Hot Document

CBS Rewards Bush Stonewaller

In September 2004, shortly before George W. Bush was elected to his second term, CBS correspondent Dan Rather aired a report regarding the president’s Vietnam-era service in the Texas Air National Guard. It was already known that Bush’s attendance record had been spotty. The Rather report added some interesting details based partially on documents whose authenticity, it turned out, couldn’t be established. Citing “serious and disturbing questions that came up after the broadcast,” the network hired former U.S. Attorney General Richard Thornburgh and Louis D. Boccardi, former CEO of the Associated Press, to investigate the matter. Their report, released four months later, concluded that “basic journalistic steps were not carried out in a manner consistent with accurate and fair reporting, leading to countless misstatements and omissions.” Rather had already apologized publicly for a “mistake in judgment” and been persuaded to announce his retirement as anchor of the evening news broadcast, a position he’d held since 1981.

At first it seemed Rather would go quietly, accepting encomiums from the CBS brass for his four-decade career at CBS and maintaining an ongoing role as correspondent for 60 Minutes. But in semiretirement, Rather complained he was being excluded from major stories, and in June 2006, CBS ended the arrangement altogether. Fifteen months later, Rather sued CBS for breach of contract.

That lawsuit has brought to light an interesting e-mail exchange between Thornburgh and the Bush White House. Thornburgh asked President Bush to answer eight fairly blunt questions about his National Guard service (see below). These were all questions the press had previously been stonewalled on. (Examples: “Was there a waiting list to become a pilot of the Texas Air National Guard at the time you entered?” “Why were you suspended from flight status?”) The next day Dan Bartlett, then a senior adviser to Bush, e-mailed Thornburgh to say the White House wouldn’t answer them. “I must say,” Bartlett wrote his fellow Republican, who had served under his boss’s father. “I was somewhat surprised by the questions” (Page 2). Thornburgh apparently dropped the matter. In August, CBS showed how little it cared about Bartlett’s noncooperation by hiring the former Bush aide as a political analyst.

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