The CBS network has decided that it will not air ads for the new feature docudrama Truth, a film starring Robert Redford and Cate Blanchett. That chapter involves the Killian Documents Controversy, and the 60 Minutes segment questioning then-President George W. Bush and his military service between 1968 and 1974.
The election of 2004 was an especially contentious one. Bush had essentially been handed the previous election by the Supreme Court, and many in the country questioned the legitimacy of his presidency. The war in Iraq was becoming a quagmire, and the economy was rapidly deteriorating. Despite his growing unpopularity, Bush had powerful handlers and supporters who were determined to see him get a second term, by whatever means.
In some ways, the Bush Era echoed Senator Joe McCarthy’s reign of terror. Criticism of the President was not tolerated. It was not uncommon for people to lose their jobs for not kowtowing to the Bush line. Yard signs for Democratic candidate John Kerry were routinely vandalized, and liberals were harshly criticized and even threatened. Even when caught “dead to rights,” Bush’s handlers and the corporate media invariably managed spin the situation in ways so as to put the President in the best possible light. The country was as divided as it had ever been since the Civil War, with half of the electorate unwavering in its support of the worst executive since Warren Harding, and the other half adamant to see Bush thrown out of the Oval Office.
This was the political climate in which former CBS News producer Mary Mapes obtained documents from a former officer in the Texas National Guard, alleging that President Bush’s service had been far from exemplary – and that he may in fact have been absent without leave (AWOL) for an extended period. For a Commander-in-Chief who had been presenting himself as “tough on terrorism” and touting his military experience, such a story coming out a mere eight weeks before the election could have been devastating.
The documents appeared to confirm rumors that had been going around for months, questioning Bush’s military service record. Those rumors suggested that Bush’s father had pulled a few string to get him into the National Guard, thus avoiding combat duty in Vietnam. Young George refused to submit to a physical exam that might have revealed illegal drugs in his system. Later, he was able to get a transfer to an Alabama unit, but apparently, never reported for duty. Finally, he was able to get an early discharge in order to attend Harvard Business School.
According to the documents, Bush had disobeyed direct orders in refusing to submit to a medical examination by an Air Force physician. His commander at the time, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, had grounded Bush for “failure to perform to USAF/Texas ANG standards,” as well as his refusal to submit to the required physical. There was mention of a telephone conversation in which Bush asked to be excused from duty, requesting a transfer in order to work on a family friend’s political campaign (the story of Bush’s “missing year” was published in Salon.com in 2004). The documents also included a memo from Lt. Col. Killian with the subject line, “CYA (Cover Your Ass),” claiming he was being pressured to “sugarcoat” Bush’s performance review, adding, “I’m having trouble running interference [for Bush] and doing my job.
During the subsequent investigation, Mapes conducted numerous interviews and worked with four forensic document analysts in her attempts to authenticate the documents. Conflicting information and inconsistencies as well as the poor quality of the reproductions cast some doubt as to whether or not the documents were genuine. Generally, however, those interviewed – including Killian’s commanding officer at the time, General Robert Hodges, and a personal friend, Robert Strong, agreed that they were probably legitimate. Later, however, Hodges saw the documents and became aware of forgery claims from Killian’s family. He told reporter Dan Rather that he was “convinced they were not authentic.” The four forensic examiners came to mixed conclusions. One of them concluded that the documents were authentic, but told Mapes he was unsure as to whether or not they had been altered, since they were copies and not the originals.
One small detail that the forensic examiners missed: the typeface, font size, spacing and margins on the documents were the same used in Microsoft Word in the late 1990s, not an electric typewriter from the early 1970s. Karl Rove’s right-wing machine and the corporate media were quick to jump on this oversight, again spinning the story into making George W. Bush a hero. The resulting fallout sent both Mapes and Rather into early retirement.
In retrospect, it was a serious journalistic error. To this day, Mapes and Rather stand by their judgment that the documents were, to the best of their knowledge, authentic. The story has been corroborated by Linda Allison, widow of Jimmy Alison, a close Bush family friend and confidante. Eleven years ago, Allison told Salon, “Georgie was raising a lot of hell in Houston, getting in trouble and embarrassing the family, and they just really wanted to get him out of Houston.” Furthermore, at that time, the Washington Post failed to find any evidence that Bush ever showed up for duty in Alabama. Nonetheless, the fact that Mapes’ documents were second-generation copies turned out on by a computer word-processing application gave Karl Rove all the ammunition he needed.
The feature film Truth suggests that Mapes believes that the documents she received contained genuine information, but may have been retyped by someone for reasons undetermined. Given what is known of George W. Bush, born into wealth and privilege, with family connections that have saved him from the consequences of his own poor judgment and misbehavior more than once, along with Allison’s account, it is safe to say that the story is essentially accurate. While John Kerry was sailing up the Mekong River into harm’s way, George W. Bush was having a fine time partying – yet, by the time Rove was finished doing what he did best, Kerry was made into a coward and Bush into a hero.
In any event, it is an episode in the history of television journalism that the executives at CBS would rather forget.