LAS VEGAS - It could have been, in the words of Las Vegas showmen, a very tough room. In the midst of an ugly controversy over his service in the National Guard, George W. Bush strode into a sweltering Las Vegas Convention Center on Sept. 14 to face some 2,000 officers gathered for the annual meeting of the National Guard Association of the United States (NGAUS). Everyone in the room must have known about the latest charges of Bush family favoritism and political pressure dating back 30 years. What the White House wanted to know was: Had the latest allegations hurt the image of the commander in chief?
Though Mr. Bush denies pulling strings to get into the Texas Air National Guard, he did exercise some executive privilege to get into the Guard convention. His last-minute acceptance of a longstanding invitation-shortly after a 60 Minutes segment questioning his service-sent NGAUS officials scrambling to juggle their schedule. White House speechwriters chucked the standard stump speech and schedulers cleared 30 minutes for a major foreign policy address. The cavernous hall, already filled to seating capacity, was reconfigured to accommodate the hordes of national media smelling political blood. Even Karen Hughes, the president's semi-retired political guru, was on hand to monitor the event.
With so much at stake, Mr. Bush wasted no time getting to the point. "Nineteen individuals have served both in the Guard and as president of the United States," he said in his opening comments, "and I'm proud to be one of them."
The raucous standing ovation that followed-one of five that stretched the speech beyond the 30-minute mark-swept away any doubts about Mr. Bush's reputation among men and women in uniform. Despite charges by John Kerry that the president's activation of some 185,000 National Guard troops is the equivalent of a "back-door draft," those most affected by such a policy appeared overwhelmingly supportive.
"I like Bush because you know where he's going to stand," Nathan Bruck said after the speech. "He's plain-spoken, and he won't let political pressures push him to change his mind."
The veteran member of the California Air National Guard said this year's race has energized military voters more than those in the past. "It's surprising to hear military people talk about politics," he said. "There's not usually much said about it. We're professionals: Whoever wins, they're our commander in chief. But this year everyone's saying, 'I don't know what we'll do if Kerry gets in.' We don't know what our mission will be with a new president. And who will be in charge? I don't want to wear a [United Nations] blue hat somewhere."
Outside the hall, others had a different message. About 200 protesters marched in front of the convention center with signs that questioned ("Why Halliburton? Why Iraq?") or taunted the president ("Bush Finally Shows Up for the National Guard"). A few yards away, an anti-war group called Military Families Speak Out was holding a press conference decrying the president's "headstrong rush toward war."
Dante Zappala, whose brother Sherwood was killed in Iraq, told reporters that his family spent the Christmas holidays searching for a GPS unit to send to Iraq with Sherwood because the military refused to supply them. "We would've spent anything to help him do his mission and come home safely," Mr. Zappala said. Assigned to the search for weapons of mass destruction, Sherwood's unit came under attack on April 26.
"My brother died trying to make an honest man of George Bush," Mr. Zappala charged, though few were there to hear him. Despite the media circus next door, only a half-dozen reporters attended the anti-war press conference-a sign, perhaps, of just how completely the controversy over Mr. Bush's military service had dominated the political debate.
On Sept. 8, CBS broadcast a scathing attack on President Bush. CBS cited four memos purportedly written by Lt. Colonel Jerry Killian in 1972 and 1973 to prove then-Lt. Bush received preferential treatment to get into the 111th Fighter Interceptor Squadron of the Texas Air National Guard. During the broadcast, CBS invoked handwriting expert Marcel Matley to authenticate the documents. CBS also used former guard officers Bobby Hodges and Robert Strong to provide backup on the memos. Mr. Killian died in 1984.
But bloggers and soon the mainstream media began to find problems with the documents:
• Superscript: In referring to Mr. Bush's 147th Fighter Interceptor Group, the CBS memos twice exhibited a superscript, though such characters were nearly impossible to produce with typewriters at the time. To create a true superscript, a typewriter technician would have had to solder on a new character. Larry Fulwider of McGaheysville, Va., used to customize typewriters and is a typewriter enthusiast: "It would take a typewriter genius" to create a superscript with an old IBM Selectric. Microsoft Word automatically uses superscripts.
• Proportional spacing: The memos used a process of spacing common on modern word processors, but uncommon on 1970s-era typewriters. In proportional spacing, an "I" takes up less horizontal space than an "M." Most typewriters in the early 1970s used monospacing.
• Apostrophes: The memos used curled apostrophes, rather than the straight apostrophes found on most typewriters at the time. Again, a typewriter technician would likely have to solder on a special character to duplicate the CBS memo.
