Truth or Consequences

Eight years ago, Dan Rather broadcast an explosive report on the Air National Guard service of President George W. Bush. It was supposed to be the legendary newsman’s finest hour. Instead, it blew up in his face, tarnishing his career forever and casting a dark cloud of doubt and suspicion over his reporting—and that of every other journalist on the case. This month, as Rather returns with a new memoir, Joe Hagan finally gets to the bottom of the greatest untold story in modern Texas politics, with exclusive, never-before-seen details that shed fresh light on who was right, who was wrong, and what really happened.

Here it is, on a coat hook in midtown Manhattan: the Army-issue green shirt, with “CBS NEWS” written in white letters on the ID tag, that Dan Rather wore in 1966 while hunkered down in rice paddies along the Cambodian border. It would be one of the legendary network anchor’s most famous assignments: dispatching dramatic reports on the Vietnam conflict for millions of Americans sitting down to the evening news. In 16mm films you can see him, young and square-jawed, hair thick and black, barking into a microphone and recoiling from machine guns that rat-a-tat-tat behind him.

“It’s a little tighter than it used to be,” says Rather, considering the shirt now.

He’s sitting under a still-life painting of a fishing rod and tackle in his modest, somewhat shabby little office on Forty-second Street, a place hidden at the far end of a long hallway where you’d least expect to find the former anchor. His lower lip bulges, as if swollen from a punch to the mouth, with a pinch of tobacco, a vestigial habit from his teenage years working on Texas oil rigs. Craggy, gray-haired, and in need of hearing aids, Rather is still animated by his glory days, the details of which have long since solidified into a personal mythology. It’s the epic story of the hustling correspondent from Wharton who reported the death of President John F. Kennedy as a young CBS correspondent, who brought Vietnam into American living rooms, who stood 
toe-to-toe with Richard Nixon during Watergate, and who nudged aside Walter Cronkite to become one of the most trusted and iconic voices of his day.

By all rights, Rather, who turns 81 this year, should be enjoying a few victory laps at the close of a remarkable career. And he would be, except for one report that he will never forget, because no one will ever let him: the botched 60 Minutes segment in 2004 on George W. Bush’s Texas Air National Guard service. The report, which lasted fifteen minutes, forever damaged Rather’s reputation and ended his network TV career after forty years. Its claims were potentially explosive—that Bush had received preferential treatment to enter the National Guard in 1968 in order to avoid the Vietnam draft and that he had then shirked his duty without repercussion. As evidence, Rather produced six documents that described the alleged political pressure Bush’s commanding officer was under to “sugarcoat” possibly embarrassing moments in Bush’s record, specifically his failure to show up for a flight physical and his loss of flight status. In a presidential campaign that had become a referendum on who had the credibility to take control of the quagmire in Iraq, Rather’s report could have seriously damaged Bush’s reelection effort. But he went at the king—and he missed.

Almost as soon as the broadcast aired, a swarm of right-wing blogs assailed Rather’s documents, claiming their typeface and spacing was inconsistent with any known typewriter of the early seventies. Within days CBS was reeling as Bush allies accused Rather and his longtime producer, Mary Mapes, of using forgeries to tip a presidential election in favor of the Democrats. Twelve days after the story aired, CBS backed down, forced Rather to apologize, and established a special panel to investigate what went wrong. Forty-three days later, Bush was reelected, beating Senator John Kerry by a two-point margin in the pivotal swing state of Ohio. By the time Mapes and three other producers were ousted by CBS, the Bush National Guard story was dead and buried, with Rather’s reputation as the tombstone.

Eight years later, Bush is back in Texas, keeping a low profile and building his presidential library. Rather is still a newsman, hosting a program called Dan Rather Reports on HDNet, a niche cable and satellite channel. But he is also a man who cannot stop reliving his worst moment. This month he will publish Rather Outspoken: My Life in News, his fourth memoir but the first since his downfall. Not surprisingly, he uses the book to defend the details of his report, sharpening his ax for Bush, as well as former colleagues at CBS and its parent company at the time, Viacom, whom Rather believes caved under political pressure from the Bush White House.

“The story we reported has never been denied by George W. Bush, by anyone in his close circles, including his family,” says Rather. “They have never denied the bulwark of the story, the spine of the story, the thrust of the story.” (In fact, Bush officials have indeed denied it, repeatedly. In a conversation I had with former White House director of communications Dan Bartlett in 2007, he told me, “We believe the story is inaccurate, both the general thrust of it and the questionable sources they used.”)

Rather tried making his case in a 2007 lawsuit against his former bosses, but it was thrown out of court two years later. Nonetheless, he remains convinced that he did nothing wrong. “I believed at the time that the documents were genuine,” Rather says, “and I’ve never ceased believing that they are genuine.”

This is nearly impossible to know. The documents were Xerox copies, which in forensics is a dead end—nothing can be proved, or disproved, without an original. Since the report, Rather has hired lawyers and private investigators to get to the bottom of the mystery, to no avail. Strangely, he has made only one attempt to contact the man who initially gave the documents to CBS, the former Guardsman and West Texas rancher Bill Burkett, who, after initially lying about where he got them, told a dubious tale of receiving them from shadowy characters at a cattle show in Houston—and then went stone silent. Burkett refused to talk to Rather.

But the CBS documents that seem destined to haunt Rather are, and have always been, a red herring. The real story, assembled here for the first time in a single narrative, featuring new witnesses and never-reported details, is far more complex than what

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