Before it fades away again, and likely for good this time, it is worth remembering the brilliant exercise of the dark arts of political deflection we witnessed in the 2004 George W. Bush AWOL from the Alabama Air National Guard story. The diabolical beauty of that episode urps and oozes in what was — highly likely — a thoroughly composed strategy to A: Get CBS to bite on a unverifiable document and B: Turning the great moo-ing mass of the media away from The Story — Bush’s flagrant disregard for the sweetheart, jet-jockey duty his daddy cooked up for him in peaceful Alabama — at a peak of the Vietnam War, and concentrate instead on the less directly partisan and more celebrity-driven tale of CBS and Dan Rather’s poor judgment and fall from grace.
The whole tale was re-visited last week thanks to a 10,000 word article in Texas Monthly (still a standard-bearer for quality journalism, among a sea of numbingly inane competitors). Author Joe Hagan doesn’t “solve” the question of where the so-called Killian letter came from, the document conservative bloggers seized upon as bogus — within minutes — of its appearance on “60 Minutes II”. For this conservatives have sniffed at the whole piece as “nothing new”. Which is in effect saying, “It’s as damning as it always was.”
But while Rather looks no better in the context of doing due diligence on that one piece of (Xeroxed) paper, Hagan’s story adds significant depth and context to the vast amount of political energy the Bushies expended dealing with the AWOL story as it re-erupted periodically over the years. Point being: The Killian Letter, supposedly handed to an oddball at a Houston cattle show who then turned it over to Rather’s producer, who had been hounding the oddball for years, may be funky, but its funkiness hardly torpedoed the rest of the story, which a Boston Globe reporter had previously nailed, and USA Today was about to jump on when CBS’s story went to air in September of ’04.
What Hagan lays out is a story of how well the Bushies, Karl Rove in particular, understand the news instincts, fears and herd mentality of the American media. If you ignored the story in ’04 … well hell, you’re not even reading this … but if details have gotten foggy, Hagan’s timeline reminds you of the highly suspicious, instantaneous reaction that exploded across the conservative blogosphere, as I say, within minutes of the CBS broadcast. (One blogger filed … while the piece was still on the air). It also reminds you that Rove’s right-hand man, Dan Bartlett, had an e-mail blast pre-loaded to go out to not just one or two reliable conservative reporters who might quarrel with the piece, but to 500 reporters and bloggers (including Minnesota’s Power Line boys), copying the funky document, and eviscerating the Rather story for dealing in fraudulent paperwork … hardly the sort attention-getting “defensive” strike a White House dares unless it is … absolutely certain … the paperwork in question is a fraud.
The implication? At the very least Rove and Bartlett were completely confident that the Killian Letter was bogus. At the very most, they created The Killian Letter, knowing full well that a CBS/Dan Rather/liberal bias/shoddy journalism scandal would send the press herd stampeding off in another direction, happily abandoning the 30 year-old Bush AWOL story, which the press was already taking fire for hyping “in the middle of an election campaign”.
It was never the not-exactly revelatory thunderstrike that rich kids got safe, cushy war-time assignments while the less privileged were dying in the swamps of Vietnam. At the time the context was that the Bushies were simultaneously selling a wholly fabricated set of lies about John Kerry’s Vietnam service — for which he volunteered and served, and during which he took more serious fire than a bar fight for making a pass at another drunk’s girlfriend.
The Kerry Swift Boat story had legs in part because the mainstream press took a deeper interest in how Kerry would defend himself against outrageous lies than who was spreading them. With the Bush AWOL story, the press, as Rove almost certainly predicted, would not be able to resist swinging the interrogation lights around on CBS and Rather’s blunder. Furthermore, with the scent of seared “liberal bias” in the air very few editors (and owners) anywhere had the stomach to continue pressing a story — the AWOL one — that many “low information” readers/viewers/voters thought was both totally inaccurate (not just the letter in question) and, after 30 years, meaningless.
It was, as I say, a strategy of obsidian brilliance, totally in keeping with Rovian politics and their masterful understanding of the mind of mainstream corporate journalism.
And now, I expect it is a story submerging for good.