Mesh this

History repeats itself, the first time as farce, the second time as fraud. Or vice versa. So the saga of Mary Mapes would indicate, as I argue in my Standard column: “Second time’s a charm?”

Mapes was of course the producer of the CBS 60 Minutes II segment on President Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard that aired on September 8, 2004, just as the presidential campaigns of John Kerry and George Bush kicked off in earnest. The themes of the segment complemented the Kerry campaign’s themes attacking President Bush’s military service in contrast to Senator Kerry’s. By the evening of September 9, the segment had been exposed on the Internet as a fraud, based on fabricated documents.

In her new book — titled, Joe Wilson-style, Truth and Duty — Mapes takes ownership of the 60 Minutes II story. It’s her story, and she’s sticking to it. Truth and Duty is a vulgar, repetitive, cliche-laden, self-glorifying tract that is aimed at the distressingly large market comprising victims of the psychiatric malady Charles Krauthammer has named “Bush Derangement Syndrome.” The book reads a little like Moby Dick might read if it were written from the point of view of Captain Ahab rather than of Ishmael.

Although Mapes holds herself out as an impartial journalist searching for the truth wherever it takes her, she seems long ago to have succumbed to BDS. In this respect, the book is truly revealing. Mapes seethes with hatred of President Bush, and the hatred comes through loud and clear, in ways large and small. My Standard column quotes a few examples of her frankly expressed animus toward President Bush.

Mapes had been working some version of the story that aired on September 8, 2004, since 1999. It was Bill Burkett and his magic documents that quickly brought the story to fruition in the first week of September 2004. The Thornburgh-Boccardi report traces the pursuit of these documents in the CBS team’s internal email correspondence. On July 23, Michael Smith, a freelance journalist in Texas who was working on the story along with Mapes, sent her an email that began: “I am close to something that the Bushies are worried about…” Mapes responded: “I desperately want to talk to you…Do NOT underestimate how much I want this story.”

On July 30, Mapes sent an email to one of her superiors at CBS in which she wrote: “…there is some very interesting Bush stuff shaking out there right now…Re…his qualification [sic] and refusal of service in Vietnam, etc. Lots of goodies.”

On August 3, she emailed again: “There is a storm brewing in Austin re the Bush stuff….It is much more intense than it was four years ago and there is a strong general feeling that this time, there is blood in the water.”

Finally, on August 31, only eight days before the 60 Minutes show aired, at a time when Smith and Mapes were desperately trying to persuade Bill Burkett to give them the anti-Bush documents that they had heard he possessed, Smith sent an email to Mapes proposing that they set up a book deal for Burkett so that he could be paid in exchange for turning over the documents:

Today I am going to send the following hypothetical scenario to a reliable, trustable editor friend of mine…

What if there was a person who might have some information that could possibly change the momentum of an election but we needed to get an ASAP book deal to help get us the information? What kinds of turnaround payment schedules are possible, keeping in mind that the book probably could not make it out until after the election.

Mapes replied: “that looks good, hypothetically speaking, of course.” Burkett quickly produced the documents, and CBS rushed the story to air.

In Truth and Duty, Mapes argues that the documents are authentic, despite the contrary findings of experts such as Peter Tytell and Joseph Newcomer. She hilariously observes of Charles Johnson’s September 9, 2004 replication on Microsoft Word of one of the Burkett documents purportedly dating from 1973 that it “proved nothing, other than the fact that computers can replicate all kinds of things.”

So far as the record discloses, however, that and the other Burkett documents apparently can’t be replicated on any contemporaneous typewriter. Johnson’s replication of the document on Microsoft Word was therefore, as Joseph Newcomer found, a signal contribution to the unraveling of Mapes’s fraudulent story.

In her book, Mapes obscures the question of document authentication and argues that, because the documents “mesh” with the known facts of Bush’s Guard service, they are authentic. The issue of authentication raises the basic question: Are the documents what they purport to be? A variety of evidence can be brought forward to authenticate documents, whether the documents are originals or, as in this case, copies. Three fundamental problems with the Burkett documents indicate that they are not what they purport to be, i.e., that they are phony: the source of the documents, the typestyle/font of the documents, and the content of the documents. I briefly review these problems in the Standard column.

Here I want to focus on the source of the documents, Bill Burkett. The Burkett documents purport to emanate from the “personal file” of Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Killian, Bush’s commanding officer. Yet there is not one iota of evidence — not one — connecting the documents to Killian. In the book, Mapes renders Burkett’s third and final account of how the documents came into his possession as follows:

Burkett told us that he had received a phone call in early March of 2004 from an unidentified man, who said that a woman named Lucy Ramirez wanted to speak with him. Burkett said he was told to call her at a Houston Holiday Inn that night between 7:00 and 10:00 P.M. and that he was given a specific room number to ask for. Burkett said that Ramirez told him she was a go-between, a person who was supposed to deliver a package to him.

Burkett told us that Ramirez made him promise that he would handle the package he received from her very specifically. He agreed to copy the documents inside, then burn the original papers he had received, which were also copies, not originals. He was also to burn the envelope they had come in. Burkett said that he agreed to this, assuming that Lucy or whoever she was wanted to destroy any DNA evidence that might be gleaned from the papers or the package they had come in.

Burkett said that Ramirez asked him if and when he would be in Houston and he told her he would be at the Houston livestock show within a couple of weeks, where he and his wife, Nicki, showed and sold Simmenthal cattle. It was an annual showcase for the breed and a good way to advertise the bull semen…they and other ranchers sold to make a living. Burkett told Ramirez what he would be working the front information booth at the show, which was held in a large arena.

Burkett said that on his first day working the booth he was handed the papers by a dark-skinned man. He said the man approached him, asked his name, and handed him a legal envelope. We were able to confirm with the cattle association that Burkett had indeed worked the front booth on that date. A coworker of his at the cattle show said that, as Burkett told us, he had asked her to hold a legal envelope for him while a man handed him the papers.

As a fittingly bizarre last touch, Burkett told our group that he had hidden the papers in his venison locker, close to one hundred miles from his home. He boasted that he’d driven so fast to get to our meeting that the papers were still cold from his freezer when he handed them to me.

I love Lucy, but she takes us no closer to the “personal file” of Jerry Killian than do Burkett’s previous stories about how he acquired the documents. Mapes characterizes this third story as a “tale of bovine intrigue” and comments:

As I sat listening to Burkett’s scenario spill out, I realized how truly ridiculous this sounded from our vantage in New York. But in Texas, one of the world capitals of “shit happens,” a place where bull semen is worth its weight in gold (and the bizarre long ago became the mundane), I believed it was quite possible that Bill Burkett was finally telling the truth, the whole weird truth, and nothing but the truth. By God, in Texas, anything could happen.

This is the story that Mapes purports to believe in order to support the authenticity of the documents. I don’t think she believes it — “quite possible” is not exactly a ringing endorsement. Contary to Mapes’s conclusion that “shit happens,” any reasonable person would take Burkett’s “tale of bovine intrigue” as reflecting the fact that “bovine shit happens.” It’s just not usually touted as a great scoop in the heat of a presidential campaign, unless those involved are overwhelmed by the desire to “change the momentum” of the campaign.

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