Published on Friday, March 11, 2005 by David Corn
When Dan Rather Tried To Hold a Bush Accountable
by David Corn
This week conservatives have been chortling with glee as Dan Rather has left the anchor slot at the CBS Evening News. Rather, of course, screwed up badly with those unauthenticated documents about George W. Bush's iffy National Guard Service. He might even deserved to have been canned for this embarrassing mistake. But rightwingers are delighted not because his departure sends a signal to other journalists: be careful. They are overjoyed because they have always considered him an in-the-closet leftwinger who has turned his anchor-desk into ground control for some supposed liberal media conspiracy. They do not dwell upon those instances when he was a brave and daring reporters--such as when he filmed Bull Conner turning the dogs loose on civil rights marchers (including children) and when he carried a wounded Marine in Vietnam to safety. Instead, Rather's rightwing critics pick upon a few exchanges that they claim expose his liberal bias.
On the top of their list is Rather's interview with Vice President H.W. Bush in 1988, during the presidential campaign. Rather focused on Bush's role in the Iran-contra scandal. For much of the campaign, Bush had avoided any detailed discussion of this subject. The showdown with Rather promised to be a dramatic moment. And it was. Bush was contentious, and Rather pushed back. It turned into a verbal shoving match. (The two were not in the same studio.) Rather, to an extent, lost control of the interview. It was not a good moment for him. And the Bush camp subsequently pointed to the encounter as proof that their man was no wimp, that he could go mano-a-mano with those libs in the media and win.
Lost in the mythology that developed was a simple fact: the interview was part of Bush's effort to mislead the public about his role in the Iran-contra scandal. In an autobiography Bush published earlier in the campaign, he repeated his standard defense line: when it came to Iran-contra, he had been "out of the loop." (In the interview, Rather pressed him on this point, and Bush said he had been unaware of the operational details.)
But years later--after the Rather interview, after Bush won the 1988 election, after he lost the 1992 election to Bill Clinton--Bush handed to the Iran-contra special prosecutor his diary from 1986. (For years, Bush had concealed the existence of this diary from the special counsel--a true cover-up.)
Here's what Bush wrote in his diary on November 5, 1986, the day US newspapers picked up a story from a Lebanese magazine reporting that the Reagan-Bush administration had traded arms for hostages with Iran:
On the news at this time is the question of the hostages. I am one of the few people that know fully the details, This is one operation that had been held very very tight and I hope it will not leak.
That was hardly what Bush had said during his interview with Rather. Moreover, years after Bush had said he had been "out of the loop," government documents were disclosed that showed he had attended many high-level meetings on the Iran initiative. Yet in his bout with Rather, he maintained he had not known the arms sales had been arranged as a hostage swap. Later disclosures also showed that Bush had played a key role in maintaining the administration's secret war in Central America by persuading the Honduran government to support the contras in return for US military and economic assistance. In other words, he was up to his neck in the Iran-contra affair.
With this context, look at the Rather-Bush face-off. I've posted it below, using the version that appears on www.ratherbiased.com
, a Rather-bashing site. You will see that Rather tried to force Bush to address various Iran-contra matters and that Bush ducked. Bush certainly did not reveal--as is now incontrovertible--that he was fully in-the-know and had been an engaged player in the Iran-contra mess. In a more-perfect-than-this world, this interview would be known for Bush's disingenuous and false statements, not Rather's performance.
Rather deserves credit for having attempted to hold a vice president seeking higher officer accountable. (The other anchors did not press Bush in this fashion.) And he deserves credit for a career that stretches far beyond the conservative caricature. There were times when he was weird. But there were times when he showed courage. The Bush interview was one of those moments.
Here's that transcript. Much of the discussion gets bogged down in details that only an Iran-contra trivia expert would now recall. But note that Bush never revealed his full involvement in Iran-contra and that when Rather asked him about a key and dramatic meeting on the Iran deal he attended, Bush replied he did not remember what had transpired.(click link and scroll down if you want to read the transcript) - http://www.commondreams.org/views05/0311-34.htm