But the CBS documents that seem destined to haunt Rather are, and have always been, a red herring. – Joe Hagan, Texas Monthly

It was always about discrediting Dan Rather through the documents CBS was using to pick at George W. Bush’s National Guard service. Nobody on the right cared about the truth.

Many people have forgotten this story, but as a bookend to the Supreme Court putting themselves into the 2000 election to select Bush it’s a beaut.

In his long piece, Joe Hagan unravels much of the Texas tale, in a fascinating unpacking of political myth and fiction that helped keep a rich boy on his path to the presidency. Right wing bloggers deserved credit for their dogged campaign to ruin Rather, because of documents telling a real story, though they were frauds. By overstepping, Rather and CBS let George W. Bush get away. This incident should be added to the curriculum in every school of journalism.

I covered it exhaustively through intermediaries who knew the details, the whole sorry mess a black eye on everyone involved.

What might have happened if Dan Rather had done his homework on the CBS National Guard story that would take down one of the most venerable newsmen of the 20th century?

CBS producer Mary Mapes had been on the Bush National Guard story for years, so why did she so badly blow the vetting of the documents, even if the story they told was true?

We’ll never know.

How George W. Bush’s library handles the years between 1968 – 1972 will be interesting.

People forget the ugly legacy of Vietnam. I do not, because I was in high school and saw what the draft did to young men. Teens killed themselves rather than be subjected to the draft, the stories from those days endless.

This story is why to this day everything about George W. Bush is colored for me through his shaky National Guard service story, but particularly the lengths to which Karl Rove, Dan Barlett and Republicans, helped by right wing blogs, took down CBS rather than let the truth rise. But also how a major network let it happen, because the free press is what protects our democracy.

It’s another example of the way our politics is played and why we end up with the people in office that we do. It’s not just the money. It’s also the wicked game. We saw the lengths that Republicans in the Bush administration would go to during the hunting of Valerie Plame.

W.’s trouble all started because George H.W. Bush accused Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, the man Michael Dukakis chose as his running mate, of getting his son preferential treatment to get into the Texas National Guard and out of serving in Vietnam. This charge would boomerang back to the Bushes and get the engine revved up on what would reveal the character of George W. Bush and become foreshadowing of everything that followed, including who he was as a national candidate and president. It’s no wonder we ended up with a torture regime and a war waged on a false premise. It’s equally fitting that the Senate was suckered by Rove’s political machinations and allowed it to happen.

Least shocking of all is W. getting help to dodge Vietnam. Everyone wanted to stay out of that clusterschtup after 1968 and he’d have been an idiot not to try. The problem was after W. got into the National Guard. His service had gaps, with the explanations a moving target.

The Bush team knew it had to respond to the stories. Campaign spokesman Dan Bartlett explained that the reason Bush stopped flying in 1972 was that he was in Alabama and his family doctor wasn’t available to give him a physical. When it was pointed out that only a military physician could perform a pilot’s flight physical, Bartlett’s story shifted. He said the Guard was phasing out the F-102 on which Bush had trained, and therefore Bush had opted out of flying altogether. Reporters countered that the plane continued to fly at Ellington Air Force Base until 1974. The Bush campaign tweaked the explanation yet again, saying that the Air National Guard in Alabama didn’t have the F-102, so he saw no reason to maintain his flight status during his transfer.

These shifting explanations only intensified the scrutiny and led to questions about what else could have caused Bush’s loss of flight status. […]

[…] That Bush’s commanders let the young pilot bow out early and arranged the paperwork accordingly wasn’t necessarily nefarious, but just the way things worked in the loosely regulated fiefdom of the Texas Air National Guard in 1972, especially for a son of wealth and power like Bush. Pilots didn’t like paperwork”“and neither did National Guard commanders who coveted political influence in Texas.

How all of this looked in 2004, however, was quite different, especially running against a Silver Star recipient, John Kerry, whom Republicans and the right smeared in a disgraceful act of un-Americanism.

From Hagan’s piece:

The scrutiny on Bush’s past increased. Later that month, under pressure from Tim Russert on NBC’s Meet the Press, the president told the host he would release his entire military file, including pay records. But the release of pay dates from a computer database only spurred more questions: Why didn’t the pay records from 1973 match Bush’s official biography?

