There’s a scene in former CBS News producer Mary Mapes’s new book, Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power, in which Mapes and former CBS anchor Dan Rather confront the man who gave them a set of apparently phony documents about President Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard. Bill Burkett, a Texan with what appeared to be a deep-seated grudge against the president, had been Mapes’s source for the Xeroxed papers purporting to show that Bush’s superior officers were unhappy with his performance and with what they perceived to be the preferential treatment Bush received from higher-ups in the Guard.
CBS aired the documents in a 60 Minutes II report on September 8, 2004, and all hell broke loose. Within hours, the papers were exposed as likely fakes, and news-division executives found themselves desperately looking for anything to support the story. Mapes went back to Burkett to press him on just how he had come to possess the papers.
Before the story aired, Burkett had told Mapes that he got the documents from a fellow Guard veteran named George Conn, but that Conn would never confirm that he was the source. Mapes believed it. Then, after the story aired, as CBS officials pressured him to tell more, Burkett backed away from his original story. As Mapes tells it, Burkett explained that “he had created the story about Conn to get [Mapes] to back off. Burkett said he had promised his real source to keep the truth a secret.” Mapes believed that, too.
The real story, Burkett told the worried executives, was that he had been contacted by a woman named Lucy Ramirez who told him she had the papers and arranged for them to be delivered to Burkett at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. When Burkett, as directed, showed up at a breeding booth at the show, a “dark complected” man gave him the papers.
Mapes believed that, too, but some of the CBS executives listening to Burkett’s tale were deeply skeptical. They asked Burkett to do a taped interview in which he would explain why he had originally lied about Conn and how he had in fact come to have the documents. Burkett agreed, and the interview was set up in a Dallas hotel.
When Rather arrived for the session, Mapes was already there with Burkett and Burkett’s wife. “Dan told Burkett that he was going to ask him why he had misled us about where the memos had come from,” Mapes writes. “Burkett said he expected that and he very much wanted to set the record straight.”
The CBS News officials present were nearly beside themselves with anxiety. After the lie about Conn, who would believe Burkett’s livestock show story? And who would believe that the documents were actually genuine, when all the evidence pointed toward the opposite conclusion? But Rather had his own view. Retreating with Mapes to another room to put on his makeup, he said of Burkett, “You know, Mary, I think he is a truth teller.”
“I thought so, too,” writes Mapes.
Precisely why Rather and Mapes felt that way is never made clear in the excerpt of Truth and Duty published in the December issue of Vanity Fair. What is clear is that the anchorman and the producer proceeded with the story on faith, no matter what warning signs lay before them. And even today, after all the investigation and all the conclusions that the National Guard documents were not genuine, Mapes apparently still believes with all her heart in the now-discredited Guard story.
And she is very, very angry at anyone who does not share her belief. In another scene in the book, the CBS investigation into the 60 Minutes II piece, headed by former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and former Associated Press chief Lou Boccardi, is coming to a close. The moment has come for Mapes to be interviewed.
By that time, Mapes had come to believe she was the victim of a political witch hunt. But after hours of questioning, to her surprise, no one had asked her about her political beliefs. She seemed to resent that; didn’t they know this was a witch hunt? Mapes was so upset that she decided to take matters into her own hands.
“I knew that they had asked everyone else about my politics, and I couldn’t believe that they wouldn’t hit me up for what kind of card I carried, too,” she writes. “When it appeared we were wrapping up for the day and the topic still hadn’t come up, I finally said something. ‘Aren’t you guys going to ask about my politics?’”
Boccardi, according to Mapes, took the bait. “Well,” he said, “wouldn’t you say it’s true that most of the people that you work with think you are a liberal?”
That was all Mapes needed to create, at least in her own mind, a searingly dramatic McCarthy Moment. “You mean, are you asking me, ‘Am I now or have I ever been a liberal?’” she shot back at Boccardi in what she writes was “a joking reference to the 1950s U.S. Senate hearings where Senator Joseph McCarthy grilled people as to whether they had ever been members of the Communist Party.”
Mapes writes that she described her political beliefs to the investigators, although it appears her discussion was rather vague–she writes that she talked about “how life is complicated and how labels are not one-size-fits-all.” But the scene was enough to send Mapes into a flight of McCarthy-era fantasy.
“I couldn’t help but reflect sadly on what had become of CBS News,” she writes. “The once proud network whose anchorman had bravely called out Joseph McCarthy and denounced his witch hunts in Washington now had returned its agents to the capital with a different agenda. This time, the network hired high-powered lawyers to do some hunting of their own among the news division’s journalists. Suspected ‘liberals’ had become the new Communists. People who’d had long and successful careers at CBS, whose work had never before been questioned or criticized, were suddenly grilled as though they were strangers under investigation for committing unspeakable crimes. The network had eagerly handed over to the panel my notes, phone records, and e-mails to be used against me. What in the world would Edward R. Murrow think of his network now?”
Even a brief glance at Truth and Duty reveals how Mapes would answer the question: Murrow would be appalled at the sight of craven, cowardly executives buckling under pressure from right-wing activists. But maybe there’s another answer, simpler and less to Mapes’s liking: Maybe Murrow would think that CBS should not have aired the documents.
–Byron York, NR’s White House correspondent, is the author of the new book The Vast Left Wing Conspiracy: The Untold Story of How Democratic Operatives, Eccentric Billionaires, Liberal Activists, and Assorted Celebrities Tried to Bring Down a President–and Why They’ll Try Even Harder Next Time.