avoid Vietnam by joining the Guard, but many Guardsmen served in The ‘Nam proudly and honorably when their units were called up, and many more volunteered for service there as individuals.  See: http://www.mnroa.org/0703/Research/vnseaunits/vietnam_research_1.htm

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_MVYNQDHNEIXNZXGAFJI4B3BBUM Jerry

     You mean Bill “never go near a uniform” Clinton?  Or maybe another Democrat president who was a military veteran?  Obama? No. Hmm.  Carter!!  Yep.  Now there is a role model.

  • Anonymous

    My, my — all these new/old stories about Killian Memos affair, and just as crappy and non-investigative now as they were back then. The Texas Monthly article adds nothing serious to what was already bandied about carelessly and cluelessly back in 2004, and adding tangential bits like that with the Texas Lottery has nothing whatsoever to do with real forensics. Actually, to this day, there was never any serious document forensics done by any major news organization, including even by the parties involved (and if you are wondering what “serious document forensics” is like, try Googling up any publication by the late Ordway Hilton). While I might perchance know a few things about the journalistic meltdown that occurred at the time (and I’m not really talking about CBS), this is all water that has long since passed under the bridge and I don’t want to kill my morning commenting on these eye-rollingly confused rehashes. But, still, it is kind of interesting how each publication commenting on the Texas Monthly story manages to add more journalistic botches, including even here.

    Poynter sees itself as “Standing for journalism, strengthening democracy” yet it can’t even relay info from an already bad news story without making it even worse:  To quote from this Poynter piece, paraphrasing the Texas Monthly: “When CBS got the documents, they sent them to the White House for
    response. Bush communications director Dan Bartlett sent them to an
    expert who said they were fakes.”

    Really? Dan Bartlett, who had stonewalled any requests for an official response from the Bush administration regarding the memos in question, actually emailed the memos to an “expert” to check them out? Did the Texas Monthly article say this? Let’s see:

    “The morning before the broadcast was scheduled to air, CBS showed the
    memos to the White House for a response. Dan Bartlett was the network’s
    contact. Before Bartlett was interviewed, he emailed copies of the
    memos to Albert Lloyd, Bush’s longtime National Guard expert. In an
    interview in 2008, Lloyd told me he immediately recognized them as
    forgeries: ‘I looked at them and I said, “Don’t do a damned thing with
    these, because these are fake.’”

    “Bartlett, however, appears to have ignored Lloyd’s assessment. When
    asked by CBS whether he doubted the authenticity of the memos, Bartlett
    replied, ‘I’m not saying that at all,” adding that he only questioned
    the timing of their release. His interpretation of the memos, in fact,
    was that they ‘reaffirm what we’ve said all along.’”

    Poynter’s botch here is that it paraphrased things to make it seem that Albert Lloyd was some sort of document expert — umm, no, he wasn’t. The Texas Monthly portrayed him as being some sort of “National Guard expert, which means….what, again? Gerald A. Lechliter, a retired colonel who was commissioned by the NY Times in 2004 to do an extensive analysis of Bush’s, also analyzed Lloyd’s defense of Bush’s military records, especially Lloyd’s contention that Bush had collected the required Air National Guard points. For the Times piece, Lechliter found so many problems with Lloyd’s point counting that he concluded it was just “seemingly an attempt to whitewash Bush’s record.” Lechliter was less diplomatic about Lloyd in a more personal post of his: “Lloyd lied.”

    In any case ,Albert Lloyd had no discernible or demonstrable expertise in the matter, and even a quick Google check would have shown this, which makes the Texas Monthy’s uncritical passing mention of him irresponsible, and Poynter’s very misleading paraphrasing of it even much more irresponsible. Jeez, even TMZ has a couple of people who know how to Google, so there no excuses here for such utterly inept journalism. If you can’t fact check better than TMZ….

  • Anonymous

    Liberal journalists wanted the story to be true. Sadly, they are dellusional. Rather is pathetic.

  • http://twitter.com/HotCornerBlues Gary

    Wow! The liberal news media just won’t admit that Bush Derangement Syndrome led to phony baloney reporting.

  • Anonymous

    i agree with prof berner. a whole lot of different journalists had explored numerous angles about bush’s national guard “service.” as far as i could tell, there was not all that much left for rather & co. to try to expose. it appeared to me they were desperately trying to do little more than just put the last nail or two in the coffin.

  • Anonymous

    Rather continues to kid himself. He does not understand word processing. Contrary to what the article says it is not impossible to know they are fakes because it is impossible that they are real.

  • http://rtberner.blogspot.com/ R Thomas Berner

    I thought it was pretty obvious to one and all from the get-go that Bush dodged the draft by joining the Guard. I can’t count how many guys I grew up with did the same thing.  He joined the Guard; that says it all.

  • Mary Tillotson

    How many years have passed?  Guess y’all didn’t want to rush to judgement.  Unlike almost all the Mass Media
    coverage of the Martin-Zimmerman killing.   

  • http://twitter.com/jtLOL ‘Jim’ ‘Treacher’

    “Nothing to hide or be ashamed of.”

  • http://twitter.com/jtLOL ‘Jim’ ‘Treacher’

    “Nothing to hide or be ashamed of.”