The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power

By Mary Mapes

St. Martin's. 371 pp. $24.95

Mary Mapes is madder than a rained-out rooster, as her former boss, Dan Rather, might say. Mapes, the CBS producer who lost her job over last year's "60 Minutes II" story about President Bush's National Guard service, resurfaces with a reconstruction of that incident that savages just about everyone associated with it: conservative bloggers, the mainstream media, CBS and its chief executive, Leslie Moonves, the Texas Air National Guard, even a few members of the Dallas Cowboys of the early 1970s.

And that's just in the first 40 pages of Mapes's wonkishly named but compellingly told tale of a byzantine chapter in journalism and politics.

For all her windmilling anger, Mapes musters a controlled, readable narrative about the story that became her professional undoing. In "Truth and Duty," she almost succeeds in making the case that she got the story substantially right, while the rest of the world insists she blew it.

Washington and the news media have moved on to new and better scandals, but the CBS story on Sept. 8, 2004, caused a massive, if short-lived, firestorm. Smack in the middle of a presidential campaign, Rather reported that previously undisclosed documents -- supposedly written by the future president's commander in the Texas Air National Guard, the late Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian -- sketched a record of indifferent conduct by young Bush, culminating with Killian's recommendation that Bush be suspended from flying. The report also contained an interview with Ben Barnes, a Democrat and former Texas lieutenant governor, who told of pulling strings to get Bush a slot in the Guard, enabling him to avoid combat in Vietnam.

In all, not exactly a flattering picture for a commander in chief conducting a war in Iraq and running against Sen. John F. Kerry, a decorated combat veteran.

As Mapes recounts it, the reporting of the piece, not its substance, almost instantly became the story. The Killian memos were immediately attacked as fakes by bloggers, who saw in them a politically motivated hatchet job by a suspiciously liberal anchor and TV network. They reproduced copies of the memos, analyzed such arcana as "superscripts" and "proportional spacing," and "demonstrated" how such documents could be reproduced using nothing more sophisticated than Microsoft Word.

The cacophony quickly built into an obliterating roar as mainstream news organizations stampeded after the story, turning up various inconsistencies. After far too much discussion about font sizes, Rather capitulated and apologized, saying the Killian memos could not be authenticated. Mapes and three other producers and news executives involved in the story eventually lost their jobs after a lengthy investigation by a CBS-appointed panel.

And that would be that, if Mapes, restrained from talking publicly while employed by CBS, had not reawakened these sleeping dogs in "Truth and Duty."

The value of this book is its long view and its inclusion of something very much lacking in the explosive atmosphere that followed the original report: context. The story behind Mapes's story is laid out in meticulous detail here, and it builds by increments: the dysfunctional, politicized climate surrounding the Texas Guard in the early 1970s; the corroborating witnesses; the memos themselves, and how they mesh -- in ways large and small, in nuance and substance -- with Bush's official Guard records.

Mapes also addresses the typographical issues, which are complex and easily misreported (as they were, she claims, by The Washington Post, among others). According to Mapes, "superscript" typewriters were widely available on military bases in the early 1970s; and no, Microsoft Word cannot reproduce the exact typography of the Killian memos, at least not to a trained eye.

Her case is by no means airtight. But it does suggest that if the Killian memos were fakes, they were more artful, rigorous and extraordinarily well-crafted fakes than Mapes's accusers are willing to admit.

Indeed, of the many nasty and unfair things said about Mapes by the blog mob, at least one of them seems patently false. She may have been duped, but she was demonstrably not reckless in her pursuit of this story. The Guard memos were the product of years of on-and-off effort by a much-decorated journalist who, only months before Memogate, had broken the story of the Abu Ghraib prison abuses. On the other hand, Mapes's narrative is marred by her failure to appreciate her own blind spots, which are enormous. Crucially, Mapes didn't ask too many tough questions about the source of the memos: an embittered, Bush-hating Texas cattle rancher and former Guardsman named Bill Burkett.

In the aftermath of the CBS report, Burkett admitted that he had lied to the CBS team about where he had gotten the goods. The story he then told -- about a mysterious go-between named Lucy Ramirez, who handed off the documents to another mysterious stranger, who then passed them to Burkett at a livestock show in Houston -- would have raised more red flags than May Day in Tiananmen Square had CBS known of it. Remarkably, Mapes doesn't seem skeptical of this bizarre tale even now. "By God, in Texas," she writes, "anything could happen."

Mapes is also far too casual in her dismissal of the revelation that she helped Burkett contact Kerry adviser Joe Lockhart. Mapes says it was all innocent, a casual bit of horsetrading designed to get a source (Burkett) to talk. That may be so, but it looks ghastly and plays right into the suspicions of Mapes's critics.

It's also telling whom Mapes decides to bust spleen over. In addition to her undisciplined machine-gunning of those who blamed her or displeased her, she unspools a dark, Michael Moore-ish theory about White House adviser Karl Rove's supposed role in the whole mess. She not only proves nothing but also comes off as more paranoid and less responsible than the bloggers she seems to loathe.

The only one truly spared in Mapes's account (besides Mapes herself) is her beloved colleague Rather. This is curious. Rather was a key participant in the making of Memogate, but if he stood and fought while the winds howled and the wolves closed in, it's not much in evidence in Mapes's account. It was Rather, after all, who publicly apologized for the story, something Mapes probably should consider a betrayal, since she contends there was nothing to apologize for. One could even argue that Rather saved his own skin -- he stepped down as anchor on the "CBS Evening News" but kept a cushy role at "60 Minutes" -- as Mapes was pushed overboard by CBS.

It's entirely possible that Mapes was wrong -- very wrong -- about Bush's military record. But that's still only theoretical. Mapes doesn't establish the authenticity of the disputed memos here (she can't -- not without Killian, and not without the original documents to test and examine). But then, no one has definitively shown them to be forgeries, either. The "independent" panel that CBS hired to look into the story (composed primarily of lawyers, not journalists, and co-chaired by a former Republican attorney general) cast plenty of doubt on the story and CBS's handling of it. But it never said the report was baseless, never accused Mapes or Rather of political bias or called the memos fraudulent.

Although that's hardly a ringing vindication of Mapes, it's better than a kick in the head, as they say in Texas. It also suggests, as Mapes does, that there's more to the Bush Guard story than we've learned so far.