Dan Rather vs. George W. Bush: ‘Truth’ comes out

October 16, 2015, 12:00 PM UTC
Courtesy of Sony Pictures

The interested parties have circled the wagons, but don’t be surprised if open warfare breaks after Friday’s release of Truth, the Robert Redford and Cate Blanchett-powered drama about the infamous 60 Minutes II broadcast of 2004 regarding President (and then-candidate) George W. Bush and the Texas Air National Guard.

In that report – which has become a watershed moment in American TV journalism — CBS anchor Dan Rather accused Bush of having shirked his Vietnam-era guard duty, and CBS (CBS) was, in turn, accused of shoddy journalism. Dan Rather retired in the wake of the uproar and consequent investigation. The producer behind the piece, Mary Mapes, never worked in TV news again. It’s an 11-year-old case, but the wounds seem as fresh as yesterday.

“It’s astounding how little truth there is in Truth,” a CBS spokesperson said this week, via the same prepared release the network has been giving out for weeks. “There are, in fact, too many distortions, evasions and baseless conspiracy theories to enumerate them all. The film tries to turn gross errors of journalism and judgment into acts of heroism and martyrdom. That’s a disservice not just to the public but to journalists across the world who go out every day and do everything within their power, sometimes at great risk to themselves, to get the story right.”

Not unexpectedly, the filmmakers beg to differ:

“Although we understand CBS wants to put this episode behind them, it’s disappointing that they seem to be so concerned about our film,” said Truth’s producers — also in a prepared statement. “The events depicted in Truth are still vigorously debated, and that’s a good thing. It’s a fascinating story at the intersection of politics, media and corporate America and features powerhouse performances from Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford and the rest of the cast. We hope people will see the film and judge for themselves.”

It will be all but impossible for audiences to determine guilt or innocence, dereliction of duty or devotion to veracity, based strictly on the movie: Its screenplay was adapted by James Vanderbilt from Mapes’ own memoir, Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power, in which she strenuously defends her work on what became known as “Rathergate” (or “Memogate”). Her position is that the right-wing blogosphere and other forces devoted to Bush’s re-election (he was just behind John Kerry in the polls at that time) conspired to undermine her reportage and that CBS acquiesced.

Bad blood

There had been bad blood between Rather and the Bushes, dating from 1988 and the news anchor’s alleged on-air “ambush” of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush over Iran-Contra. Add to this the reporting on torture at Abu Ghraib, which was an embarrassment, at best, for the administration of the younger Bush.

For his part, the now-83-year-old Rather defends his work with his longtime producer — he and Mapes were awarded a Peabody for the Abu Ghraib expose, albeit after their resignation/dismissal from CBS.

“We reported a true story,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “There wasn’t any doubt then, and there is no doubt in any reasonable person’s mind now, the story was true.”

‘Normal journalistic range of bungle’

At a New York Times-sponsored panel discussion on the film last week, Redford was supportive. “The idea of playing a role in a project that would and give them their day in court, which I thought they well deserved, was very appealing to me,” the Times reported. “These guys had to live with being shut down for years and years.”

According to that same Times report, Mapes, who was also on the panel, gave a half-hearted endorsement of herself. “There is a tremendously strong perception that we bungled, bungled, bungled very badly,” she said. “I think we were within the normal journalistic range of bungle.”

Rewriting history?

Others have been far less kind. Andrew Heyward, president of CBS News at the time of the scandal, told the Times, “It takes people responsible for the worst embarrassment in the history of CBS News, and what was at the time a grievous blow to the credibility of a proud news organization, and turns them into martyrs and heroes. Only Hollywood could come up with that.” Dan Rather had sued CBS, alleging breach of contract over his treatment; he lost the suit.

But the irony contained in the film’s very marketable title is that the truth of the Bush story didn’t really matter in the end. Critics managed to deftly deflect attention away from the central question — whether Bush had actually dodged the draft and shirked his Guard duty. Instead the focus was on the legitimacy of the documents Mapes had collected — photocopied memos purportedly written by Bush’s squadron commander, and secured from Bill Burkett, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Texas Air National Guard and a known Bush critic.

Burkett, played in the film by Stacey Keach, lied about where he got the documents. Dan Rather presented them on the air as if they’d been verified by experts, which they had not. The movie is quite open about these lapses in judgment, while never for a minute backing off the position that Bush disobeyed orders and very likely went AWOL from the Guard.

What will Jeb say?

Which opens the possibility that third parties will enter the Truth fray, namely the Jeb Bush presidential campaign and the GOP itself, which has been straining to put a little luster back on the administration of Bush’s brother, George.

It’s not as if there will be anywhere to hide – the film is being released by Sony Pictures Classic (SNE), which has one of the better Oscar records of any of the studio-offshoot distributors and Blanchett – whose portrayal of the hyper-intense Mapes is raw, determined and ruthless in pursuit of a story – is being touted by the awards-prognostication industry as an actress to watch, as Oscar time creeps closer. There’s little doubt that Truth will be in the moviegoers faces this fall. But they’ll have to draw their own conclusions.

John Anderson is a film writer and critic based in New York.