Like Kennedy trying to solve his own assassination, Rather explored every possible conspiracy theory, from Karl Rove’s planting passable fakes to damage him to a National Guard employee’s typing up copies before the originals were destroyed. “I’ve been down every one of those rabbit holes and 50 more,” says Rather, “including people saying, ‘You come up with $200,000 in small bills…’ About that I say, ‘Listen, I’m not going to pay for anything.’”
The case against the documents had boiled down to two critical weaknesses: The first was their modern font spacing, which several experts claimed could not have been produced on an early-seventies typewriter. Then there was the source, Bill Burkett, a disgruntled former National Guard employee who, say the detractors, hated Bush and misled CBS about their provenance. Rather had always believed that the arguments regarding typeface were merely a right-wing distraction, and that pitting experts against experts was a no-win proposition. What he needed to do was to follow Burkett’s paper trail—if he could prove where the documents came from, he could prove their authenticity.
The reporting was difficult. Sources changed their stories from day to day. Tips led from far West Texas to the Louisiana border, from retired secretaries to a drunk in a trailer park. Several witnesses, including current and former Guard employees, refused to talk on the record, saying they didn’t want to be put through the ringer as Burkett had been. “We very quickly got into the miasma of the thing,” says Rather. “I wish we could have dealt all the time with priests and rabbis and angels, but that’s not the way it works.”
Here is what Rather, after his investigation, believes happened with Bush’s National Guard records: In 1998, as Newsweek first reported, Harriet Miers (then Bush’s lawyer, later his Supreme Court nominee) and her firm were paid $19,000 to examine Bush’s Guard record for “vulnerabilities” in the run-up to his bid for the presidency. Rather believes Burkett’s allegation that the documents were “scrubbed” rather than examined. “There have been documents that have been shredded,” Rather asserts. “That’s a fact.” (Former White House spokesman Dan Bartlett admits that he was involved in examining the records, but calls the scrubbing allegation “an outrageous claim … the type of conspiracy theory that gives politics a bad name.”)
According to this version of events, unknown National Guard employees purloined some of the damning documents before they could be destroyed. Then, somehow, they came into the hands of former Guardsman Burkett. Burkett’s story about how he got the documents is bizarre: He claims they were given to him by a mysterious (and some say fictitious) woman named Lucy Ramirez, who arranged to have them hand-delivered to him at a Houston cattle show. Rather believes this handoff did in fact happen but that it had been concocted to conceal the fact that Burkett and his buddies had stolen the documents themselves.
“This is how it appears to have happened, or a way it could have happened,” says Rather. “That’s a working and, I think, reasonable hypothesis.”
Still, Rather is ultimately relying on the same source who got him into trouble in the first place. Why does he believe his documents are real now? There are two reasons: “First of all,” he says, “the story is true. Here is the proof that the story is true: Nobody has ever denied what was reported in the story. President Bush has not denied it, nobody at the White House has denied it, and nobody connected with the Bush administration has denied it.” (Actually, Bartlett does deny what CBS reported: “We believe the story is inaccurate, both the general thrust of it and the questionable sources they used,” he says. “I’m not a forensic specialist, but many people who are concluded the documents were fraudulent.”)
The second reason Rather believes the documents came from Bush’s file is a piece of information that he is privy to, but the rest of us are not—at least not yet. Rather says his lawyer has interviewed a credible eyewitness to the alleged shredding (and stealing) of the Bush documents who has agreed to tell the story under oath. But the witness refuses to come forward until Rather’s case goes to trial.
That leaves Rather twisting in the wind for now, a bit desperate for more information that will help him connect the dots. “If anybody knows anything,” he says, “now’s the time for them to come forward. If Burkett’s got something, now’s the time.” He repeats the phrase, looking for the right emphasis. “Now is the time. Now is the time.”
Rather won’t discuss when precisely he began thinking about filing suit. But one likely catalyst was Mary Mapes. In the fall of 2006, Mapes published a book, Truth and Duty, that defended the Bush Guard story and suggested a Viacom–White House conspiracy. What was in the book wasn’t surprising to Rather. What was surprising was that after its publication, Mapes hired a high-powered Houston lawyer named Mark Lanier to draw up a lawsuit against CBS, and CBS responded with a settlement before she had even filed it. What was in the suit that Mapes hadn’t included in her book? What would make CBS so eager to settle? The settlement required that Mapes sign a confidentiality agreement, and she couldn’t talk about it, even to Rather. (Mapes and CBS refused to comment on her suit.) Her settlement made Rather feel like he was the last of the Guard-story veterans left standing. The three other CBS staffers dismissed in 2005 had already settled as well—Josh Howard for $3 million. “Every other person has taken the money for silence,” says Rather. He thought of himself as the only one who could still uncover the truth.