Dan Rather is right

››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

The story was true. -- Dan Rather, September 20

The story was true. -- Dan Rather, September 20

At first, I was wondering whose blood was boiling hotter last week when former CBS news anchor Dan Rather announced he had filed a $70 million lawsuit against his former employer in response to Rather's unceremonious CBS exit following the botched 60 Minutes II story about President Bush and his military service.

Was it executives at CBS News who now face the prospect of reliving one of the network's darkest chapters via endless depositions from a plaintiff who says he won't accept a cash settlement?

Or was it right-wing bloggers, some of whom likely punched their TV sets in frustration watching Rather go on national television and claim, correctly, that nobody has ever proven that the memos he used in his report were fake, and pointing out that the basic facts of the Texas Air National Guard story -- that Bush walked away from his military commitment during the Vietnam War for months at a time--are still not in dispute.

After all, for lots of Bush bloggers, two absolute truths that must never be questioned in public are that the CBS memos were proven forgeries (they weren't), and that the whole Bush-skipped-out-on-his-National-Guard-duty story was bogus (it wasn't).

Turns out, though, it wasn't the suits at CBS or the right-wing bloggers who busted the biggest vein over Rather's lawsuit. It was mainstream journalists who rushed in to denounce the former anchorman as dishonest, arrogant, bitter, and delusional, all the while making sure not to take up Rather's challenge of addressing the underlying facts of the story surrounding Bush's no-show military service.

Right-wing bloggers may have sparked the so-called Memogate story in 2004 by raising doubts about the military memos, but three years later it is the mainstream press that is adamant in condemning Rather, forcefully declaring the Guard story to be bogus because CBS was caught using memos that it could not authenticate.

That's why last week we got muddled recaps about how "CBS made allegations about Bush's Air National Guard Service during the Vietnam War. Problem was, the report wasn't based on authenticated documents." And it's why the Los Angeles Times referred to "a wholly unsubstantiated '60 Minutes II' segment alleging that a young George W. Bush used family connections to obtain favorable treatment that allowed him to evade service in the Texas Air National Guard." [Emphasis added.]

The simple, yet apparently elusive, truth is that CBS' report on Bush and the National Guard could have (and should have) been broadcast without the controversial memos. And if it had been, the results would have been exactly the same. Meaning, the documents were irrelevant because they provided texture (the supposed frustration of Bush's commander), not new facts about Bush's service. Yet journalists pretend the memos are the National Guard story and that without them, questions about Bush's military dodge disappear. Why do they think that? Based on the coverage last week, it's clear that journalists who mocked Rather still don't have the slightest clue what the established facts of the Guard story are.

That's not so surprising considering they spent two entire presidential campaign cycles doing their best to avoid the Guard story. (The primary exception was Walter Robinson at The Boston Globe, who nailed the story in 2000, only to watch his mainstream colleagues collectively ignore it.) The CBS controversy in 2004 simply provided the cover journalists needed to walk away from the story, and it's the same cover they cling to today.

Now, I realize the accepted Beltway media takeaway from CBS' National Guard controversy is supposed to be that the network was guilty of a colossal, historic newsroom blunder from which there is no possible defense or redemption. (Personally, I'll leave that category to the Judy Millers of the world.) But the dirty little secret that bloggers and mainstream journalists don't want to discuss is that Rather is right -- the National Guard story was true.

The Guard story is true because in the spring of 1972, with 770 days left of required duty, then-Lt. Bush unilaterally decided that he was done fulfilling his military obligation and walked away from the Guard. For the next two years it was as if Air Force and Guard regulations simply did not apply to Bush, who became a ghost-like figure, doing -- or not doing -- whatever he pleased, unsupervised and unrated by his commanders. In the military, there is a simple personnel rule: All duty is supervised and rated. Except when it came to Bush, the son of a congressman. That's all obvious from Bush's own military records, or lack thereof. (More on that later.)

Moreover, Rather was also right last week in claiming that CBS News management panicked in the wake of the Memogate scandal and quickly tossed aside its journalism standards in desperate, blatant attempts to mend fences with the Bush White House. The examples were numerous, yet the press pretends Rather's a conspiracy nut for making the suggestions.

Keep in mind, I'm not defending CBS' work here. Years ago I detailed the many mistakes producer Mary Mapes and her team made in needlessly rushing their Texas Air National Guard story onto the air, and how holes in the story were not communicated up the CBS chain of command before the report aired. In fact, as somebody who in 2004 wrote extensively about Bush's missing years in the Guard, and who tried to lay out the facts in hopes that the mainstream media would take more interest in the story, I was furious when Memogate broke. Furious because I knew that the press, spooked by the right-wing pitchfork mob that had assembled online, was going to run -- not walk -- away from the story for fear of raising the same ire.

