WASHINGTON — Bill Burkett of Baird, Texas, will have a prominent place in the annals of political trickery. He'll be remembered as the one who aimed at President Bush and felled the mighty Dan Rather and "60 Minutes."
Let me stipulate that I'm an alumnus of Edward R. Murrow's CBS News, but have no animus against CBS or Mr. Rather, a one-time colleague.
"60 Minutes," which has garnered kudos for its exposure of the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, thought it was on to another scoop when it came into possession of four documents bearing the signature of Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, who died 20 years ago, and was young George Bush's squadron commander in the Texas Air National Guard. The letters spelled trouble for President Bush. They represented the squadron commander in 1972 as bridling under pressure to sugarcoat Lieutenant Bush's inadequate performance record and his refusal to take a physical. "60 Minutes" had also prevailed upon Ben Barnes, a Democrat and onetime speaker of the Texas House, to tell how, at the instigation of a family friend of Rep. George Bush, he'd used his influence with Guard officers to have young Bush named, out of turn, to a slot in the Guard. This, in effect, protected him from the draft and possible assignment to Vietnam.
White House officials, shown the "Killian documents," at first accepted their authenticity. But, on closer examination, it began to appear that the documents were typed a lot later than 1972. Adding to the uncertainty, Colonel Killian's secretary said she'd never typed these memos, though they accurately reflected Killian's views about Bush. This suggested that someone who'd seen Killian's correspondence and was familiar with National Guard lingo had manufactured the letters, perhaps with the help of discarded files.
Who could've contrived this hoax? Suspicions settled on Mr. Burkett, himself a former Guard officer with a lively hatred of President Bush. With a sinking feeling, Rather and staff, who'd worked long and hard at developing the "scoop," realized they'd been had.
Rather flew to Texas and strong-armed Burkett into an interview confessing all - almost all. He said he'd worked in league with someone he wouldn't name who was the real perpetrator of the hoax. Later, Burkett admitted that this was a lie, too. So, Rather went on the air with a humble (for him) mea culpa. He said that in "trying to carry on a CBS tradition of investigative reporting," CBS had "made a mistake." And Rather, along with his editors and producers, bared their breasts to the CBS- and Rather-bashing that was unleashed by the episode of the concocted letters.
• Daniel Schorr is the senior news analyst at National Public Radio.