Just about the only sensible voice in the whole controversy over the documents CBS News used in its ham-handed attempt to raise questions about George W. Bush's "service" in the Texas National Guard came from retired typist Marian Carr Knox. As a former assistant to Lt. Colonel Jerry Killian, Bush's squadron commander who allegedly suggested that officers had been pressured to "sugar coat" their evaluations of the politically-connected young Guardsman, Knox was in a position to know more than just about anyone else about the authenticity of the documents and of the sentiments expressed in them.
In interviews with several news outlets, including CBS, Knox suggested that the Killian memos were forged but accurate.
Now that CBS News anchor Dan Rather has acknowledged that he made a "mistake in judgment" when he relied on what now appear to have been bogus documents for a "60 Minutes" report that detailed some of the favorable treatment Bush received, Knox's seemingly strange statement offers one of the few realistic routes out of the thicket of spin the Bush administration has erected to avoid a serious discussion of the president's Vietnam-era "service" in the Guard.
Knox said she did not think the memos that were purported to have been written by Killian were genuine. But, she said, they reflected sentiments the National Guard commander expressed at the time. Thus, the documents that have caused such a stir as this year's presidential campaign enters its final weeks could indeed be both forged and accurate.
So where should Knox's insight lead us?
First, anyone who wants to know the truth about Bush's pampered "service" should be furious with Rather and the CBS crew. When they refused to follow basic fact-checking standards, they failed their viewers and the broader American public that would, for the first time, be exposed by the Sept. 8 "60 Minutes" broadcast to a seemingly serious review of irregularities related to Bush's entry into the guard, his ignoring of direct orders, his failure to show up for duty and a pattern of reassignments that seemed always to benefit the son of a then-congressman from Texas rather than the country he was supposed to be serving.
After more than a month of virtually round-the-clock assessment of Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry's Vietnam service, major media has a responsibility to reexamine the president's controversial service record.
Yet, by doing a haphazard job of reporting and then rushing to broadcast the supposed "blockbuster" story, Rather and his crew played into the hands of a Bush spin machine that is now expert at peddling the lie that a liberal media is out to distort the president's record. While their intent may have been to shed light on an interesting and potentially significant story of the special treatment accorded this son of privilege, Rather and CBS, in their search for a "scoop," created a fog so thick that it could well obscure the story for the rest of the campaign.
By relying on a few documents that were not adequately verified, CBS handed White House political czar Karl Rove exactly what he needed to steer attention away from the real story. Of course it remains true that, as Rather says, "Those who have criticized aspects of our story have never criticized the heart of it... that George Bush received preferential treatment to get into the National Guard and, once there, failed to satisfy the requirements of his service."
Unfortunately, the "heart" of the story has been largely obscured by the controversy over the doctored documents.
As such, Rather and CBS are guilty of undermining not just their own story but the truth. That's particularly tragic because it was never really their story in the first place. The basic story of the machinations that George Herbert Walker Bush performed to help his son avoid serving in Vietnam, and the dirty details of the son's failure to do his duty as a Guardsman, was well reported almost five years ago by Texas columnist Molly Ivins and Texas investigative reporter Lou Dubose in their still-essential assessment of young Bush's path to power, "Shrub: The Short But Happy Political Life of George W. Bush" (Vintage). That book's chapter regarding Bush's Vietnam-era Guard duty is exceptionally well-reported, compelling and, ultimately, more damning of the Bush family and the current president than anything produced since its publication.
So why didn't Rather and the CBS crew simply invite Ivins and Dubose, both experienced Texas reporters with long histories of sorting fact from fiction when dealing with the Bush family, to help produce a "60 Minutes" report that would have told the story accurately and thoroughly? Perhaps CBS executives thought that, because Ivins and Dubose write with a point of view, rather than feigning journalistic impartiality, they could not be trusted to get the straight story. That, of course, is the common bias of the elite broadcast media in the United States.
Unfortunately, that bias led Rather and CBS to produce a story that has done severe damage to the prospects that the great mass of Americans will ever learn the truth about their president's Vietnam-era actions. There is a lesson to be learned here: There was never any need for Rather and CBS to go searching for a "scoop" regarding Bush's time in the Guard. The story has already been reported and written by Ivins and DuBose. What there was a need for was a network with the courage to take that story, attach some pictures and broadcast it. Unfortunately, CBS proved incapable to performing that simple task. And, in so doing, CBS put the truth a little further out of reach for most Americans.