On The O’Reilly Factor not so long ago, Dan Rather spoke in defense of public figures who make stuff up. He called Bill Clinton an “honest man” even as he acknowledged Clinton’s whoppers. “Who among us have not lied about somebody?” asked Rather. “I think at the core he’s an honest person…I think you can be an honest person and lie about any number of things.”
You can be an honest person and lie about any number of things. This elastic philosophy of honesty must account for Rather’s view of himself as a witness to “core truth” while peddling a forgery against the President. Rather sees a “core truth” wrapped in a forgery inside his CBS reporting, and he is outraged that his critics won’t admit it. He is in effect saying: Didn’t this forgery at least place me in the vicinity of truth? He lashes out at “people who for their own partisan, political agendas can’t deny the core truth of this story…and want to change the subject and make the story about me rather than have the story be about the unanswered questions about President Bush’s military service.”
The audacity here is surreal, though typical of the post-1960s ends-justify-the-means moral arrogance Rather imbibed as a Watergate reporter. Presidents can’t lie to journalists, according to this ethos, but journalists can lie to presidents, and even demand that presidents answer for the journalist’s lies. Perhaps only Dan Rather could get caught out in a forgery and proceed to demand that President Bush answer the questions the forgery raises. According to Rather’s moral calculus, forged documents shed light not on his lack of credibility but on the credibility of the president they slander.
In an interview with the New York Observer, Rather also uses the phrase “fundamental truth.” This is 1960s babble that amounts to saying: I, as a liberal, can tell lies for the greater good; my surface dishonesty conveys a deeper truth. Rather is falling back on the Noble Lie — the idea that the enlightened are entitled to heap fables upon the hoi polloi for the sake of preserving proper order.
The transcendent truth that mitigates Rather’s faked-up memos is apparently that Bush missed a physical examination over three decades ago — not exactly the justification for the Noble Lie Plato envisioned in The Republic. Why allegations about a missed physical and truncated National Guard service trouble Rather so deeply when Bill Clinton’s draft-dodging did not is another question Rather isn’t likely to answer.
If the Noble Lie defense fails, what else can Rather try? The New York Observer article suggests he will try the I’m-on-the-right-side-of-history defense: “I think over the long haul, this will be consistent with our history and our traditions and reputation…We took heat during the McCarthy time, during civil rights, during Watergate. We haven’t always been right, but our record is damn good.” .
Rather sounds a bit like the habitual liar in Whit Stillman’s movie Metropolitan who, after getting called out for inventing a story about his archenemy abusing a girl, says, “Okay, so that person wasn’t real; she’s a composite, like in New York magazine.” He then defends his lie on the grounds that it contained a basic truth about his nemesis.
On Wednesday night, Rather relied on Jerry Killian’s secretary Marion Knox as his new document expert. Not because she defends the authenticity of his memos — she says they are bogus — but because she subscribes to his “core truth” rationalization: that the forgeries contain a kind of truth about Killian’s view of Bush. Knox’s view is that the forged documents “accurately reflect Killian’s view of Lt. Bush,” as CBS’s correspondent put it. This use of Knox confirms that Rather will eventually admit that he hoaxed the American people with forgeries but will defend it as a happy hoax leading to the truth about the real liar — George Bush, whose unpardonable sin some 33 years ago was serving five more years in the National Guard than Clinton ever did.
Perhaps Dan Rather’s liberal defenders who now accept “core truth” fables owe author Gary Aldrich an apology. Shouldn’t they now say to him, “Your story about Bill Clinton taking women to the D.C. Marriott, which predated the country’s introduction to Monica Lewinsky, wasn’t technically true but it contained a basic truth about Clinton. He was doing that sort of thing with women”? And shouldn’t they also apologize to Mark Fuhrman? “Sure, you may not have followed every collection technique properly, but that’s okay. O.J. was guilty,” they should now say.
Perhaps Dan Rather, friend to the ACLU and Ann Richards (Rather attended a 1988 fundraiser for her, according to Liz Smith), could even advocate the admission of forgery into courts of law as long as it kicks loose a deeper truth about a guilty defendant.
What Rather said about Clinton he will soon revise for himself: you can now be an honest journalist at CBS and lie about any number of things.