Overshadowed by the larger political contests in the foreground of the 2008 season is a continuing saga that spills forward in time from the mess of 2004. It is the sordid, and indeed quite stupid, tale of Dan Rather, his forged documents, his unsubstantiated story about President Bush’s service in the National Guard, his being shunted aside by CBS in the wake of the debacle, all culminating in his filing a $70 million lawsuit against the network. Despite repeated motions by attorneys for the defendant outlining the frivolous nature of the litigation, the Judge is still allowing it to go forward.
If you are blessed with a short memory for political matters, let me the high points quickly. In the thick of the battle between George W. Bush and John Kerry in aught-4, Mr. Kerry was the target of several broadsides against his claim of having worn this nation’s uniform with distinction. To try and level the playing field, some Democrat activists were promoting the claim that George W. Bush had not fully performed his own duty in the National Guard. They said he had come and gone as he pleased, making his own schedule, with the tacit complicity of certain officers with allegiances to his father.
A CBS producer named Mary Mapes convinced Dan Rather she had the goods on the President, a witness who could also produce a corroborating document. He ran with the story and aired a special broadcast featuring the whistle-blower and the military form purporting to confirm his version. It took less than 24 hours before alert bloggers had demonstrated conclusively that the typing on the paper in question used a font that was not available at the time Bush was serving. The debunking rendered the accusation absurd, and Rather was left with a jumbo egg on his face. Before long, the legend had become a nonentity, and he lashed out by making paranoid claims of shadowy conspiracies between government and media.
For whatever reason, the Judge on the case is eschewing good sense and allowing the case to proceed. Shame on him.
What engages me more than any aspect of this affair is the degree to which history repeats itself. This scenario had seemed to be so unique, so thoroughly of our own time. When the first proofs of forgery were adduced, Rather stubbornly clung to the claim that the document was authentic. Once this sort of obstinacy became entirely untenable, he finally modified that part of his claim, but he immediately shifted into his fallback mode, where he argued that even if the paperwork was not legitimate, the story itself was still without taint. In the quaint verbiage of his generation in journalism, he continued to “stand by the story.” He may have been standing by, but the world was passing him by.
Yet, not only is this circumstance not unique, but the identical situation arose in the life and career of William Randolph Hearst, and he chose the very same path as did Dan. The similarity is startling.
In 1927, the Hearst papers announced that “amazing revelations” were on the way. The promised sensations soon materialized in the form of a series of secret documents they had unearthed. They included a series of fantastic claims. President of Calles of Mexico had financed Chinese radicals! He had donated $100,000 to the Soviets. He had paid U.S. clergymen $210,000 to sermonize in favor of his positions! He had sent a million dollars to push a revolution against the U.S. government! He was suborning Senators as a part of his plot. Four Senators had already been bribed in various amounts, and Hearst provided their names!
A Senate committee was convened and Hearst was obliged to give testimony. He gave circular and evasive answers, claiming the documents were reliable and had been obtained through daring espionage by his men, although he personally did not believe the contents. One of the Senators accused, George W. Norris, was in the hospital at the time and wrote Hearst an indignant letter from his sickbed. Beside himself in his anger, Norris illogically argued that Hearst was trying to gain some advantage in the value of his $4 million of holdings in Mexican real estate.
This opened the Senator up to one of the greatest sentences ever published in an American editorial: “Certainly nobody but a perfect jackass — and Senator Norris is not that — at least not a perfect one — could imagine that my property holdings were benefited by losing the friendship and favor of the Mexican Government.”
At that point, Hearst still blustered: “The plain facts are that these Mexican documents are apparently quite authentic, and that no proof whatsoever has been produced of their lack of authenticity.”
The Senate Committee hired experts to examine the documents, making them work through Christmas week to resolve this crisis. They found them all to be total frauds, with signatures that did not resemble the person’s own writing, and with all the items supposedly culled from a variety of sources all having been produced on the same typewriter. Confronted by the inexorable facts, Hearst had this to say: “I will not dispute that decision further than to maintain persistently, and I believe patriotically, that the logic of events gives every evidence that the essential facts contained in the documents were not fabricated, and that the facts — the political facts, the international facts — are the things which are of vital importance to the American people.”
Dan Rather, you are not only full of baloney, you are not even an American original.
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