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Bush's Guard Record Questioned

Aired September 12, 2004 - 11:30   ET


HOWARD KURTZ, HOST (voice-over): Open season on the president. A new book by Kitty Kelley makes salacious personal allegations about George Bush, with the boost from "The Today Show" and other media outlets. "The Boston Globe" and the AP dig up new details about Bush's National Guard record. While "60 Minutes" unearths memos seeming to show that pilot Bush got favored treatment, but could Dan Rather have been snuckered by forged documents? And why is the press devoting so much time to ancient allegations?


KURTZ: Welcome to RELIABLE SOURCES, where today we turn our critical lens on the virtual hijacking of the presidential campaign. I am Howard Kurtz.

The year may be 2004 but the media are spending plenty of time digging, some would say wallowing, through the distant past. There are tawdry charges about President Bush in a new Kitty Kelley book out tomorrow, but how much of it is true? And then of course the never- ending saga of Vietnam, with the sniping at John Kerry's military record now giving way to scrutiny of George Bush's National Guard service. CBS' Dan Rather reported the story for "60 Minutes" Wednesday, revealing memos said to be written by Bush's squadron commander.


DAN RATHER, CBS ANCHOR (voice-over): "60 Minutes" has now obtained a number of documents we are told were taken from Colonel Killian's personal file. Among them, a never-before seen memorandum from May 1972, where Colonel Killian writes that Lieutenant Bush called him to talk about how he can get out of coming to drill from now through November.

(on camera): When you read through these documents, is there any doubt in your mind that these are genuine?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, they are compatible with the way business was done at that time.


KURTZ: But critics, from rival news organizations to bloggers to some White House officials, question whether these memos are fake. And on Friday's "CBS Evening News," Dan Rather fired back.


RATHER: The "60 Minutes" report was based not solely on the recovered documents, but on a preponderance of evidence, including documents, that were provided by what we consider to be solid sources and interviews with former officials of the Texas National Guard. If any definitive evidence in the contrary of our story is found, we will report it. So far, there is none.


KURTZ: And joining us now, E.J. Dionne, syndicated columnist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Gloria Borger, co-anchor of CNBC's "Capitol Report," and a columnist for "U.S. News and World Report." And Tucker Carlson, co-host of CNN's "CROSSFIRE." Also has a new show on PBS, "Tucker Carlson Unfiltered." Welcome.

Gloria Borger, leave aside the typographical debate for a second. How are CBS and "60 Minutes" handling this firestorm? Should they do some kind of internal investigation?

GLORIA BORGER, CNBC: Well, I think they're saying they're not doing an internal investigation. I used to work at CBS News, as you know, and I guarantee you that they are trying to double-check and triple-check. I also used to do some work for "60 Minutes," and I can tell you that people there do not approach these things lightly. That there's a lot of good reporting that goes on. And that they did speak with someone about these documents. And as Dan said in his report, it's not only the documents. That there's a preponderance of evidence to support the charges that they were making.

KURTZ: Although I have interviewed Rather and Andrew Heyward, the president of CBS News, and I said, well, look, who are your document experts? So they finally gave me the name of a handwriting expert in San Francisco, and I called him, and he says, I am muzzled, I can't talk, CBS has asked me not to talk to the press.

What do you make of that kind of thing?

TUCKER CARLSON, CO-HOST, "CROSSFIRE": Well, I think it's dishonorable. I mean, I feel sorry for CBS. I mean, all reporting depends to some extent on the goodwill of strangers, people give you stuff and you sort of trust it's true, and you can only check it to a certain extent. And if people want to subvert your report, they can. And so you would feel sorry for CBS, and I do.

However, once there's some question about the veracity of these document, you have got to just open everything up, it seems to me, and have an internal investigation, which obviously they're going to have. You know, protesting to the contrary.

KURTZ: You think that's inevitable.

CARLSON: Of course. But the closed kind of reactionary reaction, oh, it's a right-wing conspiracy. I don't think -- that's not honorable.

KURTZ: Should CBS have gone with a story about memos from a guy who has been dead for 20 years? I mean, obviously people were going to take some potshots.

E.J. DIONNE, SYNDICATED COLUMNIST: Well, if the memos are real and if it turns out that these reports of flaws are not true, that they are real memos, then it's a legitimate part of the story.

