CBS News was had. It's hard to reach any other conclusion about documents that CBS and anchor Dan Rather have defended as revealing the truth about George W. Bush's military service.
Their existence is all the more puzzling in light of today's Times story quoting the onetime secretary of Bush's commander as saying that she recalled typing similar memos questioning Bush's service, but as casting more doubt on the ones that were obtained by CBS.
Bush's commanding officer in the Texas Air National Guard, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, wrote memos more than 30 years ago objecting to efforts to gloss over the young lieutenant's shortcomings and failure to take a flight physical, Marian Carr Knox of Houston said Tuesday. But, however similar, the four memos that surfaced last week appeared to be fakes, she said.
As The Times reported, conservative bloggers detected glaring inconsistencies, such as a Microsoft Word type style. The alleged memos from Killian also contain stylistic problems, such as the fact that Killian signs his rank not in accordance with National Guard procedure.
In addition, Killian's signature on a memo dated May 4, 1972, is different from one on file in the Pentagon. The part of a memo supposedly written by Killian that refers to pressure from an earlier Bush commander to help out the young fighter pilot is highly dubious. The 1973 memo is dated almost a year and a half after the commander had resigned from active duty.
As CBS floundered, conservatives cited this episode as an egregious case of liberal media bias, while some liberals indulged in the comforting notion that Karl Rove, who is responsible for everything bad that happens everywhere, must be behind the documents.
Whatever the truth, CBS' real error was trying to prove a point that didn't need to be proved. It doesn't take documents for anyone to realize that Bush pulled strings to get into the National Guard. And, during the Vietnam draft, nobody went into the National Guard out of passion to defend his country. It also doesn't take new documents to establish that Bush shirked even his National Guard duties when he moved to Alabama and then to Harvard Business School in Massachusetts.
The brouhaha all but managed to place Bush's Vietnam-era service off-limits as a campaign issue, after weeks in which John F. Kerry's impressive record has been under savage attack. Bush gave a smirky speech Tuesday to the National Guard Assn., waxing on about the patriotic sacrifices of the Guard's men and women over the years. All of that is true, but not about him.
The secretary's story, though disputed by Killian's family, now becomes a part of the uneven and ugly tit-for-tat about who did what when. But who fed a seeming ringer to CBS, and why did the network fall for it?