William Campenni spent 33 years in the Air Force/Air National Guard. He served as a pilot alongside then Lieutenant Bush in the the Texas Air National Guard in the early 1970’s and has frequently commented on factual issues related to the Rathergate story, as he does in the new Fox Nation documentary “Black Eye: Dan Rather and the Birth of Fake News.” These are his comments on the documentary:
Kudos to Fox Nation for Black Eye. It is a thorough effort to tell a story of great national import that is shifting from news to history. We don’t often realize that singular unplanned events can disproportionately reshape history, like a Lech Walesa jumping up on a parapet, or a loose comment about Deplorables. The Bush/Rather National Guard story almost became one.
Black Eye admirably chronicles the Rathergate story from its genesis in the presidential campaign stories of 1999 through the deceptively titled movie Truth in 2015. And rather than presenting a monologue from some scripted talking head thinking he was a Lowell Thomas, the documentary incorporated a wide variety of players who were actual participants (including me) telling their part of the story, if from differing perspectives. An Attaboy for Fox and its producers.
But (and you knew this was coming) any such work deserves a follow-up after action report, not so much to criticize, but as to point out areas of improvement for similar works to follow. So let’s review.
There are two components of this documentary: the underlying story of George Bush’s tenure in the Texas Air National Guard and then the enveloping story of how journalism under the reins of CBS, Dan Rather, and his associates covered it, with the attendant fallout and fall from grace of a major “news” figure. By its title, the story told in the documentary is primarily about journalism gone bad. It was weak in covering the facts of the National Guard kernel and incomplete in explaining the journalism. Of all of the cast, I was the only one who was actually there in the Texas Air National Guard. Others discussing Guard issues rely on hearsay and misinterpreted documents.
First, there is the presence of Walter Robinson, a reporter and editor of the Boston Globe who appears throughout the documentary. His words control the narrative. In an editorial capacity with the viciously anti-Bush Boston Globe, Robinson wrote several articles from 1999 through the Rathergate 2004 period that were grossly inaccurate, biased, and uninformed. Thus, Robinson is probably the least qualified for the role he is accorded in the documentary. His comments throughout, like his related contributions to the Globe in 1999, 2000, and 2004, contain numerous errors and misstatements.
The documentary is silent on the failings of the Bush team that allowed the Rathergate story to proceed because they failed to seek help and tried to wing it on their own. Karl Rove and Dan Bartlett are given considerable face time and of course their contributions are important, but here’s the real story.
Karl Rove played no public role in 2004 when Bush’s service became a major campaign issue. Search hard and you will find he had nothing to say back then in defense of George Bush’s service record. Why? Because he didn’t know anything about the Guard. To see him talk now about mission changes and training resources indicates he has read up recently on other sources (probably including mine) to do the Fox Nation gig. Now he is an expert?
Former Bush counselor Dan Bartlett appears frequently in the documentary as an authoritative voice speaking from inside the Bush team. He should have been given a stipend by CBS and Rather for allowing the fiasco to make the screen. Throughout the National Guard story, Bartlett and his staff were winging it with stupidly erroneous responses. Each blunder was fodder for the left’s assertion that Bush went AWOL and used political influence to get his slot in the Guard. His unresponsiveness to the questions posed by CBS’s John Roberts (now of Fox and in the documentary) on the morning September 8 were the final go-ahead for Mapes and Rather, for whom silence was consent.
Here’s what you didn’t hear (although I had mentioned this to the producers): The night before the airing a White House staffer had called a Texas Air National Guard pilot who had served with Bush (not me) and asked him to stand by because of the upcoming CBS story. This fellow pilot, had he or any TexANG pilot been shown the memos the next morning, could have debunked them in their entirety, not on the famous typeface issues, but on the errors of form, policies, regulations, names, numbers, and anachronisms therein. He never got a call back. Bartlett winged it on his own and failed miserably.
At least the documentary presented the fact that the Thornburgh Panel had an attorney-client relationship with CBS, which I wrote about in 2004. This explains the compromised nature of the report, which refused to conclude that the memos were forensically proven fakes and left doubt to this day about the fraud perpetrated by Rather and Mapes.
In its denouement the story treats two miscreants with undeserved compassion. Dan Rather, regardless of his career and credentials, participated in a deception of the American people that could have reshaped the nation, its politics, its policies, its security. To this day he remains unapologetic for his perfidy and spews venomous commentary on his opponents. His epitaph must contain the word “liar.”
Unless someone proves him mentally incompetent at the time, Bill Burkett remains a man who was vindictive and deceitful long before his rise to fame with those fake memos. One can trace his vitriolic attacks for many months before his exposure. He has never apologized to the people he hurt. His petition to God and truth in the written statement he provided for the documentary is lame and late.