• Kerning: In typesetting, certain letter combinations are allowed to infringe upon another's personal space. In the word AWARE, the "A" tucks along the diagonal stroke of the "W." Kerning was impossible with typewriters because the machines could not know what key would be struck next. The CBS memos use a kind of kerning perfectly consistent with Microsoft Word.
• Centering: In the CBS memos, a three-line address atop two of the documents appears perfectly centered even when using proportional spacing. A typist would likely have needed a pen and pad (or slide rule) to work the math of centering three lines of proportionally spaced words.
After the initial, mechanical concerns, other problems with the memos soon began to appear. First, Mr. Killian's son and former wife stepped forward saying the colonel didn't type and never felt that way about Lt. Bush. Then Mr. Hodges said he'd never actually seen the memos CBS asked him to authenticate. He subsequently said he believed the documents to be forged. Another CBS expert, Marcel Matley, claimed he never told the network he believed the documents to be valid.
By the weekend, CBS still clung tightly to its last source, Robert Strong, who told the network that he "didn't see anything [in the memos] that was inconsistent with how we did business." But in an interview with WORLD, Mr. Strong clarified his statement, saying he merely meant the documents reflected the supercharged political nature of the Guard at the time. Mr. Strong said he neither vouched for the memos to CBS, nor had a personal opinion as to their validity.
Eventually the mainstream media began to take a hard look at the CBS report. ABC News tracked down two document experts who said CBS approached them to verify the four memos. Both experts said they told CBS they considered the documents to be likely forgeries. Linda James, a document expert from Plano, Texas, whom CBS contacted, told The Washington Post she questioned "whether they were produced on a computer." When asked if the network took her concerns seriously, she replied, "Evidently not."
Even Mr. Killian's former secretary pronounced the documents to be forgeries. "These are not real," Marian Carr Knox, the colonel's assistant in the early 1970s, told the Dallas Morning News after examining copies of the memos. "They're not what I typed, and I would have typed them for him." Ms. Knox noted numerous style errors in the documents, from abbreviations used to which side of the paper the signature fell on.
Despite the mounting evidence, CBS initially did not budge. A week after airing the memos, Andrew Heyward, the president of CBS News, simply asked the public to trust the organization's reporting: "We established to our satisfaction that the memos were accurate or we would not have put them on television. There was a great deal of coroborating [sic] evidence from people in a position to know." But on Sept. 15 Dan Rather acknowledged to The Washington Post, "If the documents are not what we were led to believe, I'd like to break that story." (Since Powerline and other blogs had broken the story a week earlier, he was a little late.)
The Post's Howard Kurtz stated that Mr. Rather acknowledged "that there are serious questions about the authenticity of the documents." Mr. Kurtz reported ominously, "Some friends of Rather, whose contract runs until the end of 2006, are discussing whether he might be forced to make an early exit from CBS."
Back in Las Vegas, few seemed inclined to believe CBS-including those who know the system best. Though no one would speak on the record, a half-dozen members of the Texas National Guard told WORLD the whole situation sounded wrong.
"If you're not in the Guard it sounds like a stupid little thing, but we always use the same abbreviations," said one member of the Army National Guard. "You can look through hundreds of my memos, and you'll never find me changing abbreviations."
Then there's the issue of where the Killian memos have been all this time. "Sure we sometimes write CYA memos," said one officer. "The Guard can be just as political as anywhere else. But what am I going to do with those memos when I leave the Guard-just leave them lying around my office? If I've kept them locked up in my desk all these years, why am I going to leave them floating around when I retire?
"If they're saying someone found these things still at the base in the late '90s, I don't buy it. No one's going to be 'scrubbing' my personal memos after I'm gone. I'll have taken care of that already."
For his part, President Bush sidestepped the memo controversy entirely during his speech in Las Vegas, focusing instead on the need for an aggressive, global war on terror. "You're fighting America's enemies around the globe so that we do not have to face them here at home," he told the officers to thunderous applause. "Our country is stronger, our freedom is more secure, because each of you have volunteered to serve."
With CBS increasingly isolated and under attack, Mr. Bush can afford to take the high road by ignoring the controversy. As evidence mounts against the memos' authenticity, the focus will shift from questions of "if" to questions of "who."
Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) has called for an investigation, but Joe Barton (R-Texas), chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, said media and viewers should take action. Forty congressional Republicans joined House Majority Whip Roy Blunt in a letter asking CBS to retract the story.
Even without proof of Democratic dirty tricks, however, the ongoing scandal is creating a headache for the Kerry campaign. Every day the political press focuses on the memos is one more day Mr. Kerry's own message is muted. With little more than a month and a half until the election, those days are a resource he can't afford to waste.
-with reporting by John Dawson