Dan Rather's new book (and accompanying media tour) is the perfect opportunity to lay it all out on the table and come clean about any and all regrets that he's had in his long career. But Rather regrets nothing.
In an interview with George Stephanopoulos on Good Morning America this morning, Rather made it clear that he still defends the notorious story that undid his career at CBS News: The claim that George W. Bush shirked his duties in the Air National Guard, possibly even going AWOL, during the Vietnam War. An epic article by Joe Hagan in Texas Monthly earlier this month, re-reported that entire tale and came to the conclusion that … well, nobody really knows exactly what happened all those years ago. It seems to be pretty much a given that Bush got some kind of special treatment to get into the Guard, and there is some evidence that he didn't fulfill all his required flying duties after being transferred to Alabama. Or rather, there's no evidence that he did fulfill it, leaving a bit of black hole in record. There's no proof of almost anything he did during those months—aside from those pesky documents that Dan Rather waved on air as the smoking gun, but were later called out as forgeries.
Like Bush's attendance itself, no one seems to be able to prove one way or the other if the papers were faked. (The documents CBS presented were photocopies, which makes determining the origin of the originals virtually impossible.) Many people still insist that they were forgeries. Rather doesn't agree, even though he can't prove that they weren't.
In his mind, however, their legitimacy is totally beside the point. He thinks his bosses should have stuck with him and the story, no matter what. Stand up for the work or go down with the ship, like Murrow and the boys did back in the old days. (To be fair, Rather took almost all the heat, even though the story was based on the work other journalists, including former CBS producer Mary Mapes. He could have just easily thrown her under the bus himself.) Instead, at the first sign of pressure CBS "cut and run" (to use that old familiar phrase) and let him sink alone. Rather says that it was "propaganda" that forced CBS to backtrack on the story and he hasn't forgiven them. As he told Stephanopoulos:
"My attitude is…sometimes things in journalism go badly for the correspondent, but it's important not to get baffled, not to be afraid, and to never quit."
Despite the philosophical digression with Stephanopoulos about whether we can ever really know what absolute truth is, Rather clearly believes that no matter what you think of the documents, the essence of the Bush story is true. And it could very well be, even if the documents were total fakes. It brings to mind another old saying we've heard in past: They couldn't frame a guilty man.