For half a dozen years, Bill Burkett has lived a pretty uneventful life in this tiny West Texas town. He and his wife are regulars at the Whistle Stop Cafe, ordering bacon cheeseburgers with jalapenos and fries or the pork chop special on Mondays. He "visits," as people like to say in these parts, with other ranchers over coffee at the Callahan County Farmer's Co-Op. And like other polite locals, he drops in on the local elected officials to introduce himself.
He is, by most accounts, a nice man who, in an overwhelmingly Republican-voting area, might be seen as somewhat eccentric for his Democratic bias.
"I've made comments to him like, 'I think there's only two Democrats left in Callahan County, and I'm both of them,' " said Pete Mendez, 65, a retired federal firefighter who has lived in the county all his life. " 'It's three of us, if that's the way you look at it' is kind of what he's said."
Despite several requests, Burkett has said nothing publicly since Wednesday, after he was named in news reports as a possible source of the disputed documents CBS News's "60 Minutes" used in a Sept. 8 broadcast that said President Bush received preferential treatment while he was in the Texas Air National Guard.
In adjacent Taylor County, which includes the city of Abilene, Burkett is viewed as an intelligent activist or statesman of sorts by Democratic officials -- the crusading voice against what is wrong with the Republican Party in general and with Bush in particular.
"He's very bright; he's not a hayseed," said Royse Kerr, chairman of the Taylor County Democratic Club, which last spring invited Burkett to speak to the members about the "state of politics in America."
Burkett, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Texas National Guard, mentioned then what he had told several reporters last winter -- that he believes Bush aides ordered the destruction of portions of the president's National Guard record because they might have been politically embarrassing. But that was "tangential" to "the framing of his thesis," Kerr said. "What we heard was to demand more honesty of our politicians."
The authenticity of the "60 Minutes" documents has been hotly disputed since the report bringing them to light was aired. After Burkett was named as a possible source of the papers, The Washington Post reported on Thursday that the documents faxed to CBS bore markings indicating that they had been faxed from a Kinko's in Abilene, 21 miles east of here. The day after, no one who knew Burkett here would comment about whether he could have been the source.
"I have no idea; I have no individual knowledge about that," said David Haigler, chairman of the Taylor County Democratic Party. "All I know is that I trust Bill Burkett. He's been a citizen soldier who decided to stand up and say what is on his mind, and he's got nothing but grief for it."
Haigler said Burkett had received several death threats since his name surfaced as a possible source for "60 Minutes." "There's just a lot of crazies out here, but Bill Burkett is not one of them. And if the issue is whether Bill Burkett concocted a bunch of records, that makes me want to throw up," Haigler said.
Kerr also called Burkett a person of integrity who, he believed, would not fabricate information.
"I describe Colonel Burkett as a person I would trust with my life or my wife," Kerr said. "The people that know him would pretty much agree with that assessment. He's a very devout Christian and a preacher's son."
Burkett has frequently posted notes to an Internet message group for Texas Democrats, urging other members to work harder to defeat Bush in the election, but also lambasting Democratic nominee John F. Kerry for "one of the worst run campaigns I've seen in my lifetime."
"Many of us have risked everything on this election," Burkett said in a message posted on Aug. 31. "The disappointment is deep and difficult to manage. But we fight on, in spite of incompetence at the top."
Staff writer Michael Dobbs and researcher Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.