Though some have dubbed the Dan Rather docugate story a distraction from the real issues of campaign 2004, I would argue that, in some ways, the episode illuminates those issues.
For more than 30 years, John Kerry has been vaulting back and forth over the Vietnam fence -- believing that the war was his trump. As his coattails flapped with each jump, he radiated confidence. He had the thing nailed. He opposed the war, but he served. He was wounded and he protested. How perfect. Through the years, he sometimes ran on his credentials as a war protestor and sometimes as a war hero. He threw his ribbons away. He kept his medals. His undistinguished career in the Senate would not damage him, Kerry reasoned, because he had that gold-plated, two-sided, Vietnam credential. Others suggested that the Democratic Convention focus on the economy. But Kerry was determined to make it a Vietnam-fest.
In 2004, the jig is up. Vietnam veterans who have seethed for decades about Kerry's treachery are getting their licks in. Kerry's lies (such as the shameful declaration that the memory of being in Cambodia in 1968 "is seared in me") have been exposed. Kerry's grotesque and deceitful 1971 testimony before the United States Senate about the war -- calling American soldiers "monsters" -- has been remembered.
How does this connect to Dan Rather? Aside from Kerry, there is no man more responsible for libeling Vietnam veterans and derivatively, America, than Dan Rather. As B.G. Burkett and Glenna Whitley document in "Stolen Valor" (must reading), Rather produced a program for CBS in 1988 called "The Wall Within" (see "The First Rathergate" by Anne Morse in National Review Online).
Along with recycled falsehoods such as the claim that more Vietnam veterans have died of suicide since the war than were killed in combat, the program (which CBS supposedly researched for 18 months), featured interviews with "veterans" who told lurid tales. Rather asked a former 16-year-old Navy SEAL "You're telling me that you went into the village, killed people, burned part of the village, then made it appear that the other side had done this?" Steve said "Yeah." "For propaganda purposes at home?" Rather probed. "That's correct," said Steve.
The program was lauded by critics and helped revive CBS's documentary tradition. But nearly everything in the report was a lie. There were no 16-year-old Navy SEALS. In any case, Steve Southards was never a Navy SEAL at all and spent a good deal of time in a Navy brig for going AWOL. Burkett used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain the service records of each of the veterans CBS profiled and discovered that some had not served in Vietnam at all, and others had never been where they said they were, never held the rank they claimed, and never received the medals of which they boasted. Burkett shared this information with Rather and CBS. But the response in 1988 was a total stonewall. The CBS president proclaimed that "this was a broadcast of which we at CBS News and I personally am proud. There are no apologies to make."
The falsehoods and libels about American servicemen in Vietnam did not originate with Rather or CBS, but both played huge roles in legitimizing those lies.
This time, on the National Guard story, there is a reckoning. The Internet, talk radio, Fox News and conservative print journalists have risen up like ghosts to haunt Dan Rather. CBS cannot get away with the stonewall this time. The same forces that have humbled the Kerry campaign -- the formerly silenced Vietnam Veterans, conservatives and bloggers -- have taken a huge bite out of CBS. And one has a gratifying sense of justice about the whole thing.