Amid Skepticism, CBS Sticks to Bush Guard Story
A CBS News report that suggested President Bush did not fulfill his military commitment 30 years ago fell under a growing cloud of skepticism Friday. But Democrats insisted that they had plenty of evidence to continue their campaign to show that Bush got breaks that other young men did not during the Vietnam War.
The controversy over the television report prompted CBS Evening News’ Dan Rather to issue an unusually long and detailed response Friday evening. The veteran anchor said that the network stood by its original report: that Bush got favored treatment to win a coveted spot in the Texas Air National Guard and then failed to meet performance standards once he was admitted.
Rather said in an interview that CBS worked exhaustively on the story, beginning before the 2000 presidential election.
“We worked hard, we worked long, we dug hard and did our best to be accurate, to authenticate what we could,” Rather said. “This story is true, the questions we raised about then-Lt. Bush’s National Guard service are serious and legitimate questions.”
Although many others helped report and corroborate the story, Rather said, “I’m of the school, my name is on it, I’m responsible.”
But it appeared the network could do little to quell a controversy that was first ignited by its Wednesday-night program “60 Minutes II.”
The debate was fueled by conservative Internet sites and radio talk-show programs. And several experts questioned the authenticity of critical memos purportedly written by the man who commanded Bush’s squadron in 1972 and 1973.
A retired Guard major general -- who Rather said in an interview would corroborate the CBS account -- instead told The Times that he believed the memos from the late Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian were not real.
But a CBS news executive insisted that Maj. Gen. Bobby W. Hodges, who was Killian’s immediate supervisor, had changed his story.
Democrats said the furor over the documents and the news program merely distracted from the larger issue.
They noted that the White House and Pentagon had not produced documents proving that Bush reported for duty when he was transferred in mid-1972 to an Air National Guard unit in Alabama.
And they reiterated allegations that Bush hopped over hundreds of other applicants on a waiting list for the guard slot, which virtually assured he would not be sent to combat in Vietnam.
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry remained on the sidelines regarding the issue, but two party allies, former Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia and party Chairman Terry McAuliffe, hammered Bush.
In Reno for a campaign appearance on the eve of the Sept. 11 anniversary, Cleland, a Vietnam veteran, said Bush relied on his “political cronies in Texas” to avoid combat, adding: “It’s just further evidence, really, that George Bush failed this country when it was his time to serve -- and he hid out.”
McAuliffe insisted in a meeting with reporters that Bush’s service as a 26-year-old lieutenant three decades ago remained relevant.
“This is about character, this is about credibility, the character and credibility of the president of the United States of America today,” McAuliffe said.
Deflecting questions about whether Democrats had given CBS the documents implicating Bush, McAuliffe suggested it might have been White House political advisor Karl Rove who did so.
He offered no evidence to back that charge and White House spokesman Reed Dickens called the insinuation that Rove was behind the documents “complete nonsense.”
Republicans argued that doubts raised about the memos proved that the entire case against Bush was false and unfair.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Friday that the latest memos dealing with Bush’s military service had surfaced as part of “an orchestrated effort by Democrats and the Kerry campaign to tear down the president.”
Democrats have no intention of letting the issue die.
On Monday, the newly formed “Texans for Truth,” a liberal advocacy group, plans to begin airing an ad in five closely fought states -- Oregon, Arizona Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania -- that features a retired member of the Alabama Air National Guard saying he never saw Bush appear for training in 1972.
In just three days this week, the group said it had raised more than $400,000 from 5,000 contributors to air the ad.
The group said many of its donors believed the Bush critique was justified after Republicans backed similar ads that said Kerry did not deserve some of the medals he won while in combat in Vietnam.
To keep the issue alive, the group said it would announce a “substantial” reward on Tuesday to anyone who could offer proof that Bush fulfilled his service in the Alabama Air National Guard.
Only one guardsman from that era has said he remembers Bush reporting in Alabama, where he had been allowed to transfer to help run the U.S. Senate campaign of family friend Winton “Red” Blount.
