The White House pounced yesterday on the disclosure that a CBS producer put the source of discredited documents about President Bush's National Guard service in touch with a senior adviser to John F. Kerry, saying this shows "coordination" between the Democratic nominee's campaign and the "60 Minutes" report.
Joe Lockhart, the Kerry aide who called CBS's source, former Texas Guardsman Bill Burkett, dismissed the charge as "a smear campaign" by Republicans. Another Kerry aide, Michael McCurry, said Kerry has been briefed and is "satisfied" with Lockhart's explanation that it was an innocuous conversation.
"He does not believe Joe did anything improper," said McCurry, who preceded Lockhart as President Bill Clinton's press secretary.
The dispute over Lockhart's role came as both campaigns tried to extract partisan advantage from the media furor over CBS's apology for failing to authenticate purported Guard documents before charging that Bush had received favorable treatment in his military unit 30 years ago. The flap resembles recent charges by Democrats that the Bush campaign had ties to the anti-Kerry group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which led to the resignation of Bush's campaign lawyer, who had advised the group.
Lockhart said Monday that anchor Dan Rather's producer, Mary Mapes, had asked him to call Burkett, an anti-Bush partisan, by saying that he had been helpful to CBS and mentioning the upcoming Guard story. Lockhart said that he called Burkett, without knowing who he was, and that the Texan offered advice but did not discuss the Guard documents.
Burkett has said he had an "understanding" with CBS that he would provide the documents in exchange for help reaching Lockhart.
CBS spokeswoman Kelli Edwards, asked about Mapes's actions, said: "It's obviously against CBS News standards and those of every other reputable news organization to be associated with any political agenda." She said that "to the best of our knowledge, there was no 'deal' " and that the matter will be examined by outside investigators CBS plans to appoint. On last night's "CBS Evening News," correspondent Bill Plante said Mapes's call had "at least the appearance of impropriety."
White House communications director Dan Bartlett said that "the coordination between the Kerry campaign and Burkett is highly troubling. . . . The idea that a top-level political operative like Mr. Lockhart had no conversation about the essence of the [Guard] story with either the producer or Bill Burkett is shocking to believe."
Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie raised similar questions, telling Fox News: "I think it is time Senator Kerry came clean about all the contacts between CBS and his campaign and Bill Burkett. What did they know and when did they know it?"
Lockhart said Bartlett and Gillespie have declined invitations to debate him on several cable and network morning shows. Instead, he said, they are "besmirching my reputation" and trying to deflect attention from the war in Iraq.
Democratic National Committee Chairman Terence R. McAuliffe, saying the DNC had no involvement with Burkett, said Republicans are finding it "a lot easier to talk about Dan Rather than to talk about George W. Bush and the persistent, unanswered questions surrounding the president's National Guard service." He added that Bush's "discharge seems less and less honorable with each passing day. . . . This goes to his character and his credibility and whether he's being honest with the American people."
Bartlett described the attacks as "the new strategy of the Kerry campaign, to call the president a liar." He said questions about Bush's Guard service "have been answered on countless occasions over the last 10 years."