While CBS news anchor Dan Rather can say there is no internal investigation under way over the alleged forged documents used as the foundation for an investigation into President George W. Bush’s National Guard service, you wouldn’t have been able to tell from the 15 or so 60 Minutes and CBS News” staffers working away feverishly on Friday and Saturday to try to nail down their story.
On Friday, according to CBS News sources, Rather spent the day on the phone and dealing with CBS suits who were nervous about the fall out from the story. “All Dan could say was that this was an attack from the right-wing nuts, and that we should have expected this, given the stakes,” says a CBS News producer. “He was terribly defensive and nervous. You could tell.”
All day Friday, Rather, his producer on the story, Mary Mapes, and other 60 Minutes staffers were scrambling to shore up support from their sources on the story. That effort didn’t go so well. By Saturday, one of their key sources, retired Maj. Gen. Bobby Hodges, had said that CBS misled him, and that he had never been shown the memos in question.
“We pulled the trick of only calling some sources at the last minute to reconfirm,” says the CBS producer. “Someone called Hodges, I think, on Monday night and read him parts of the document. The late contacts are a standard practice so we don’t tip off the competition or our sources.”
Hodges is a critical loss for CBS News’ credibility. He was the superior officer of the man CBS claims wrote the memo, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, who died in 1984.
MEANWHILE, OVER THE WEEKEND journalists from around the country were attempting to track down the original source of the documents. “We’re having a hard time tracking how we got the documents,” says the CBS News producer. “There are at least two people in this building who have insisted we got copies of these memos from the Kerry campaign by way of an additional source. We do not have the originals, and our sources have indicated to us that we will not be getting the originals. How that is possible I don’t know.”
One individual several news outlets were looking at was Bill Burkett, a former Texas National Guard officer. Burkett in the past has cooperated with both press and Democratic Party opposition researchers in slinging mud at President Bush. Burkett gained some national attention earlier in the campaign when he claimed he was at National Guard headquarters in Austin 1997, when he overheard Guard officials and a representative of then Governor Bush discuss how to sanitize Bush’s files. That story was fully discredited. Nonetheless, Burkett sat down for at least three different interviews with CBS News for the story now at the center of the controversy. One of those interviews was with Rather’s producer, Ms. Mapes.
“There are rumors here that if there are any real documents, they are hand-written notes from Killian that someone like Burkett was holding, and that instead of using the hand-written notes, someone typed them up to look more official,” says the CBS News producer. “They would look better on TV and posted on line if they were typed, but on a number of levels, that story just doesn’t hold up. There are too many inconsistencies factually with what is in the memos.”
THE MOST GLARING ISSUES now are the seemingly phony P.O. Box addresses used in the headers of at least one of the memorandums. Such post office box addresses were not used by the National Guard at that time.
Yet another issue: the 18-month gap between the retirement of Col. Walter “Buck” Staudt on March 1, 1972, and August 18, 1973, when the Killian of the disputed memos claimed that Staudt was putting pressure on him to sugarcoat an evaluation of Bush. Almost everyone involved in the National Guard in Texas says Staudt would have had virtually no influence in the active units nearly a year and a half after leaving the service.
PERHAPS MOST TROUBLING to the CBS News staff looking into how its story went off the rails is the timing of the memos’ appearance. “Some 60 Minutes staffers have been working on this story for more than three years off and on,” says the CBS News producer. “There have been rumors about these memos and what was in them for at least that long. No one had been able to find anything. Not a single piece of paper. But we know that a lot of people here interviewed a lot of people in Texas and elsewhere and asked very explicit questions about the existence of these memos. Then all of a sudden they show up? In one nice, neat package?”