That officer, Lt. Col. John Calhoun, has said he saw Bush several times at Dannelly Field near Montgomery, Ala. But Calhoun said he made the sightings on dates the White House had already conceded that Bush did not serve.
“George W. Bush continues to be dishonest, dodging the truth about his military record,” said Glenn Smith, the Democratic operative who heads “Texans for Truth.”
Bush joined the Houston-based 111th Fighter Interceptor Squadron shortly after graduating from Yale University in 1968 -- a unit that became home to the sons of many prominent politicians and businessmen of both parties.
Ever since he first ran for governor of Texas in 1994, Bush has been accused of leapfrogging hundreds of other men waiting for slots in the squadron, which would keep them stationed stateside.
But it was CBS’ “60 Minutes II” program Wednesday that sparked the latest discussion. Its report featured a Democrat from Texas, Ben Barnes, who said he helped Bush secure his Guard assignment at the behest of a Bush family friend.
The network also put on display four memos that CBS said were written by Killian, Bush’s commander in the Texas Guard.
In one, dated Aug. 18, 1973, Killian wrote that he was being pressured to “sugarcoat” a Bush performance review, after the young lieutenant failed to perform to standard and missed a required flight physical.
On Friday those critiques continued, with radio host Sean Hannity among those saying CBS had erred. Hannity featured Killian’s son, Gary, who said CBS had ignored his warnings that the memos were not real.
Mainstream newspapers, wire services and cable programs soon took up the questions and quoted a series of document experts who said the typography in the memos appeared to be from a modern-day word processor and not a 1970s-vintage typewriter.
Killian died in 1984 but the controversy gained additional steam when his widow and son said they believed the documents were fakes and couldn’t imagine the former squadron leader criticizing Bush.
On Friday night, retired Maj. Gen. Hodges, Killian’s former supervisor, said in an interview that he also now believes the documents are not real -- in part because of the statements of Killian’s relatives.
He also said that he could not recall any conversations in which Killian had complained about Bush’s performance or about the fact that Bush failed in August 1972 to take a physical exam, removing him from flight status
“I have no recollection of anything like that happening,” said Hodges. “It’s possible we did talk about the physical not happening, because we would have to ground him.”
The retired Guard general, who favors the president’s reelection, called Bush “a truly outstanding pilot.” He called Killian “a good guy” who “ran a tight ship” and might have had concerns about Bush’s service.
“But he was maybe a little bit too conscientious, because he wanted his pilots to do everything perfect,” Hodges said. “Pilots, like everyone else, are not perfect. [Killian] was conscientious to a fault.”
As another of the corroborating experts for its report, CBS and Rather presented an on-air interview with Marcel B. Matley, a San Francisco document examiner. Rather said Matley had corroborated the four Killian memos.
But in an interview with The Times, the analyst said he had only judged a May 4, 1972, memo -- in which Killian ordered Bush to take his physical -- to be authentic.
He said he did not form a judgment on the three other disputed memos because they only included Killian’s initials and he did not have validated samples of the officer’s initials to use for comparison.
A CBS official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that the network had two other document experts, who CBS did not identify, examine the documents, which were copies of the originals.
The experts studied the type font or style, spacing and other variables and deemed the memos legitimate, said the official.
The debate continued to rage across the Internet, talk radio and other forums, with a variety of experts and lay people commenting.
The chief suspicions raised about the memos centered on the raised, or super-scripted, “th” character after numbers such as 111th, and the fact that the address listed a post office box and not a street address as most military units would employ.
But CBS and outside analysts said the memo’s typography fully comported with the state of the art for that era.
Howard Rile of Long Beach, former president of the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners, cautioned against feverish vetting of the memos without seeing the originals and other documents produced at the same time and place.
That could be difficult because CBS says it does not have the original memos.
“We shouldn’t have to be be doing this over the Internet,” Rile said. “This sounds like a case that could be resolved very quickly if you get the evidence and examine it; if you get the original.”
Rainey reported from Los Angeles, Jensen from New York. Times staff writer Peter Wallsten contributed to this report.