Cover Story

Rear Guard

In Las Vegas, the National Guard salutes. In New York, CBS plays with audience trust. At DNC headquarters, Kerry supporters are mum. But finding who's behind the discredited Killian memos could shift this page-turner into full-blown scandal

Issue: "Rathergate," Sept. 25, 2004

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."

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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.

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