I think what's curious about this debate, "Time" magazine in its new issue this week, has it right in their last sentence, "the breathless debate over typewriter fonts last week shifted the debate away from Bush's questionable record." In other words, we're arguing about a very narrow piece of the story, and I think the other problem is, in 2000, "The Boston Globe" and Walter Robinson, their reporter, did some excellent work on this. None of the rest of the media picked this up. This issue should have been dealt with in more details four years ago as opposed to the end of this campaign.

KURTZ: You have given me the perfect setup to take a brief look and have our audience take a brief look at how the debate is faring on the airwaves.


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: In those days typewriters didn't normally have that kind of superscript?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Well, some typewriters did use a th, but usually not above the level of the rest of the print.

JUAN WILLIAMS, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: Typewriters have existed since 1930, they could have done that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, the type-face.

WILLIAMS: The type-face, and the typewriters, right.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All of this on one typewriter?


JOE SCARBOROUGH, HOST, "SCARBOROUGH COUNTRY": When is CBS going to step forward and admit that they made a horrible mistake there? Can they do that? Will they do that?


KURTZ: What do people think, Gloria Borger, when they hear this kind of arcane debate? What do they think about the media?

BORGER: Well, I think it's kind of nuts to have this, you know, arcane debate about whether typewriters did a little th, you know. I mean, I think that's silly.

I think the question is, was George W. Bush another rich or privileged or well-connected kid who got out of going to Vietnam and going into the National Guard at that time because of his family connections? By the way, there's nothing wrong with that if he did. Lots of people -- lots of people did it at the time. Colin Powell wrote in his book that he didn't like that kind of behavior, but that did go on at the time, and Bush says he had no connections. So that's a legitimate question.

KURTZ: But to get to E.J. Dionne's point. Some of this had been reported before. Is this fair game for the media? Why are we spending so much time on the events of 30 years ago?

CARLSON: Well, it's fair game. I actually don't think it's much of a question. Bush didn't want to go to Vietnam. He could have. He graduated class of '68. You can go to Vietnam if you want. He didn't want to go, OK, great. Judge it as you will.

I think the press is focusing on this for two reasons. One, the Kerry campaign is sort of caught in this time warp. The Kerry campaign really has been pushing stories from the past, both about Bush and about Kerry, Bush the hero -- I mean, Kerry the hero, Bush the shirker.

I also think that just for the obvious internal reason. Policy's boring, and these guys actually are not so far apart on the real questions, like Iraq.

KURTZ: Policy is boring?

CARLSON: It is boring.

KURTZ: Doesn't the average American care more about what either of these candidates are going to do for them in the next four years than what they did or didn't do in 1969 or in 1972?

DIONNE: Of course that's true. I think the issue here is that we went through the entire month of August talking about Kerry's record in Vietnam, the guy who actually went. A million questions raised about small details.

KURTZ: Driven by the swift boat group and the swift boat ads.

DIONNE: And the same bloggers who are now trying to knock down the CBS memos. And so I think there was a decision made in the ether somewhere -- a lot of people said, well, gee, if we're going to investigate and look so closely at what John Kerry did in his 20s, then perhaps we ought to do the same thing for Bush in a timely way before the election.

BORGER: Can I just say, this is why people hate politics. This is why people hate journalists and the way we cover campaigns. Because...

KURTZ: It's all gotcha?

BORGER: Yeah, it's gotcha. The campaign, you know, let's get over 30, 35 years ago. Let's just get over that, and let's get on to the issues of Medicare, health case, Iraq, who's better to lead the war on terror.

KURTZ: But the press doesn't want to get over Vietnam. The press loves Vietnam.

BORGER: We live at the bottom of the food chain. I always say this, and if there's a good fight going on, we're going to cover it. But...

CARLSON: No, it's just the press is dominated by baby boomer solipsism who can't get over their (UNINTELLIGIBLE) -- it's absolutely true. But I will say, it actually at some level does matters whether these documents are accurate. Just from our point of view, anyway, as people in the press. I mean, if a news organization sets them out as accurate documents, it is significant whether they are or not.

DIONNE: The press didn't start this fight. This fight was started by a set of ads put on the air in August. We were not talking in great detail about Vietnam.

KURTZ: Now, hold on! Those ads, the swift boat ads, aired in three states, and cable television in particular and the media in general took that and basically made it the issue of the month of August.

DIONNE: Because conservatives wanted to discredit John Kerry, and they did quite a job of it.

