“Truth,” according to Mary Mapes

The Rathergate film Truth opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday. The film, as I’ve mentioned a time or two before, is based on Mary Mapes’s Rathergate memoir Truth and Duty. Mapes stands behind the false and fraudulent story that disgraced CBS News. She stands behind the fabricated documents on which the story was based. And now she has Cate Blanchett taking a star turn on her behalf in the film, rewriting history along with her.

Only in America, or back in the USSR.

Mapes purports to believe that the documents featured in her infamous 60 Minutes Wednesday segment came from the “personal files” of President Bush’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian. Col. Killian predeceased the magical production of the documents from his “personal files” by 20 years and his family has denied their alleged provenance and authenticity. So where did Mapes get them?

Mapes got them from one serious loony tune named Bill Burkett. At the time the 60 Minutes segment was broadcast, Burkett told Mapes he had obtained the documents from George O. Conn. That was good enough for Mapes then.

“I have no recall of that whatsoever,” said Conn, a former chief warrant officer with the Guard and a friend of Burkett’s. “None, zip, nada.” (Conn…get it?)

Following the broadcast, when management at CBS began to panic, they wanted to get the scoop straight from Burkett. On second (or third) thought, Burkett provided a revised story to the nervous crew at CBS News. The revised story doesn’t take us even an inch closer to Killian’s “personal files,” but never mind. This is the story Burkett told CBS News by conference call in the immediate aftermath of the broadcast, and this is the story that Mapes and Rather and the producers at Mythology Entertainment in one way or another purport to believe:

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 of documents o 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…

If this had been a story about an action by the New Jersey mob, it would have played out at the Bada Bing club. If this had been a Las Vegas handoff, the documents would have passed at a casino. Because this happened in George W. Bush’s chosen homeland, the natural setting for the big scene was a big cattle show, complete with bull semen, cowboy hats, mysterious phone calls from a Hispanic woman, and a document handoff. The scene sounded like a marriage of the Manchurian Candidate and Hee Haw.

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.

As I say, Makes purports to believe in the authenticity of the documents, which requires belief in Burkett’s revised story. She believes it is “quite possible” Burkett told the truth this time around because Texas is “one of the the world capitals of ‘shit happens[.]'”

Mapes’s account is from Truth and Duty (pages 213-214). To borrow Mapes’s locution, Truth and Duty is an account in which bullshit happens. And what about Hollywood? Hollywood is the world capital of turning bullshit into celluloid exploiting the credulity of those who will believe anything.