Producer Mary Mapes and the crew at "60 Minutes Wednesday" viewed their segment on President Bush receiving special treatment in the Texas Air National Guard as the "Holy Grail," before it aired last September. Mapes was right. The story is just like King Arthur's Holy Grail: the stuff of legend.
That's my take on a report by former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and former Associated Press President Louis Boccardi, which CBS commissioned after the expose melted down. The Dan Rather story purported to show that one former National Guard officer was pressured to "sugar-coat" Bush's record. Instead, the story showed that "60 Minutes" was on an ill-fated crusade.
Mapes' quest for the grail began in 1999, when she looked into allegations that Bush pere's political connections got Bush into the National Guard despite a waiting list. "Significantly," the report noted, "Mapes indicated in the April 1999 e-mail that she had been informed that there was no waiting list for President Bush's TexANG unit at the time he entered." Maj. Gen. Bobby Hodges told her that the Guard was "hurting for pilots at that time."
No waiting list. No story.
But five years later, Mapes had rejoined the crusade. She contacted a Bush-hating blogger, who told her she believed that a retired Lt. Col. Bill Burkett had a classified document damaging to Bush. Mapes began courting Burkett, apparently undeterred by that fact that he had a history of changing his story.
In 2000, Burkett had told an author and a blogger that he was sent to Panama as punishment for refusing to falsify records on Bush. Later, he told the Houston Chronicle that wasn't accurate.
In 2000, Burkett also spread the story that he had overheard a conference call on a speaker phone between National Guard brass and staff for then-Gov. George W. Bush about "scrubbing" Bush documents . In 2004, Burkett added a new twist when he told the Dallas Morning News that he saw Bush documents in a waste can.
Think about his story: Guard brass and the Bushies were so dumb they left a door open during a speaker-phone conference call as they planned a cover-up, and instead of shredding or burning the documents, they threw them in the trash. Somehow, none of those documents made the papers during the 2000 election. God works in mysterious ways.
When Mapes and a colleague met with Burkett, he didn't hand them a smoking gun from the scrubbed documents. No, in a new twist, he handed them copies of documents purportedly written by the late Lt. Col. Jerry Killian.
Documents from a dead guy, not the official papers that first interested them -- and Mapes and company still believed. Talk about faith.
Burkett gave different explanations as to how he got the documents. No problem-o. All four experts hired to authenticate the documents refused to do so, although one authenticated Killian's signature. Two, however, warned that the documents had big problems. Mapes ignored them. She only saw her Holy Grail.
Burkett had told the CBS crew that he wanted to be a paid consultant and that he wanted the network to provide him protection and, if necessary, pay to relocate his family. Still, CBS put its reputation in his hands.
Burkett also wanted Mapes to put him in touch with John Kerry campaign biggies so that Burkett could tell them how he thought they should rebut charges made by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. Mapes delivered.
Thornburgh and Boccardi summed up her call to Kerry adviser Joe Lockhart as "a clear conflict of interest that created the appearance of political bias." But they refused to "conclude that a political agenda at '60 Minutes Wednesday' drove either the time or the airing of the segment or its content."
Meanwhile, they provided plenty of ammo for those who see bias. There were the men who were cited as authorities on air, even though they had no personal knowledge of the documents. There were the voices that contradicted Burkett -- Killian's wife, son and superior officer -- but who were left out of the story or misrepresented. Not only did the show not heed experts who warned that the documents were dicey -- it told the public these experts authenticated the papers.
Worse, there was no voice of reason that questioned how CBS got information in a week that a pack of journalists had tried to unearth for years.
The worst of it is that Mapes, Rather and company saw this as the "Holy Grail" -- when it was a nothing story.
As the report noted, even those who served with Bush had widely disparate views of his service. Some said Bush had a free ride, others that he was an exemplary officer. News organizations already had reported information that supported those who believe Bush slacked off. This one 30-years-cold tidbit -- if it were true -- would have changed nothing. That's Mapes' Holy Grail.