BORGER: And shouldn't we be reporting who is funding these ads, who's behind these ads on both sides? We ought to be doing that.

CARLSON: John Kerry is running on Vietnam. I interviewed John Kerry for the first time two and a half years ago, and our conversation was almost solely about Vietnam, because that's all he wanted to talk about. His campaign is based on Vietnam, so that's why we're talking about it.

KURTZ: Let me come back to the media. Do you detect just a whiff of hypocrisy in the fact that liberal commentators and others say it's unfair and irrelevant to question whether Kerry sufficiently bled for his medals, and conservative commentators now saying, well, Bush served honorably, he got an honorable discharge, and why are all these unfair stories being brought up? In other words, people seem to delight in the other guy -- the spotlight being on the other guy when it's damaging to the candidate they don't like.

CARLSON: Yeah, I mean, I'm no liberal but I'm actually...

KURTZ: I noticed.

CARLSON: Yeah, I'm not. But I'm not interested in the details of John Kerry's service record. In fact, that's my complaint from the beginning. It's great, you went to Vietnam, good for you. Not so relevant to what is going on now.

I do think if the press has a role in any of this -- mostly the just press reacts to what the candidates do -- but if there's any role, it's, you know, what are you going to do about the 130,000 troops still in Vietnam (sic)? They ought to be pressing Kerry.

KURTZ: In Iraq.


KURTZ: To most Americans, we are probably obsessing on the wrong war.

BORGER: Well, but it's also because there's so much similarity in a way between Iraq and its unpopularity and Vietnam and its unpopularity.

KURTZ: Except that Vietnam is over and Iraq is not.

BORGER: Look, I completely agree with this. John Kerry gave the Bush campaign an opening, when, at his convention, he reported for duty. And it was a convention about becoming commander in chief, because they believe that was the threshold he needed to cross in order to talk about the other issues that are important to the American people. He was having problems with that.

I think they overdid it. And the Bush campaign drove a mack truck right through the holes that they left.

KURTZ: With some help from the media. Just briefly.

DIONNE: I was going to say, nothing Kerry did justifies saying stuff that's untrue, and I think that's part of the problem with this debate, is we haven't sifted out carefully enough. We examine typewriters a lot more closely on this story than we examined the original swift boat charges. It took about two weeks to get to that.

KURTZ: All right, we're going to have to report for duty on another issue. When we come back, she's done it again, but are the media buying the story? Kitty Kelley takes on President Bush in her hotly disputed new book.



She's savaged the likes of Frank Sinatra, Nancy Reagan and the British royals. Now Kitty Kelley's new book contains serious allegations about George Bush's life before the presidency. "The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty" is getting plenty of play in the press even before its publication tomorrow. It's also getting a prominent spot for the author, three days of interviews, beginning tomorrow with "The Today Show's" Matt Lauer.

E.J. Dionne, you haven't read this book. Most journalists haven't.

DIONNE: I have not read this book.

KURTZ: OK. Is Kitty Kelley a serious journalist, and should the media be trumpeting her allegations? DIONNE: I don't know, to paraphrase Bill Clinton, I don't quite know anymore what the definition of a serious journalist is, but that's certainly not her background. She is, however, a very popular writer.

I think we're numb. I think we're numb to these books. You know, there were about 678 books examining Bill Clinton's -- I counted them, every single one -- examining Bill Clinton's personal life and all this stuff. And now it's just a continuation.

It's a real issue. I think it goes again to the issue of the draft. A lot of things about President Bush's life should have been examined in the last election. Wasn't a lot of research. So now it's left to Kitty Kelley to excavate, and we're going to find out how much is true and how much isn't.

KURTZ: Kitty Kelley is going to be not just on "The Today Show" but, O'Reilly, Aaron Brown, Chris Matthews. Would you like to interview her on CNBC?

BORGER: No. I don't -- look, I think it's very difficult because Kitty Kelley comes to you with anonymous sources. You can't individually check them out. My feeling is when Matt Lauer has her on tomorrow morning, I believe that he's going to come at her with guns blaring and say, prove this, prove this, prove that. I mean, I think that she'll be attacked that way. There are more and more authors who come out with books now that are full of anonymous sources. Seymour Hersh has a new book saying the administration knew about Abu Ghraib.

KURTZ: Bob Woodward.

BORGER: Bob Woodward quotes a lot of anonymous sources.

