Bush, Rather Swap Insults in TV Exchange

Times Washington Bureau Chief

Vice President George Bush, grilled by anchorman Dan Rather in an extraordinary live interview on the “CBS Evening News,” Monday denied concealing information on the Iran-Contra affair and accused the network of falsely suggesting that he was lying.

Bush, who traded insults with Rather in an unusually long and combative exchange, also charged that CBS had misled him by saying that the topic of the interview would be for a political profile rather than a report on his role in the Iran-Contra matter. CBS denied the vice president’s charges of misrepresentation.

The 10-minute interview was preceded by a five-minute videotaped report about Bush’s role in the affair and his contention that, even though he supported President Reagan’s program of selling arms to Iran, he had expressed reservations about the transactions.


Bush, clearly angry when the camera shifted from the introduction to him in the vice president’s office, told Rather: “You’ve impugned my integrity by suggesting . . . that I didn’t tell the truth. You didn’t accuse me of it, but you made that suggestion.”

Rather, apparently taken aback by the vehemence of the vice president’s response, continued to press him to answer questions about the Iran-Contra affair, but Bush dismissed the queries as a “rehash” of what he had been asked in the past.

Although the episode calls further attention to an issue Bush would prefer to downplay, his political advisers could scarcely conceal their delight at the outcome. They saw it as a priceless opportunity for the usually mild-mannered Bush to show his mettle and demonstrate face-to-face toughness before a nationwide audience.

Negative Response

And if, as Bush strategists expect, the public reacts negatively to Rather’s aggressive tactics of arguing with the vice president, interrupting his replies and finally cutting him off in mid-sentence, that could make it more difficult for other reporters to press Bush on the Iran-Contra issue in the future.

Such an outcome would mark a major gain for Bush, who has been dogged by the Iran-Contra issue in recent weeks. It would also represent a big payoff on a tactical gamble Bush’s aides had made to insist the interview be conducted live.

“They wanted to tape an hour interview and then edit it and put it on the air,” Bush campaign spokesman Pete Teeley said, “but we insisted that if they had anything to ask, since he was the vice president, they would have to go live with it so there would be no editing.”

CBS News said in a statement that its representatives “began negotiating with Vice President Bush three weeks ago about interviewing him for a profile. Since then, we have had many conversations with Mr. Bush’s office about the nature of this interview. During that three-week period, it became clear the key unexplored issue in Mr. Bush’s campaign was his role in the Iran-Contra affair.”

Hoped for Response

According to Donna Dees, spokeswoman for “CBS Evening News,” Rather said after the interview that he had hoped to “get an up-front response” from Bush on the Iran-Contra matter and then would have gone on to “other issues.”

However, she added, Rather said he stuck with the Iran-Contra issue when Bush did not fully answer his questions.

A network spokesman said after the interview that the switchboard at CBS in New York was “flooded” with calls from viewers, but a CBS official could not immediately say whether they were in protest of the interview or in favor of it.

The vice president’s office and his campaign headquarters here said they had been deluged with hundreds of telephone calls supporting Bush immediately after the program and that most of the callers were angry at Rather. Bush’s campaign office also said it had received a report that CBS has gotten more than 5,000 phone calls and that all but a few were against Rather.

A CBS spokesman said the network provided two broadcast “feeds” of the interview to its affiliates, the first of which was live. More than half of CBS’ approximately 200 affiliates nationwide got the live “feed.”

During parts of the interview, Bush and Rather raised their voices and talked over each other in such a heated manner that it was difficult to understand them.

At one point Bush, referring to an incident last September when Rather walked off the set of the “CBS Evening News” when he was upset over having his news broadcast cut short by the network’s coverage of a tennis match, declared:

“It’s not fair to judge my whole career by a rehash on Iran. How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York? Would you like that?”

Bush said that although he had respect for Rather, “I don’t have respect for what you’re doing here tonight.”

Rather said: “Mr. Vice President, I think you will agree that your qualifications for President and what kind of leadership you’d bring the country and what kind of government you’d have . . . is much more important than what you just referred to. . . .”

Demanded Answers

The anchorman then demanded to know whether Bush would agree to answer Iran-Contra questions at a press conference before the Feb. 8 Iowa caucus. When the vice president insisted that he had already held press conferences, Rather declared: “I gather that the answer is no” and abruptedly ended the interview.

Questions about the vice president’s role in the Iran-Contra affair have dogged Bush’s presidential campaign for months, most intensely since a Jan. 7 Washington Post story outlined his attendance at dozens of meetings where the arms-for-hostages deal was discussed. The story suggested that, by virtue of his attendance, Bush knew much more about the scandal that he has acknowledged.

Since the story was published, questions to Bush from reporters have focused predominantly on the Iran-Contra affair, although voters who question him at his public gatherings have shown far less interest in the issue.

To deal with the overwhelming number of Iran-Contra queries from the press, Bush has asked reporters to submit their questions in writing--a request that has drawn objections from many journalists who argue that spontaneous oral answers would provide more accurate answers.

Bush has repeatedly answered questions about his role, but interest has continued because his account contradicts statements by other public officials.

Denies Knowing of Opposition

Secretary of State George P. Shultz, for example, at a January, 1986, meeting Bush attended, angrily expressed his opposition to the arms-for-hostages deal, but Bush has steadfastly denied being aware of the strong opposition that Shultz and former Secretary of Defense Caspar W. Weinberger expressed at meetings he attended.

It was these contradictions that were cited by Rather and the videotaped report on “CBS Evening News,” but Bush added no new information as he heatedly denounced the interview and insisted that he be allowed to talk about why he wants to be President, not about the Iran-Contra affair.

Bush was clearly ready to counterattack as soon as the videotaped report ended. A campaign spokesman said the vice president had received word earlier in the day that CBS had notified Washington journalists that they should watch the interview because Rather intended to press Bush on the Iran-Contra scandal.

In support of Bush’s contention that CBS lured him into the interview by suggesting that it would be for a political profile, the vice president’s campaign released the contents of a letter1718775661politicalprofiles.”

“Dan Rather is very interested in your profile.” Cohen wrote, “and has decided to do it himself. Mr. Rather feels that because you are the incumbent vice president, and a front-runner, that your candidacy deserves special attention.”

When Bush received the letter, dated Jan. 5, l988, he wrote this notation at the bottom: “I feel comfortable with Rather. Be sure this guy gets reply soon.”

Network spokesman Tom Goodman said CBS News officials had told the Bush camp that the Iran-Contra issue, “would be one of the items”discussed but did not specifically say it would be the only subject of the interview. However, he said that even the Bush camp was conceding that he knew the Iran-Contra issue would come up.

Staff writers Jay Sharbutt in New York and Cathleen Decker in New Hampshire contributed to this story.