F.A.Q.: Why is Dan Rather’s new book so depressing?

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Dan Rather. ()
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A conversation with New York magazine contributing editor Joe Hagan about Dan Rather.

Tom: Dan Rather's got a new book out today, a memoir called Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News. According to Lloyd Grove, he spends about a quarter of it telling the story of his ignominious removal from CBS News back in 2004, after his "60 Minutes Wednesday" segment on George W. Bush's National Guard service. Have you read it yet?

Joe: I've only read a few pages of the book, but I had the "Rathergate" parts essentially Cliff-Noted for me by Rather in an interview.  His publisher wouldn't send me an advance copy before I wrote my story for Texas Monthly [Ed. note: Subscription required], maybe because they weren't sure how I was going to come down on him.  In any case, it was depressing to learn that the book is mostly about settling scores with his old CBS bosses and re-litigating his failed law suit. 

Tom: The whole thing is a little depressing, isn't it? Partly because, back in 2004, I couldn't summon the Schadenfreude for Rather or his producer that seemed to be happening at the time.

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But why do you find it depressing?

Joe: His anger over the "Rathergate" affair has always been aimed at his own network, which he feels betrayed him. He viewed the efforts by Viacom and CBS to apologize and move on as a conspiracy to suppress the truth of his report. The fallout was harsh and dark and awful, but not that surprising in retrospect. Rather discovered, through his failed lawsuit, that Viacom's lobbyist purposefully sought out a conservative to head CBS's review panel that excoriated Rather's report so it could get straight with Republicans in the White House and Congress. This, for Rather, was evidence that the corporate greed of Viacom and Sumner Redstone corrupted the aims of CBS News to find the truth. 

I can see how he believes that, and Viacom's actions were deeply cynical, but at the end of the day he aired some documents that CBS couldn't really verify two months before the election.  The report was flawed.  He can't get around that. 

My view is the deeper he drives the story into the Viacom/CBS conspiracy stuff, the more deeply he entrenches himself in the big distraction that killed the original story of Bush's National Guard service to begin with.  It's like he's hammering on the rail that he got rode out of town on.

Saddest of all is that his original Bush report was good without the documents. He acknowledged that to me in an interview. A small confession with larger implications.

Tom: So what did the original report establish if you were to set the documents aside, if they hadn't been used?

Joe: Not many people remember this, but the first half of his report featured the very first interview with a Texas Democrat and Lyndon Johnson acolyte named Ben Barnes who helped George W. Bush get preferential treatment to get into the National Guard and avoid Vietnam in the spring of 1968.  That part was basically washed away in the document furor.

I should add also that a LOT had already been reported about Bush's so-called "Lost Year," much of it unearthed by Walter V. Robinson at the Boston Globe.  Furthermore, the Associated Press had *just* unearthed a new cache of Bush military documents that nobody had ever seen after a months-long lawsuit against the government forced the White House to dig them out of the archives.

The editor overseeing that investigation, John Solomon, spoke to Rather's producer, Mary Mapes, in the days before the report, so they were aware that there was a whole new thread to the story about to emerge.  Sadly, the AP's report was also washed out in the CBS debacle.  What they discovered was Bush's actual flight logs from his short time as a pilot, and while the contents of those logs were inconclusive, they suggested, tantalizingly, that Bush quit flying jets in the Air National Guard because he was having trouble landing his plane.

Tom: So one thing about all this, which in his interview-slash-book-review today Lloyd Grove conveys more with his tone than with anything direct, is how removed this all must seem to some people.

Rather lost his job because of decisions made by people who are largely no longer at CBS, was replaced by someone who is no longer at CBS, over a scandal that is now two election cycles old relating to a president who can't possibly be reelected ever again. And in the first place, how significant is the "help" George W. Bush got to put him in a cushy position in 1968? If Dan Rather's report had never aired, I think I might have just assumed that W. had a good war thanks to his father's connections without anyone having to prove it to me.

Joe: Two points I would make on that. One, it mattered very much in 2004 because the election was hinging in part on who had the gravitas and character to command Bush's war in Iraq. Senator John Kerry was under major assault from the Swift Boaters over his service in Vietnam. Remember Kerry's opening at the Democratic National Convention?  "I'm John Kerry, and I'm reporting for duty!"

Secondly, and more importantly, George W. Bush is opening his presidential library next year in Dallas. He always said that history will be the judge of his actions. I think this story is important for understanding his political and historical identity.  Robert Caro has several volumes on Lyndon Johnson, and Bush is going to have histories written about him, too. Here was the son of power and privilege who for years lived in the shadow of his father, a heroic World War II pilot, and who tried becoming a pilot himself, but in the National Guard while avoiding Vietnam. Then he bows out in less than two years, possibly because he became afraid to land the plane.