This CBS New producer went on to explain that the questions 60 Minutes folk were asking were specific enough that people would have been able to fabricate the memorandums to meet the exact specifications the investigative journalists were looking for. “People were asking questions of sources like, ‘Have you ever seen or heard of a memo that suspended Bush for failing to appear for a physical?’ and ‘Have you heard about or know of someone who has any documentation from back in the 1970s that shows there was pressure to get Bush into the National Guard?’ It was like they were placing an order for a ready-made product. That is the biggest problem I have with this. It’s all too neat and perfect for what we needed. Without these exact pieces of paper, we don’t have a story. Dan has as much as admitted that. Everyone knows it. We were at a standstill on this story until these memos showed up.”
REPORTERS ARE ALSO LOOKING at staff and associates of Sen. Tom Harkin, who enthusiastically held a press conference on Thursday morning using the forged documents as the tent pole for attacks against President Bush. Harkin called Bush a “liar.”
“Harkin has been pushing this story for a while,” says the CBS producer. “Not this specific story, but the ‘Bush is a liar about his record’ story. His people seemed particularly interested in making sure they could keep their boss up to date on what was going on.”
That Harkin was the individual selected to be the attack dog on this particular issue was an interesting one, give that Harkin himself has a checkered history about telling the truth about his involvement in the Vietnam War.
WITH MORALE AT WHAT some Kerry campaign insiders consider an all-time low, Sen. John Kerry, who unlike Tom Harkin did serve in Vietnam, did what any true leader does. He sets up a conference call. During the Labor Day weekend, during meetings with senior staff, campaign director Mary Beth Cahill suggested to the candidate that he try to buck up the troops, since the media onslaught against him, as well as the dipping poll numbers, were affecting staff in Washington and in satellite offices around the country. Kerry acknowledged their concerns by gathering the Washington staff into the central office space in their McPherson Square suites and speaking to them via speaker phone. Kerry told them that things were going well on the road. The crowds were enthusiastic, and he could feel the campaign was moving in the right direction with the new senior staff additions.
“He actually said that he felt the campaign had turned the corner,” says a Washington-based staffer. “Some of us couldn’t help but laugh given that he’s made fun of Bush for saying the same thing. You hear stuff like that and you just feel sick. You look over at people like [Joe] Lockhart and Cahill and they seem to understand it too.”
Kerry further undercut his own efforts, when he hung up his side of the call before any questions could be asked by staff members.
“[Kerry] doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge that he has problems,” says the staffer. “I’m low level, but there are a few people here who have stopped coming in to work or to volunteer. We’ve got some issues, and the guy who should be trying to help fix it doesn’t seem to care.”
Cahill seems to understand this. On Thursday, since the candidate wouldn’t face his own staff, Cahill pulled out the big guns. She invited her old boss, Sen. Ted Kennedy down to the Washington offices to further raise the morale of Kerry’s staff.
Kennedy actually said little about Kerry, beyond the fact that he was a fighter who would continue fighting. After mentioning Kerry, Kennedy then went on a 10-minute diatribe about President Bush. “His face was turning red, he was really getting into it,” says the Kerry staffer. “Then the next day we saw him make the same speech on the floor of the Senate. Guess we were the dress rehearsal.”
THERE ARE OTHER PROBLEMS with the Kerry campaign. According to several Kerry and DNC sources, Kerry advisers have been furiously holding focus group meetings in an attempt to find some issue of national concern that might cut their way in the coming weeks. But nothing they’ve looked at seems to be working. Of course, even if they were to find something there is no guarantee their man would run with it.
For example, some media types thought having his old pal John Sasso along on the road would help focus Kerry a bit more on his stump speeches. Judging by Kerry’s performance last Thursday in North Carolina, they’re not sure anymore. While talking about the economy, health-care policy, Kerry went off speech and began stumbling immediately. Kerry said that he would always tell the public the truth, and if the audience didn’t believe him, they could “[g]o to a web site. It can be johnkerry.com or go some other place. Go to truth.com, if there is one, and find out what’s really happening,” Kerry said.
Truth.com won’t set you free, but at least you’ll be able to see a bit more clearly. Truth.com is operated by Truth Hardware, makers of a complete line of locks, window hinges and remote-controlled power window systems.