When CBS’s 60 Minutes Wednesday broadcast its lead story—reported by Dan Rather and produced by Mary Mapes—on the evening of September 8, 2004, it was given the anodyne title “For the Record,” as though it constituted little more than a disinterested historical footnote. In reality, the story was a bold fabrication about President George W. Bush’s long-ago service in the Texas National Guard, intended to damage him in his campaign for reelection against John Kerry.
Within hours of the broadcast, after CBS News posted online PDF copies of four memos highlighted in the segment, the story began to fall apart. The memos looked phony. By the following evening, CBS was in crisis mode trying to deal with the mess. As other news outlets followed up, the story continued to disintegrate. CBS nevertheless hung with it for nearly two weeks. The New York Times provided its own form of encouragement to CBS. In the words of the classic headline over its story of September 15, “Memos on Bush are fake but accurate, typist says.” Four Times reporters collaborated on the story.
On September 20, despite the Times’s best efforts, Rather conceded that his reliance on the documents in issue was “a mistake.” He apologized “personally and directly” for the error. The fiasco came to be known as Rathergate. In hindsight we can see that the Times got it half right; the story was fake, but it was also inaccurate.
The spin offered by the Times seems to have provided the idea behind the new film Truth, based on Mapes’s Rather-gate memoir, Truth and Duty. Starring Robert Redford as Rather and Cate Blanchett as Mapes, the film premiered to favorable reviews at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 12. The film opens in New York and Los Angeles on October 16. Unfortunately, the reviewers seem only vaguely aware of the material that CBS News, 11 years ago, twisted into “For the Record.” Students of the Hiss and Rosenberg cases have learned that the left simply does not relent in its efforts to rewrite history. Before the revisionist history peddled in Truth takes hold, let us review “For the Record” for the record, as it were.
Accepting the Democratic presidential nomination in the summer of 2004, John Kerry had saluted and reported for duty, harking back to his service in Vietnam. The Democrats and their allies were primed to make disparagement of President Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard (TexANG) in the early 1970s one of the leading themes of their campaign. Through the kind of media magic that so often benefits the Democrats, CBS’s 60 Minutes Wednesday program had scheduled a segment attacking President Bush’s service for late September, but rushed it to air on the evening of September 8. The Kerry campaign was ready; it promptly unfurled a public relations blitz geared to “For the Record.” Dubbed Operation Fortunate Son (alluding to the Creedence Clearwater Revival song about the evasion of service in Vietnam by the privileged), the Kerry campaign operation anticipated and then sought to maximize the impact of the CBS report. As Matthew Continetti reported in these pages at the time (“Unfortunate Democrats,” September 27, 2004), the wreck of “For the Record” made for a troubled liftoff of Operation Fortunate Son.
“For the Record” opened with a reference to the attack earlier that year on Kerry’s service by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth who had served with him in Vietnam. Rather noted that President Bush had been criticized for his military service as well, both for avoiding Vietnam and for shirking his duties. In May 1968, Bush had joined the TexANG, where he was trained to fly the F-102 interceptor jet, no easy task. But CBS had come to bury Bush, not to praise him.
Ben Barnes, the Democratic former speaker of the Texas house and lieutenant governor, was interviewed by Rather. At the time of the interview, Barnes was, perhaps coincidentally, vice chairman of Kerry’s national finance committee and a top fundraiser for Kerry. Barnes implied that he had pulled strings to get Bush into the TexANG. Was this a case of preferential treatment? In its first half the segment answered the question in the affirmative. In its second half the segment drew on several documents that CBS posted online that evening. These documents portrayed Bush’s military service in an unflattering light, suggesting he had defied an order of his commanding officer (Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Killian) to report for his annual physical and that Killian had been pressured to “sugarcoat” his evaluation of Lieutenant Bush.