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In Midst of Jeb’s Campaign, Redford Movie Revives W’s Military Service Record

Just as Jeb Bush moves to have brother George play a supporting role in his campaign, the Robert
Redford film "Truth", about the Dan Rather fiasco at "60 Minutes" in 2004, has sent the rightist media into fits.

The "60 Minutes" segment was intended to expose George W. Bush's sketchy service record in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam war, but as evidence it featured memos supposedly written by Lt. Bush's commanding officer in 1972, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, that were quickly pronounced frauds. They were clearly produced on typewriters with features that didn't exist in the '70s, so said bloggers who pounced on the documents. The failure of Rather and the "60 Minutes" research people to spot those obvious differences was the stunner. The report, which aired just two months before the Bush vs. Kerry election, backfired so badly that Rather would lose his job after 24 years as anchor.

The "60 Minutes" segment (actually, "60 Minutes II", which aired Wednesdays) was viewed as political revenge for the "Swiftboating" of John Kerry earlier in 2004. In that slander, a group primarily of veterans of the gunships that plied the Vietnam rivers had produced attack ads, funded by prominent Texas Republicans, Bush fundraisers among them, that challenged Kerry's version of his service as a Swift boat commander in Vietnam and even the legitimacy of the combat medals awarded him. The ad campaign was revenge for Kerry's speaking out against the Vietnam War in a famous appearance before Congress, never mind that these vets had not served alongside Kerry and were not eyewitnesses to their claims.

Throughout 2004 in the run-up to the election, print media and television news organizations had raised questions about Bush's military performance. Were strings pulled to get him into the Texas guard unit, where's the proof that he showed up for duty during the time he transferred to the Alabama national guard, was there the alleged pressure to "sugarcoat" his performance rating, is it true that he was grounded for failing to take his annual physical exam? The "60 Minutes" piece hoped to put all the pieces together and had the documents to prove them true.

taking the bait

"The only journalistic sin worse than disastrously misreporting an important story that turns out to be untrue is disastrously misreporting an important story that is true, so no one believes it anymore," begins a current article about the movie at theintercept.com. That perfectly summarizes what happened after Rather's "exposé" aired. The story became the memos, not Bush's service, and the media newshounds went baying after where the memos came from and who perpetrated the fraud. Months of reporting by news organizations of Bush's service gaps vaporized. The subject of Bush's service became so infectious that no one would touch it again — until now with the movie's release.

For a film to come along that could re-open examination of Bush's military shortcomings has the right-wing media scrambling to once again bury the story. The editorial board of The Wall Street Journal moved outside contributors aside on the op-ed page so that one of its own could write, "Dan Rather, Still Wrong After All These Years". Ruppert Murdoch's New York Post called the movie "wacko". Fox News Sunday brought out Karl Rove to denounce the movie. Bill Kristol's Weekly Standard featured a lengthy critique titled "Rather Shameful". And CBS has turned down a multi-million dollar advertising campaign for the movie by Sony Pictures, refusing to run the ads on its network. None made any attempts to refute the claims about Bush's service, as the evidence is not on their side. Most simply devolved into a panning the movie. "It's astounding how little truth there is in 'Truth,'", said a CBS spokesperson, going no further to support that claim.


Rather's report, with producer Mary Mapes, had two parts. The first had former speaker of the Texas house, Ben Barnes, admit that he made a well-placed phone call to help get Bush into the Texas Air National Guard "while others not from prominent or wealthy families died in Vietnam", a regretful Barnes said on the program. Just 12 days from losing his student draft deferment upon graduation from Yale, Bush was accepted in late May 1968 into the Texas Guard, a "champagne" unit that met one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer and was unlikely to be transferred to Vietnam, where casualties were running 350 a week. The Washington Post reported in 1999 that "Bush had scored only 25% on a pilot aptitude test, the lowest acceptable grade", leapfrogging several hundred who not only had most likely scored higher, but who were ahead of him on the waiting list. "But his father was then a Congressman from Houston, and the commanders of the Texas Guard clearly had an appreciation of politics."

Dorothy Rabinowitz, in the Journal's op-ed, says Barnes had admitted that he did not know whether his phone call had any effect and an independent review panel found that Bush didn't jump the line because there was no line. The Weekly Standard's piece cites the same panel in claiming the unit was “hurting for pilots.”

Either way, it was "a unit which was put together for the specific purpose of making sure that people who joined that unit wouldn't have to go to Vietnam", says Rather. (It's fair to remind that Rather did not have all his facts wrong.) As corroboration, in the 1988 presidential race, Republicans went after Lloyd Bentsen, the Democratic vice-presidential candidate in Michael Dukakis's campaign, for having pulled strings to get his son into that same Texas guard unit so that he would not have to serve in Vietnam. One of the men in the unit at the same time as Bentsen's son was George W. Bush.

Many joined national guard units then because, unlike in the Iraq War, few were deployed to combat roles. In that same election, no less than the Republican vice-presidential candidate, George H. W. Bush's running-mate Dan Quayle, had ducked into an Indiana guard unit and was immediately accused of using his wealthy family's connections to avoid Vietnam. But this time the one accused of avoiding Vietnam was George Bush Jr. seeking re-election as Commander in Chief of the entire U.S. military.

Once asked by a reporter whether he tried to avoid the draft, Bush grinned and said, "Hell, no. Do you think I'm going to admit that?"


The second part of Rather's exposé hoped to document that Bush had been grounded for failure to report for flight training and the mandatory pilots' annual physical. There it was in black and white in a memo dated 1 August 1972:

"Failure to accomplish annual medical examination"…"On this date I ordered that 1st Lt. Bush be suspended from flight status due to failure to perform to USAF/TexANG standards and failure to meet annual physical examination…as ordered…Officer has made no attempt to meet his training certification or flight physical".