KURTZ: So we don't pile on those authors just because they use unnamed sources.

BORGER: I don't love -- right, and I don't love the whole gossip book thing, and I believe that all of us who are journalists have to admit that at the very bottom of it, we don't really know the people we cover. We really don't.

KURTZ: Are you going to have her on "CROSSFIRE"?

CARLSON: Absolutely, are you kidding? We've had war criminals on "CROSSFIRE." Yeah, absolutely, yeah, we would love to have her on "CROSSFIRE." I would be surprised if there is anything she could reveal, true or not, about the president that's going to change people's votes. I mean, you know, he's already said he basically didn't accomplish anything until he was 40. I think we can take him at his word on that. He has had four years we can judge him on, and we know a lot about what Bush thinks what is going on in the world, because he is after all president. The harshest allegation that I've heard is that he did drugs at Camp David. So what? You know what I mean? It's not like he left his wife or children.

KURTZ: The question is whether it's true, and on that point... CARLSON: But even if it's true, I'm saying, so?

KURTZ: On that point, Sharon Bush, who was married to Neil Bush, the president's brother, is quoted in this book by Kitty Kelley as saying that when Bush 41 was president, George W. used cocaine at Camp David. Sharon Bush denies ever saying that. Her former P.R. guy was at a lunch with the two women, he says she did say it, but she didn't claim any firsthand knowledge. How are we going to untangle all of this?

DIONNE: Well, a lot of it you can't. But you know, there is this -- again, if you go back to the Clinton years, I remember being on television sets where somebody would make an allegation, somebody would say, that allegation is not proven, and then somebody says, well, let's continue the discussion as if it were true. I mean, there is a real problem here that goes beyond Kitty Kelley.

But you know, there is a question of how people paint themselves to the public and how they actually live their life. Up to now, Bush (UNINTELLIGIBLE) by saying everything before age 40 sort of doesn't count.

KURTZ: I want to read a couple of sentences in the book, to give you a flavor of it. Here's a quote. "I'll bet George W. went to Hazelden too" -- the alcohol rehab facility -- "but I can't prove it." Mary Louise Oates, who happens to be the wife of Democratic strategist, Kerry strategist Bob Shrum.

Also on the question of Bush's earlier drinking, "The friend wondered about spousal abuse," against Laura, "but there was no official police report to document the allegations."

So, how do you deal with that?

BORGER: Well, you know, you can't -- why is that in the book? No, no, I mean, really? Why is...

KURTZ: Good point.

BORGER: Seriously, why is that in the book? You have David Maraniss from "The Washington Post," who did a wonderful bio of Bill Clinton, "First in his Class," remember that. And it was full of people talking about Bill Clinton on the record, who knew him when he was growing up. And I still think that's sort of a definitive work about the former president.

So if do you have Kitty Kelley on the air, you have to really challenge her. You know, I'm not going to make a decision for any other network including my own or my own show. Maybe we'll have Kitty Kelley on the air. But you have to -- you have to challenge her and challenge her assumptions.

KURTZ: Let me jump in here. Speaking of challenging, White House Communication Director Dan Bartlett told me the book was garbage. Republican National Committee said it was fiction, and worse. But is this kind of counterattack giving the book a boost? I checked last night, it's number two on Amazon.

CARLSON: Sure, look, you could write anything. I have thought about doing this, just for the financial gain. You could write a book, "George Bush is Evil," you know, repeat it one thousand times, you'd get to at least nine on the "Times" list. Look, there is a huge market for books like this. That's just a fact. But I must say, the fact that she quotes Bob Shrum's wife attacking Bush, just comic. I want her on "CROSSFIRE" just to ask her about that, because it's just -- it's so self-discrediting and amusing. Awesome.

KURTZ: Well, we'll have to wait until we have a chance to read the book and we'll see some of these interviews.

When we come back, who's to blame, the polls or the press? John Kerry takes a tumble, at least in the eyes of the pundits. Stay with us.



John Kerry had a rough week in the polls, slipping behind the president, and often by double digits. "Time," 10 points, CNN 7 points, "Washington Post" 9 points, and the pundits have been piling on.


WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SR. POLITICAL ANALYST: Bush clearly has momentum coming out of his party's convention.

SCARBOROUGH: I would pay attention to the chaos in the Kerry camp.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Kerry, on the other hand, is flat. He's been flat for five or six weeks now.


