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.”

  • Andrew Beaujon

    Andrew Beaujon reported on the media for Poynter from 2012 to 2015. He was previously arts editor at TBD.com and managing editor of Washington City Paper. He's the author of the 2006 book "Body Piercing Saved My Life," about Christian rock and evangelical Christian culture.


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