Except that bloggers immediately spotted the varied-width spacing given to letters ("m" and "w" wider than the rest, "I" and "l" narrower) on the page, a feature they said didn't exist in the 1970s. That was enough to bury the "60 Minutes" report in doubt as truth took a back seat to scandal. Never mind that there was a typewriter with proportional character spacing , the IBM "Executive". (This writer typed an entire instructional manual — copyright 1975 — on that typewriter but its font doesn't quite match the memos displayed on "60 Minutes". But that may be because since CBS had only faxed and photocopied duplicates which could have introduced slight distortion). [5]

The public took away from the outcry about paper forgeries that the contents of the memos, too, were lies. But they were not. Their content was accurate. The paragraph above from the memo "60 Minutes" displayed claiming that Bush was grounded? Here is the actual order, which no one else in the media seems to have:

Anyone who has been around military paperwork (as has this writer) will recognize this as authentic in language and graphic style.

the secretary

"Rather Shameful" cites a New York Times headline from the week after the broadcast that read, "Memos on Bush are fake but accurate, typist says”, but the authors glide right on past" typist", instead grousing that "the Times got it half right; the story was fake, but it was also inaccurate". But it wasn't.

Marian Carr Knox was not a "typist". She was secretary to Col. Killian, Bush's commanding officer. She had worked alongside the pilots at Ellington for two decades and told "60 Minutes II" that Killian had started what he called a cover your back file of memos about the problems with Mr. Bush's performance.

Killian's family said the memo files never existed, The Weekly Standard assures us. At the time of the broadcast, Col. Killian's son said that his father never wrote such memos. Ms. Knox said of the younger man, who was not involved, "He has no way of knowing". About the memos, the Times article quotes Ms. Knox saying, "The information in them is correct". She had typed memos like them containing "the same information".

She confirmed that Bush was ordered to take the annual physical required of all pilots. When he failed to show up, Bush thus disobeyed a direct order from his commanding officer. "It was a big no-no to not follow orders. I can't remember anyone refusing". More than a "no-no", it is a court martial offense.

Ms. Knox confirmed what the other memos said: that Killian was being pressured to give Bush a positive officer training report. She also attested to what has been widely averred, that Bush had skipped many weekend drills. For the other pilots, "It was sort of gossip around there, and they'd snicker about what Lt. Bush was getting away with. There was even a resentment. Plain and simple, Bush didn't think he had to abide by the rules that others did", was her blunt assessment.

Grounded for Missed Medical — or Was it Something Else?

In a New York Times interview, retired Lt. Col. Bill Burkett claimed he saw some of Bush's military records being destroyed in the mid-1990s. Bush's file was sanitized of embarrassing information, Burkett alleges, at the direction of Daniel James III, who headed the Texas National Guard when Burkett was his chief military adviser and Bush was governor of Texas. Relying on Burkett's account is rather shaky. It was he who supplied the memos to "60 Minutes", then gave three versions of where he had gotten them, and later admitted to the CBS anchor that he had lied about it.

Curious, though, that as president, Bush in 2000 appointed James to head the National Guard Bureau in Washington, D.C. An investigation by The Spokesman-Review of Spokane made a case for Bush having been grounded by the Human Reliability Program, a set of regulations used "to screen military personnel for their mental, physical and emotional fitness before granting them access to nuclear weapons and delivery systems". The mission of the Texas Guard and units like it was to protect U.S. air space during the Cold War. The F102s flown by Bush pulled round-the-clock runway alert duty and could be fitted out with air-to-air nuclear-tipped missiles intended to destroy Soviet bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The Bureau would not answer the Spokesman-Review's questions. Defense Department officials had directed the Bureau not to respond to questions about Bush's military records.

In April 1972 the military began drug and alcohol testing for the first time. Bush himself has said, during the 2000 campaign, that he quit drinking in 1986 and had not used any illegal drugs since 1974 — which was after the end of his military service.Bush never flew again from May 1972 forward. Once grounded in August 1972, Bush never flew for the Guard again, after taxpayers had spent $1 million in 1970s money to train him. He never released his service records and has never attempted to refute the allegations about his service failings.

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3 Comments for “In Midst of Jeb’s Campaign, Redford Movie Revives W’s Military Service Record”

  1. After seeing the “Truth” last week, my first response was how an important story about the qualifications of a candidate for the presidency could be buried because of sloppy reporting and a mainstream media which focused on the messenger and ignored the message. Instead of responding to the allegations of favoritism and failure to perform his military duty, George W. Bush never answered those charges and was re-elected, thereby perpetuating a seriously flawed administration and continuing disastrous military, political and economic policies. Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld lied to the American Congress and public and started a war which led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands and continues today. CBS, representing corporate America, failed its responsibility to keep the public informed and ruined the careers of devoted journalists. “Trumbo” apparently provides another chapter in this sordid history of corporate media and attacks on the first amendment, abetted by members of Congress.

  2. Ken Derickson, Ph.D.

    The constitution of the US should be amended to prevent any person that has broken the law (cocaine usage in George W. Bush’s) case or that has
    violated the Uniform Code of Military Justice (in this case the AWOL
    article 886). Since George W. Bush is no longer a sitting president he
    should be stripped of all benefits afforded to Presidents (salary, secret
    service protection, etc.)..Furthermore, he should stand trial for lying to
    the public and falsifying information. Karl Rove and any other complicit
    parties should also be put on trial.

  3. 60 minutes had a long history of telling the story it wanted to with little regard for facts or balance. Before the internet it got away with it’s distortions because people could not fact check the stories and get a rebuttal before the people of the country.

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