The same political press corps that had spent the month of August 2004 endlessly dissecting Sen. John Kerry's war record in search of evidence to support the bogus claims of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, those same journalists became obsessed in September 2004, with detailing the CBS scandal while willfully ignoring the larger National Guard story. "Everyone in the media wanted to cover CBS, not the National Guard story," wrote Mapes.

And now it's déjà vu all over again: In the wake of last week's lawsuit, everyone in the media wants to cover Rather, not the National Guard story.

That's why media chatterers glossed over the facts surrounding Bush's Guard service in order to rush out onto the playground to be among the first cool kids to make fun of Dan Rather -- he's just like disgraced novelist James Frey! Ha-ha.

The Washington Post's Howard Kurtz reported that in the wake of the lawsuit "many" of Rather's friends think he's "lost it," although Kurtz didn't bother to identify any of Rather's "friends" who think that. Hosting CNN's Reliable Sources, Kurtz stacked the show's panel with invited guests who all mocked and belittled Rather ("sad," "pathetic," "arrogant"). Kurtz also wondered out loud how Rather could possibly claim the National Guard story was true if CBS "could not authenticate those 30-year-old National Guard memos?" See, for Kurtz, the memos are the Guard story. (He and right-wing bloggers think alike.)

Washington Post editorial page staff writer Charles Lane typed up a humor-free Rather parody for the newspaper and then, dutifully hitting all the agreed-upon Beltway media talking points, insisted that "no one in his right mind would keep insisting that those phony documents are real and that the Bush National Guard story is true."

See, it's impossible that the memos could be unreliable but the Guard story itself be true. Think of it as a trial: Everybody knows that if one piece of evidence is discredited, that means the whole case is flawed. I mean, c'mon, people.

Similarly, a report at Newsweek.com focused on whether Rather looked like a "pathetic" "loser" for filing his lawsuit. (The nasty quotes were made anonymously, of course.) The Newsweek article never bothered to address the larger facts of the National Guard story. The same was true of the Los Angeles Times piece, headlined, "Dan Rather's lawsuit is an act of ego." The paper thundered on and on about how awful Rather is and demeaned his lawsuit as a "pathetic and contradictory exercise in self-justification."

In fact, the Times was obsessed with Rather last week, printing not one, not two, but three bitter condemnations of him. And no, none of them shed any serious light on Rather's suggestion that his National Guard story was true.

CBS News tried to make nice with Bush White House

Meanwhile, Rather is also correct in his claim that amidst the so-called Memogate scandal, nervous CBS executives capitulated in order to "pacify the [Bush] White House," "appease angry government officials," and "curry favor with the Bush administration."

For instance, there was CBS' shameful decision in September 2004 not to run a previously scheduled, and factually solid, story done by the late Ed Bradley that chronicled how the Bush administration had misled the country into war. Bradley's in-depth investigation, had it aired in 2004, would have been the first by a major network news outlet to devote serious time and energy to investigating the baffling case of the forged Niger documents that were used as a pivotal propaganda tool in the administration's push for war.

But spooked by the unfolding Memogate controversy, CBS abdicated its news responsibility and announced that Bradley's story would not be broadcast. "We now believe it would be inappropriate to air the report so close to the presidential election," a CBS flack announced. So close? The election was six weeks away. And since when was it journalism's job to stay out of the way of current events?

Around the same time, the first presidential debate between Bush and Kerry took place. Immediately following Bush's dreadful, petulant performance, every flash poll taken showed that by overwhelming margins Americans thought Kerry had clearly bested Bush. Yet CBS News viewers were told the debate had been a tie. Even after CBS' instant poll showed Kerry winning the debate in a blowout, by 44 percent-to-26 percent, CBS' John Roberts announced that the televised face-off had been "as close to a draw as you could possibly come."

Just days after the debate, CBS owner and Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone announced he was voting for Bush, insisting that from a Viacom standpoint, "the election of a Republican administration is a better deal."

And keep in mind that in the wake of CBS' Memogate scandal, Bob Schieffer replaced Dan Rather as CBS Nightly News anchorman. CBS boss Les Moonves quickly breathed a sigh of relief, telling reporters, "The White House doesn't hate CBS anymore with Schieffer in the [anchor] chair." Moonves noted Schieffer was looked upon favorably by 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And why not -- Schieffer's brother is a longtime friend and former business partner of Bush's.

