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THE RACE TO THE WHITE HOUSE

Amid Skepticism, CBS Sticks to Bush Guard Story

September 11, 2004|James Rainey and Elizabeth Jensen | Times Staff Writers

A CBS News report that suggested President Bush did not fulfill his military commitment 30 years ago fell under a growing cloud of skepticism Friday. But Democrats insisted that they had plenty of evidence to continue their campaign to show that Bush got breaks that other young men did not during the Vietnam War.

The controversy over the television report prompted CBS Evening News' Dan Rather to issue an unusually long and detailed response Friday evening. The veteran anchor said that the network stood by its original report: that Bush got favored treatment to win a coveted spot in the Texas Air National Guard and then failed to meet performance standards once he was admitted.

Rather said in an interview that CBS worked exhaustively on the story, beginning before the 2000 presidential election.

"We worked hard, we worked long, we dug hard and did our best to be accurate, to authenticate what we could," Rather said. "This story is true, the questions we raised about then-Lt. Bush's National Guard service are serious and legitimate questions."

Although many others helped report and corroborate the story, Rather said, "I'm of the school, my name is on it, I'm responsible."

But it appeared the network could do little to quell a controversy that was first ignited by its Wednesday-night program "60 Minutes II."

The debate was fueled by conservative Internet sites and radio talk-show programs. And several experts questioned the authenticity of critical memos purportedly written by the man who commanded Bush's squadron in 1972 and 1973.

A retired Guard major general -- who Rather said in an interview would corroborate the CBS account -- instead told The Times that he believed the memos from the late Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian were not real.

But a CBS news executive insisted that Maj. Gen. Bobby W. Hodges, who was Killian's immediate supervisor, had changed his story.

Democrats said the furor over the documents and the news program merely distracted from the larger issue.

They noted that the White House and Pentagon had not produced documents proving that Bush reported for duty when he was transferred in mid-1972 to an Air National Guard unit in Alabama.

And they reiterated allegations that Bush hopped over hundreds of other applicants on a waiting list for the guard slot, which virtually assured he would not be sent to combat in Vietnam.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry remained on the sidelines regarding the issue, but two party allies, former Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia and party Chairman Terry McAuliffe, hammered Bush.

In Reno for a campaign appearance on the eve of the Sept. 11 anniversary, Cleland, a Vietnam veteran, said Bush relied on his "political cronies in Texas" to avoid combat, adding: "It's just further evidence, really, that George Bush failed this country when it was his time to serve -- and he hid out."

McAuliffe insisted in a meeting with reporters that Bush's service as a 26-year-old lieutenant three decades ago remained relevant.

"This is about character, this is about credibility, the character and credibility of the president of the United States of America today," McAuliffe said.

Deflecting questions about whether Democrats had given CBS the documents implicating Bush, McAuliffe suggested it might have been White House political advisor Karl Rove who did so.

He offered no evidence to back that charge and White House spokesman Reed Dickens called the insinuation that Rove was behind the documents "complete nonsense."

Republicans argued that doubts raised about the memos proved that the entire case against Bush was false and unfair.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Friday that the latest memos dealing with Bush's military service had surfaced as part of "an orchestrated effort by Democrats and the Kerry campaign to tear down the president."

Democrats have no intention of letting the issue die.

On Monday, the newly formed "Texans for Truth," a liberal advocacy group, plans to begin airing an ad in five closely fought states -- Oregon, Arizona Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania -- that features a retired member of the Alabama Air National Guard saying he never saw Bush appear for training in 1972.

In just three days this week, the group said it had raised more than $400,000 from 5,000 contributors to air the ad.

The group said many of its donors believed the Bush critique was justified after Republicans backed similar ads that said Kerry did not deserve some of the medals he won while in combat in Vietnam.

To keep the issue alive, the group said it would announce a "substantial" reward on Tuesday to anyone who could offer proof that Bush fulfilled his service in the Alabama Air National Guard.

Only one guardsman from that era has said he remembers Bush reporting in Alabama, where he had been allowed to transfer to help run the U.S. Senate campaign of family friend Winton "Red" Blount.

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