But McClellan had no idea what he was talking about. While trying to field press queries, he had asked Dan Bartlett, who had a thick notebook dedicated to the Guard issue, if he could study the book to help defend the president’s record. “He said, “˜No, I think you’ve got everything you need,’ “ recalled McClellan. “I didn’t have all the facts. I would have preferred to look at the records myself, but I was denied access. So most of what I had was either what I was told by Dan or what the president confirmed in the presence of Dan.” Bartlett, he said, “probably remembers better than the president.” McClellan explained that a tight lid had been kept on the Bush National Guard issue, with access limited to Rove, Miers, and Bartlett. “It raises questions when you’re not open and candid about things,” McClellan said, “and this is something that has been closely held for a long time.”
(When I asked Bartlett about this, he explained that the notebook “wasn’t a formal dossier. It was a mixture of crib notes I’d taken over the years. It made sense to me, but not to other people.”)

Bush and his inner circle didn’t want to help the press expand on the Guard issue; they wanted it to go away. So when the Associated Press sought additional documents, the Pentagon denied the news agency for several months. The AP was forced to sue both the U.S. Department of Defense and the Air Force for access. Even then, the White House pushed back: in a phone conversation with the AP’s Washington bureau, Bartlett questioned the political leanings of the AP’s lawyer, David Schulz, detailing his Democratic campaign contributions. “Why in the world is the AP using a liberal lawyer?” Bartlett asked, according to Schulz. Bartlett then suggested the AP was letting Senator Kerry off the hook. “It was all-out war against the AP,” recalled Schulz.

Blame the messenger manifested with the intent to hide the truth.

Then came Swift Boat Veterans for Truth masterfully evil change the subject campaign, with a silent John Kerry team doing nothing in all of August 2004, and the rest is history.

What’s ironic and tragic is the right wing blogs that went after the typewritten documents alleging (or fabricating) the type spacing could not be possible were wrong. But their righteous indignation coupled with Rather’s own lack of knowledge about what he was reporting was deadly. It was bulldog sensationalism, helped by the fact that the anchor covering the story wasn’t as deeply involved as he needed to be on something as explosive as challenging a rich family and their machine that had one object: elect a favorite son to the presidency.

In any case, MacDougald’s arguments about the documents turned out to be inaccurate. He acknowledged as much in an interview with me in 2008. And in a speech given that same year, Mike Missal, a lawyer for the firm that CBS hired to investigate its own report, said, “It’s ironic that the blogs were actually wrong. . . . We actually did find typewriters that did have the superscript, did have proportional spacing. And on the fonts, given that these are copies, it’s really hard to say, but there were some typewriters that looked like they could have some similar fonts there. So the initial concerns didn’t seem as though they would hold up.”

Nevertheless, the controversy exploded in the press, catalyzed by a report in the Washington Post that aggregated all the criticism from the blogosphere and laid it at the doorstep of Rather and CBS. Bartlett coordinated with several former Guardsmen, including Killian’s son, to follow suit and attack the CBS report.

When the right attacks it’s never about truth. In fact, if the facts don’t fit, they simply maneuver the story into another direction through hyperbole, trying to make their analysis sound smart, because your average reader doesn’t do details, but grabs and runs with what fits their own ideological moorings and political emotions.

The current archivist of the Texas National Guard, James Shive, told me that he personally examined Bush’s file in 1992, before Bush ran for office, and found nothing damning in it. He did say, however, that Bush’s file had “unusual” gaps in it, referring in particular to an annotated history of his time in the Guard, typed up in the early seventies, that didn’t record Bush’s loss of flight status or any subsequent reassignment. But a scrubbing incident by state officials as late as 1997, he said, wasn’t plausible. Instead, Shive questioned whether anything negative would have been inserted into Bush’s record to begin with, given the political influence of his father in the early seventies.

People are right not to trust our political system.

However, it’s not the vast right wing conspiracy or the liberal media that’s the problem.

It’s the American people who are so lazy they won’t educate themselves on who they’re voting for or sometimes even care who’s elected. Most are only interested in bitching rights, holding a grudge about “the other guy,” never once taking it upon themselves to be informed on facts and the truth.

It’s only getting worse and it’s why America is in the shape it’s in today. Young people don’t even bother to vote and the rest who do are so besotted by ideology they can’t see the truth through their own prejudices.

Read Joe Hagan’s piece (it reportedly slips behind a pay wall tomorrow).

It’s a stab at getting history right.