And, oh yeah, how do I know the story about Bush evading his military service is true even though bloggers and the mainstream media declared, in the wake of Memogate, that it was not? It's easy. Using Bush's own military records, I'll list 10 glaring discrepancies regarding his fraudulent military service, none of which is based on the disputed memos that were aired by CBS News in 2004. And yes, I'm pretty sure all 10 discrepancies will come as news flashes to the same journalists who mocked Rather last week for having the temerity to suggest his National Guard report was true. (Most of the discrepancies were unearthed over the years by online researchers Marty Heldt, Paul Lukasiak, and Robert Rogers.)

The quick back story: Following his graduation from Yale University in 1968, at a time when nearly 350 U.S. troops were dying each week in Vietnam, Bush managed to vault to the top of a 500-person waiting list to land a coveted spot in the Texas Air National Guard. On his application where the form asked for "background qualifications of value to the Air Force," Bush wrote, "None." Despite a complete lack of aviation or ROTC experience, despite scoring in the 25th percentile on his pilot aptitude section -- the lowest allowed score for aspiring fliers -- and despite having been arrested twice for college pranks, as well as having four driving infractions, Bush was approved for an automatic commission as a second lieutenant and assigned to flight school.

In spring 1972, after receiving $1 million worth of taxpayer-funded flight training, Bush unilaterally decided he was going to stop flying and attempted to transfer from his Houston base to a non-flying, paper-pushing postal unit in Alabama. The request was denied. While Bush searched for a new unit, he took the summer off, never bothering to show up for his mandatory monthly drills. Bush was eventually ordered to report to a flying unit in Montgomery, Alabama. There is no evidence Bush ever showed up there, which means he missed more weekend training sessions. In July of that summer, Bush also failed to take his mandatory annual physical and was grounded by the Guard. In 1973 Bush was supposed to return to his base in Houston but again he was a no-show; his commanders in May 1973 claimed they had no idea where he was. Then between the summer of 1973 to the time he was discharged in 1974, there's little evidence that Bush ever attended training sessions, which means for nearly two years Bush snubbed his Guard duty.

Here are the 10 discrepancies that would have gotten any other Air National Guard member severely reprimanded, and certainly would have, later in life, derailed any presidential aspirations:

1. Upon entering the Guard, Bush agreed that flying was his "lifetime pursuit" and that he would fly for the military for at least 60 months. After his training was complete, he owed 53 more months of flying.

Bush flew for only 22 of those 53 months.

2. In May 1972, Bush left the Houston Guard base for Alabama. According to Air Force regulations, Bush was supposed to obtain prior authorization before leaving Texas to join a new Guard unit in Alabama.

Bush failed to get the authorization.

3. On his transfer request to Alabama Bush was asked to list his "permanent address."

He wrote down a post office box number for the campaign where he was working on a temporary basis.

4. According to Air Force regulations, "[a] member whose attendance record is poor must be closely monitored. When the unexcused absences reach one less than the maximum permitted [sic] he must be counseled and a record made of the counseling. If the member is unavailable he must be advised by personal letter."

There is no record that Bush ever received such counseling, despite the fact that he missed drills for months on end.

5. Bush's unit was obligated to report to the Personnel Center at Randolph Air Force Base whenever a monthly review of records showed unsatisfactory participation for an officer.

Bush's unit never reported his absenteeism to Randolph Air Force Base.

6. In July 1972, Bush failed to take a mandatory Guard physical exam, which is a serious offense for a Guard pilot. The move should have prompted the formation of a Flying Evaluation Board to investigate the circumstances surrounding Bush's failure.

No such Flying Evaluation Board was convened.

7. On Sept. 29, 1972, Bush was formally grounded for failing to take a flight physical. The letter, written by the chief of the National Guard Bureau, ordered Bush to acknowledge in writing that he had received word of his grounding.

No such written acknowledgment exists.

8. Each time Bush missed a monthly training session he was supposed to schedule a make-up session, or file substitute service requests. Bush's numerous substitute service requests should have formed a lengthy paper trail with the name of the officer who authorized the training in advance, the signature of the officer who supervised the training and Bush's own signature.

No such documents exist.

9. During his last year with the Texas Air National Guard, Bush missed a majority of his mandatory monthly training sessions and supposedly made them up with substitute service. Guard regulations allowed substitute service only in circumstances that were "beyond the control" of the Guard member.

Neither Bush nor the Texas Air National Guard ever explained what the uncontrollable circumstances were that forced him to miss so many of his assigned drills during his last year.

10. On June 29, 1973, the Air Reserve Personnel Center in Denver instructed Bush's commanders to get additional information from his Alabama unit, where he had supposedly trained, in order to better evaluate Bush's duty.

Bush's commanders ignored the request.

But why do I bother with these silly facts? Everybody knows the Guard story is bogus. And everybody knows Dan Rather is crazy for suggesting otherwise.

Network/Outlet
CBS
Person
Dan Rather
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