Flash forward, Bush starts a Vietnam-like war, finishing off his father's "unfinished" business, and then lands in a jet fighter on the deck of an aircraft carrier wearing a flight suit to celebrate his victory. You don't have to be Freud to see the connections here. His National Guard history can be seen as the psychological blueprint of his entire presidency.

Tom: Your piece basically reopens the original case, without the documents, and gets to the same place: Bush's lost year, almost impossible to disbelieve. Dan Rather told Lloyd Grove that he has spent much more than $5 million on his lawsuit against CBS; that's because it's really CBS, and not the Bushes, from whom he has to retrieve his legacy. But people surrounding George W. Bush have for years spent a lot of effort and energy keeping this story out of the record, too. Are they, still?

Joe: Yes, the push-back on this story from Bush and his allies sent a message that whatever happened with Bush during this period wasn't politically beneficial for him, especially in 2004.  But that push-back had another effect, too.  At some point, the intensity of the pursuit by reporters and opposition researchers to figure out what happened, and fill in the gaps in Bush's record, created a hot market for conspiracies.  That inspired a shadow campaign of conspiracy theorists, cranks and opportunists who muddied up the story with half-truths and fictions from their fevered imaginations, and the burgeoning Internet of that period gave them a forum. I think that these people made the dubious CBS documents possible and allowed Bush to walk away unscathed.

A big part of my own investigation was dispelling all the conspiracies around Bush's service, and just looking at what was discernibly true. That was damning enough, without unprovable tales of cocaine busts and smoking-gun documents. I believe Dan Rather got sucked into that vortex, which was locatable, not coincidentally, in Texas.

As to what the Bush people are saying now, they had almost no reply to what I wrote about Bush.  I'd argue that the opposite of 2004 is true now: to make the story go away, they must stay quiet rather than fight it.  They thought this thing was buried along with Dan Rather's reputation. Former White House spokesman Dan Bartlett's text reply to me when I told him my story was coming out is telling: "U have to be shitting me."

Tom: One of the things that confuses me so much about Bush's reelection campaign is, why was it so important for him to be shown as this flying ace? To land the plane on the carrier to declare the "mission accomplished" in the Gulf and to allow the Swift Boat campaign against Kerry to proceed strikes me as a dangerous game. As you report, Harriet Miers had been hired to look into his National Guard record to find "vulnerabilities" when Bush was contemplating a run for governor, and it was the "lost year" that she identified. Talking to people like Bartlett and McClellan years later, why do you think this was so important to Bush's image as  president? Weren't they taking an awful big risk putting so much emphasis on an area of his resume that was actually pretty weak?

Joe: The issue of Bush's Guard service didn't truly resonate until the early months of 2004 because the media and John Kerry began making an issue of it because the Iraq war was going south at that time.  Kerry, in stump speeches, was saying he was looking forward to having this debate of who did what during Vietnam, and Tim Russert managed to pin Bush down on the issue and get him to promise to release more documents. That's when the White House realized it had to kneecap Kerry on his Purple Hearts, so it wasn't a battle they sought or wanted to have when it counted. 

In 2003, with the "mission accomplished" moment, I think that was pure stagecraft to telegraph Bush's confidence and some kind of solidarity with the soldiers.  I think the disconnect between the reality of his own military history and that moment is explained by hubris and the desire to cement his post-9/11 profile as a "war president." A year later, that profile was under duress, and the Guard years seemed to many like a massive Achille's heel, which explains the intensity of interest around it in 2004. Later still, Bush said he regretted how that "mission accomplished" moment was interpreted.    

Tom: So you've been reporting this story, on and off, for eight years now. Right at the beginning, what did you think had happened with these documents? And how is that different from what you think now?

Joe: For a long time I operated under the assumption that maybe they could be real. Over the years, I tried to prove it for myself, and at least figure out where they came from.

Then I went down one of the deepest reportorial rabbit holes I've ever gone down, trying to figure out if what the source, the Texas cattle rancher Bill Burkett, said was true about another related event: He had also alleged that Bush's military file had been "scrubbed" by his own aides in 1997. He said he overheard and possibly witnessed that. 

When I concluded, after much investigation, that that was bullshit, for reasons that are almost obvious in retrospect, and put that together with my assessment of the man himself (I met him and thought him seriously suspect, like a huckster from a Flannery O'Conner short story), I also began to think the documents were forgeries. I can't prove it, and nobody can or has, but it's a highly educated guess. 

By the way, Dan Rather still believes the files were scrubbed by Bush aides and in interviews with me he has even named Dan Bartlett and Karen Hughes as the ones who did it.  That is very problematic to me, not least because if it were true they did a terrible job of covering it up.

On the other hand, giving the docs the benefit of the doubt for a while ended up being the reportorial thread that I pulled that unearthed just about everything in my Texas Monthly story.  It was like reverse engineering to get to the larger truth about the Bush Guard story. Which, as it turns out, is a much better story.