Many of us were capable of looking at that whole matter with levity. You might think it was a matter of great gravity: alleged journalistic malpractice at the highest level. Oh c'mon. I'm 61 years old and am totally aware, with all my peers, how even the most upstanding young men sought to avoid service in Viet Nam. Not only was it an ugly war, we had the draft. Is it possible today to even relate back to that?
There was a time in my formative years when I thought the Viet Nam war would go on forever. Much of my cynicism was built consuming the endless news coverage of the war, and just as important, the domestic protests against it. My generation fully understands that young men sought escape from the war, going to Australia if necessary.
It is elementary, too, to realize that young men from upper-class families might well use that "pull." It is totally plausible to believe that the young George W. Bush used his family's status to do a popular end run around war service, by getting accepted to the National Guard. Everyone back then knew the National Guard was an escape hatch.
So, regardless of whether "60 minutes" crossed the line into unacceptable journalism, we pretty much know what happened here.
The Viet Nam war was not only totally tragic at the time it happened, it left scars and issues that we had to deal with for many years. The "Swift Boat" attacks on John Kerry were an example. Kerry ran against Bush in the 2004 election. That's when "60 Minutes" launched the expose that wasn't as sharp or as certain as it should have been. Documents purporting to support the expose's case began looking suspicious.
The whole thing blew up partly because of the Internet. Special interests from across the political spectrum were finding their home online, and finding empowerment. No longer would the big network news operations have primacy.
That distant age of typewriters
Let's draw another contrast over time: We used typewriters in the 1970s. Those relics bore no resemblance to the word processing of today. Nobody ever really liked to type on a typewriter. The electronic typewriter wasn't that much of a step forward. You corrected mistakes using "white out." Or, you just went in with a pen and made notations. It wasn't the kind of thing you did for fun, not like today when you can do corrections and re-writes so cleanly.
Superscript barely existed with the equipment available at the time of the Bush/Guard episode. People simply didn't write or type as much. People kept details in their head more. Maybe it helped us be sharper. We simply "did" things instead of concentrating so much on documenting what we were doing. We used Kodak Instamatic cameras. Vinyl records ruled.
Were the famous "Killian documents" an outright fraud? Weighing this is like weighing whether the Kensington Runestone (of Minnesota) is genuine. Many high-ranking academics will kick and scream and say for sure the Runestone is a fake. And yet, that argument never takes over. The thought of authenticity is so tantalizing.
It seems to me, that if the Killian documents and the Runestone were blatant fakes, it would be easy to put the matter to rest, for all of us. The Killian documents, regardless of who wrote them, seem to indicate intimate knowledge of everything that was going on at the time. The authors were aware of the idiosyncrasies of all the principals.
The docs also easily support what everyone my age senses is likely: that Bush indeed used his family's pull to get in the National Guard, and then didn't have his heart in his service. Who can blame him? This isn't a decision he would have made were it not for the war and draft circumstances. My generation would shrug and say: that's just how it was back then. We don't like being reminded of it.
All this stuff comes from a dark hole in our collective memory.
The movie "Truth" came out in 2015. The story centers largely on Mary Mapes, a CBS TV news producer. Dan Rather figures in just as much. It's fascinating seeing Robert Redford in a role so similar to what he did in the old "All the President's Men," where his sidekick was the chain-smoking Dustin Hoffman as Carl Bernstein.
"Is there any place you don't smoke," Redford (as Bob Woodward) says to Hoffman as they step out of an elevator. Smoking and manual typewriters were the norm of the day.
Redford plays Dan Rather in "Truth," a match I would not have expected to be effective. It is very effective. Redford exudes the celebrity of the old network TV anchor.
Walter Cronkite was described as "the most trusted man in America." It's too bad we were at the mercy, as it were, of such a small celebrity-like cluster of men known as "anchormen." Today we take for granted our endlessly diverse universe of news/commentary offerings.
If you were to step into a time machine and go back to the '70s, you might faint from culture shock. In the '70s we thought things like "Studio 54" were important. We watched "Laverne and Shirley." No one admitted they really liked to watch TV. We read reports that people who watched a lot of TV suffered from depression.
Bush vs. Kerry in 2004
The movie "Truth" takes us back to the time leading up to the 2004 presidential election. Mapes and Rather enter a firestorm after the airing of a report that President Bush had, in the early 1970s received preferential treatment from officials of the Texas Air National Guard. In other words, we should be shocked that there is gambling in this establishment!
Key memos in this expose went under the microscope from many outside sources. Suspicion built that these "Killian documents" were generated from Microsoft Word. From the '70s, no.
Did I like the movie? I have watched both "Truth" and "Spotlight" in recent weeks, and give both an A-plus grade, exploring as they do the world of journalism and what it can do for us. "Spotlight" showed flawless investigative work vs. the Catholic Church in Boston. "Truth" shows us how journalism can struggle when its stories aren't absolutely airtight. But hey, those of us who were products of the '60s and '70s have a very strong sense of the veracity of Mapes/Rather.
The documents may not have been a slam dunk. But we all have very reliable insights into what likely happened, and it surprises us not at all.
One online reviewer asserted that "Rathergate," as it came to be known, "caused a major blow to the journalistic reputation of CBS News. It also damaged all American journalists, indirectly."
Oh no it didn't. Someday if George W. Bush ends up on that proverbial deathbed, he might well reveal that the whole Mapes investigation was really accurate. There is within all of us an innate urge to see the truth told, to have lies dismissed. That way we can find peace.
Another online reviewer asked: "Have we reached an era of journalism in which Internet nitpicking and clickbait forces news readers to examine each individual tree instead of considering the entire forest?" This is the quote that ought to be left in our minds after viewing the highly engaging movie "Truth." I would give this movie the maximum number of stars, just like for "Spotlight."
As Rather would say, "courage."
As Rather would say, "courage."