The PJ Tatler

The Cinematic Travesty of the Century


John Hinderaker and Scott Johnson of Powerline have penned a superior piece in Weekly Standard that revisits the Rathergate story. The reason for the retelling of an 11-year-old incident? On October 16, the Robert Redford-Cate Blanchett vehicle Truth — an incredibly dishonest and disgusting take on Rathergate — will be released to the general public. And judging by many reviews, most of the media appear to have forgotten the specific elements of the story.

Hinderaker and Johnson rely heavily on the report issued by a panel created by CBS News headed up by former attorney general Richard Thornburgh and former AP head Louis Boccardi to perform an autopsy on the story that started it all.

And that story, which aired on September 8, 2004, destroyed the reputation of CBS News and empowered a generation of bloggers and online pundits who proved beyond doubt that the memos supposedly showing that President George Bush received preferential treatment to get a posting to the Texas Air National Guard were laughably — and amateurishly — bogus.

Reading the Hinderaker-Johnson article was like taking a trip down memory lane. The story ignited my own blogging career, as well as the career of many, many others.

Who can forget the Freeper “Buckhead” who was the first to note the proportional spacing of the memos, proving they were not created on a 1970s typewriter, but rather a modern IBM word processor? And of course, there is one of them most famous New York Times headlines in history describing the memos: “Memos on Bush are fake but accurate, typist says.”

The Hinderaker-Johnson article is necessary because of idiotic reviewers like Scott Mendelson. Writing in Forbes, Mendelson shows a shocking lack of curiosity about Rathergate and simply spouts the old, liberal narrative.

The 60 Minutes II report that aired in September of 2004 regarding the nature of President George W. Bush’s tenure in the Texas Air National Guard was probably accurate. That’s what I felt back in 2004; that’s what at least a few journalists and pundits (including a new-to-me Keith Olbermann) were willing to come out and say at the time. And that’s the moral crux of Truth, one which I happen to agree with, which documents the botched reporting that led to the story itself being ignored via a wave of controversy regarding unverifiable documents. The film makes a grand and significant point of how modern journalism has begun obsessing on the minutia or unrelated gossip at the expense of the big picture.

The documents were not “unverifiable.” They were fake. They were totally made up. And the “big picture” is that a national news network made a conscious decision to intervene in a presidential election in a partisan manner. So that “minutia” and “unrelated gossip” exposed the effort for the whole world to see.

The Mendelson review reflects present-day reality about Rathergate: Liberals are still trying to push the narrative that Bush received special treatment because he was rich and someone else went to Vietnam instead of him.

Johnson-Hinderaker destroy that myth among many others. Here are some choice excerpts from the article:

The documents on which the story was based supposedly came from the “personal file” of Jerry Killian, Bush’s commander in the TexANG, who had been dead for 20 years. But where did CBS News get them? Mapes testified that she and her team had been given six documents by Bill Burkett, but where had Burkett obtained them?

The report notes that Burkett gave three explanations, whose implausibility increased in each successive version. He told one intermediary that the documents mysteriously materialized in the mail. He then told Mapes that the documents were provided to him by one George Conn, but that Conn would never admit to being the source. Mapes made virtually no attempt to contact Conn or to confirm this story, which Burkett later admitted was false. That was the state of Mapes’s knowledge when the story aired on September 8.

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And the tale is bovine, in a tall tale sort of way. Mapes still pretends to believe Burkett. Drawing on the sense God gave them, the Thornburgh-Boccardi panel did not. Killian’s family, as it happens, said such files of his as Burkett purported to pass along never existed. The Thornburgh-Boccardi report drily observes: “It does not appear, based on information available to the Panel, that [Mrs. Killian] was asked whether her husband had personal files, used a typewriter or had a secretary.”

The Thornburgh-Boccardi report also notes that Mapes had learned in the course of her reporting that no influence was used to get President Bush into the TexANG. There was no line of aspiring pilots waiting to fly the difficult and dangerous F-102 in 1968. No pull was needed to secure Bush a spot to train as a pilot.

* * * * * * *

The Rathergate memos had obviously been created recently on Microsoft Word rather than three decades earlier on a typewriter. But their content also revealed them to be fake. In a memo dated August 18, 1973, bearing the colorful subject “CYA,” Killian had supposedly documented Staudt pressuring Hodges and Hodges pressuring Killian to “sugarcoat” the evaluation of Bush. Staudt, however, had retired on March 1, 1972. Staudt was not on the scene or in a position to pressure anyone in the TexANG to do anything.

CBS portrayed Bush joining the TexANG to evade service in Vietnam, yet Mapes had been told by Killian’s son that Bush volunteered to go to Vietnam and was turned down because he didn’t have enough flying time. The Thornburgh-Boccardi report also quotes one of Killian’s authentic evaluations of Bush: “Lt. Bush is an exceptional fighter interceptor pilot and officer.” Contrary to the tenor of the fabricated memos, this is what Killian really thought of Bush.

Historical dramas are always suspect because the genre does not lend itself to factual retellings of events. History, as it happens, is usually pretty boring so Hollywood spices up historical recreations by adding characters, sub-plots, and, wherever possible, a romantic interest.

Oliver Stone’s JFK went far beyond those little white historical lies to fill the movie with outright falsehoods and fanciful conspiracy theories. The reincarnation of prosecutor Jim Garrison (played heroically by Kevin Costner) was probably the biggest transgression against history of 20th century cinema. Garrison’s “case” against poor Clay Shaw, an innocent businessman who happened to be homosexual, included coached witnesses, a mentally ill star witness, bugged journalists, and a jury that returned a verdict after 40 minutes of deliberation. The jury foreman said afterward that the reason it took 40 minutes was because most of the jurors had to visit the bathroom.

Of the Shaw prosecution, the district attorney who succeeded Garrison, Harry Connick, said this: “I thought it was one of the grossest, most extreme miscarriages of justice in the annals of American judicial history.”

And now we have Truth which isn’t even close. But it certainly fills at least half the “fake but accurate” standard of the New York Times, making it the cinematic travesty of this young 21st century.