"This is not about me," Dan Rather insists. Well, it's certainly more about Rather and the credibility of CBS News - now - than about Rather's intended target, the president of the United States.
As just about all the world has learned, CBS has four purported memos faxed from an Abilene, Texas, Kinko's. They allege that when he was in the Texas Air National Guard, George W. Bush - among other things - (a) ignored a direct order and was grounded, and (b) generally received preferential treatment to avoid service in Vietnam.
The memos have a distinct odor about them strongly suggesting they're fakes. Typographically, they contain all sorts of elements common to today's word processors but practically nonexistent on typewriters in 1972 and 1973, when they supposedly were written by Bush's squadron commander, who died 20 years ago. They're stylistically suspect, containing abbreviations not used in the squadron at the time. The commander's secretary, now 86, says she didn't type them. The commander's wife and son say he didn't write them, didn't type, and didn't feel about Bush the way the memos indicate he did.
A slew of document experts say the memos are bogus, as at least two consulted by CBS say they raised warning flags prior to airing. Retired Major Gen. Bobby Hodges, whom CBS cited as its "trump card" in authenticating the memos, says CBS "misled" him, never showed him the memos and, now that he has seen them, he's certain they're forgeries. And there's this: A Guard officer cited in the memos as pressuring higher-ups for special treatment for Bush left the squadron 18 months before the dates shown on the memos.
Rather and CBS have circled the wagons; they're standing by their story and the memos' integrity. More likely, Rather and CBS - the network made famous by the scrupulous Edward R. Murrow and Eric Sevareid - have been duped and made accessories to fraud. The credibility of CBS has taken a major blow. In this tale of the evidently falsified memos, Rather may have done no less to the credibility of CBS News than Howell Raines - in re Jayson Blair - did to the credibility of The New York Times. And as with The Times, so with CBS: The credibility of both was damaged by the ideology of the principal player.
It is no secret that despite his vaunted claims to objectivity, Dan Rather has little use for conservatives generally or President Bush in particular.
In 2001, he addressed a Texas Democratic fund-raiser in which his daughter had been involved (he later apologized). But Rather frequently reveals his leftism when he opens his mouth. Consider these recent examples:
- June 18, on Larry King Live: "I read the book (Bill Clinton's "My Life") completely. And I think it compares very favorably with Ulysses S. Grant's gold standard of presidential biographies."
- July 22, to John Kerry, on the CBS Evening News: "Speaking of angry, have you ever had any anger about President Bush - who spent his time during the Vietnam War in the National Guard - running, in effect, a campaign that does its best to diminish your service in Vietnam? You have to be at least irritated by that, or have you been?"
- August 30, on the CBS Evening News: "The Republican convention opens in New York to re-nominate George W. Bush and showcase the party's, quote, 'moderate side.' Will voters buy it?"
Who with an open mind can read those remarks and avoid concluding Rather probably rushed to judgment on the memos because he wanted desperately to believe they were genuine? And so who cannot conclude the memos are more about Rather than Bush?
George Bush served in the Texas Air National Guard. He did so in accordance with laws in place then - and now. He flew the F-102. His flight instructor, retired Col. Maurice Udell, ranks Bush "in the top 5 percent of pilots I knew." Because the mission of the Air Guard unit in which Bush flew was to defend the nation against attacks by Soviet bombers, he did not go to Vietnam. Of the 8.7 million Americans in the military (about 2 million in the Guard) during the Vietnam years, 6 million never were in or near Vietnam. That does not mean they served dishonorably, any more than those in the Guard now are serving dishonorably.
Yet Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee - insisting it's a question of character - says Bush "did not serve honorably" and lies about his Guard service. The DNC has an internal name, "Fortunate Son," for a plan to cast Bush as one who grew up in privilege (Kerry did not?) and continues to favor the rich. Denigrating Bush's Guard service is part of that Democratic plan, of which the CBS memos - suggesting Bush shirked his duties and avoided the war - might be an integral part.
"If you lie about your military record, you lie about creating jobs. You lie about the deficit. You lie about fully funding education. You lie about a real prescription-drug benefit."
And if you're a Democratic National Committee bent on defeating a dreaded president, maybe through a sleeper or a 527 group or something, you snooker a rather slanted anchorman and his network into aiding the cause.
Rather - the man who called the 2000 election for Gore (remember?) - clearly is driven more by ideology than objectivity. The former has torpedoed the latter. Time for him to go.