KURTZ: E.J. Dionne, are we such slaves to polls that every story now must begin, "John Kerry, desperate to revive his struggling campaign...?"

DIONNE: You must have been in this business a long time, Howie. I mean, you know, politics is the ultimate business in which the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. You start seeing a slippage in the poll, and the poll may be right, it may be wrong, but if you see a few of them, then you get this series of stories, Kerry's really not getting anywhere. Well, maybe that's because there is chaos in the campaign.

You know, on the other hand, there is a truth here. The truth is, Bush gained something out of his convention, and what we're going to find is in a week all the pundits will change their tune if the polls tighten up, and I think the task for Kerry is to get the race close enough so people stop saying this kind of stuff on television. KURTZ: So the next media story could be "Bush campaign slips"?

CARLSON: That's exactly. No, E.J.'s completely right. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer. The narrative becomes, you're a loser. Right? And in Kerry's case, I mean, I think there is a lot wrong with the campaign. The Kerry campaign admits there is a lot wrong with the campaign, so I think it's a totally legitimate story. Those polls are interesting, and they reflect how the public thinks. And we always pretend we care about what the public thinks, so there is nothing wrong with writing about it.

BORGER: I think there is all too much coverage of the polls. I mean, it's a horse race thing. I would like...

KURTZ: It's like heroin for journalists.

BORGER: Right, right, you look at a new poll and go, oh, right, and it's very self-fulfilling, right? And so now Kerry -- and the next turn is, you want a good story, so the next turn is, well, you'd like to see it tightening up so there is a horse race election night, right?

DIONNE: And you know what it is, Todd Getnam (ph) once said, you can't chase the bookie from the track. And the beauty of polls is that if you talk about them, you don't have to appear to be taking sides in any substantive way. There's great fear about making a judgment. Well, what this guy just said is untrue, or this is true, because that sounds biased. With polls, you get the veneer of objectivity.

KURTZ: Here's "L.A. Times," long story today, "Divide in Democrats' Camp." It's all about Kerry's advisers supposedly battling over what the message should be. Is there a danger that every staff change, every new tactic is then portrayed negatively because we have all decided Kerry is struggling?

BORGER: Yeah, but look at what we did during Iowa. We did exactly the same thing. There were staff changes in the Kerry campaign. He fired his campaign manager. He was down. Howard Dean was up.

KURTZ: He was hopeless.

BORGER: He was hopeless. We wrote him off. And then suddenly we saw that Howard Dean started going a little bit in the wrong direction, and Kerry was the comeback kid.

So, wait, the stories are now going to be, the late closer. John Kerry is a strong closer. He did it in his Massachusetts Senate race, and we're going to say, that guy knows how to come back from behind.

KURTZ: If that happens, we'll have you back, Gloria Borger. E.J. Dionne, Tucker Carlson, thanks very much for joining us.

Just ahead, he's won more than $1 million on "Jeopardy." Who is Ken Jennings? And why are the media spoiling our fun about his future on the game show?


KURTZ: James Carville and Paul Begala were big-time Democratic operatives before signing on as co-hosts of CNN's "CROSSFIRE." Now they're taking some flack from the Bush campaign and from some cable rivals for providing advice to John Kerry's campaign. They both say the advice is free, their views are no secret, and they have criticized Kerry on occasion. CNN spokesman Matt Ferman (ph) says our audience fully understands that Carville and Begala are two of the best-known Democratic strategies in the country.

But there is, at the very least, a perception problem in my view. "CROSSFIRE" has never worried about having political activists from the left or the right. Carville's wife, Mary Matalin, was an informal adviser to the last Bush campaign while also on "CROSSFIRE." But until the network decides that its commentators shouldn't also be political players, CNN will continue to find itself in the crossfire.

Finally, what kind of heartless hack would spoil the fun for millions of "Jeopardy" watchers? Ken Jennings has won a record 43 straight games, almost $1.5 million, but as the suspense builds, a Web site, followed by the trade magazine "TV Week," quoted sources who claim to know his fate, and the rest of the media followed suit. Boy, what a scoop. What great investigators. Since "Jeopardy" tapes several weeks in advance, the rest of us will have to wait to see whether Jennings proves the pundits wrong.

Well, that's it for this edition of RELIABLE SOURCES. Join us again next Sunday, 11:30 Eastern. "LATE EDITION WITH WOLF BLITZER" begins right now.


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