Old memos about President Bush’s time in the National Guard appear to be fake, but the information in them appears to be correct — probably because a whistleblower named Bill Burkett dug them out of the trash when he saw Bush’s military file sanitized, then reproduced them to get the word out.
CBS is taking a lot of heat for ignoring warning signs that the memos are fake. It’s also insisting that its reporters confirmed the material. How can both be true?
It is possible, and it reminds me of another famous case in which the information was correct and the vehicle for the information wrong: Watergate.
(In this posting, we shall be using the final script for the movie “All the President’s Men” by William Goldman, rather than the nonfiction work by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that served as its basis. I just don’t have a copy of the book here, but I do have a copy of the movie. And a copy of Goldman’s “Adventures in the Screen Trade,” in which he writes that, in writing the script from the reporters’ book, “Great liberties would not be taken with the material. Not just for legal reasons, which were potentially enormous. But if there ever was a movie that had to be authentic, it was this one ... And if we ‘Hollywooded it up’ — i.e., put in dancing girls — there was no way [the media] would take it kindly.” So let’s rely on the movie being close enough to reality, except, oddly, for a scene written by Bernstein, not included here, that was completely made up.)
The action: Intrepid reporters Woodward and Bernstein, their sideburns and wide ties are pursuing H.R. “Bob” Haldeman as the key source controlling a White House slush fund used to pay the Watergate burglars. It’s come to this, they realize in a Washington, D.C., fast food joint in 1972: “If we can’t prove the fifth man is Haldeman,” Bernstein says, “we’re wiped out.”
WOODWARD: Common sense says it’s Haldeman.
BERNSTEIN: We go, and see sloan and we tell him that we know he named Haldeman to the grand jury ...
WOODWARD: Then all we would need to do is have him confirm it.
BERNSTEIN: Right. Want to do it that way?
WOODWARD: Yes. Let’s go back and see Sloan.
The reporters go to Hugh W. Sloan’s house to see if they can use the man, a White House aide turned whistleblower, to confirm Haldeman’s involvement. Sloan, whose wife is pregnant, is scared of the White House dirty tricksters and unhappy to see the reporters again.
BERNSTEIN: We’ve already written the story, we just need you to define a couple ...
SLOAN: Deborah’s in the hospital and my in-laws are coming over ...
WOODWARD: Two questions, we understand. Two questions. [Sloan lets them in.] The cash that financed the watergate break-in, five men had control of the fund.
BERNSTEIN: Mitchell, Stans, Magruder, Kalmbach, we have confirmations on those four.
WOODWARD: We just found out Haldeman’s the fifth.
SLOAN: I’m not your source on that.
BERNSTEIN: We’re not asking you to be our source. All we’re asking you to do is confirm ...
SLOAN: I’m not your source on Haldeman.
BERNSTEIN: Okay, look, when you, you were questioned by the grand jury ...
WOODWARD: You had to name names.
SLOAN: Of course ...
WOODWARD: Well, uh [uncertain pause, looks at Bernstein] ... I don’t know, okay, say we wrote a story that said Haldeman was the fifth name to control the fund.
BERNSTEIN: Right. Would we be in any trouble?
WOODWARD: Would we be wrong?
SLOAN: [slowly and carefully] Let me put it this way. I would have no problems if you run a story like that.
WOODWARD: You wouldn’t.
The reporters confer, decide they have what they need and leave, wishing Sloan and his wife well. Sloan is relieved to see them leave, off to the next task, which is to get a real confirmation now that they’ve tricked Sloan into being a primary source by telling him he was the confirmation. It’s a common technique among reporters to get people to talk by acting as though the reporters have more information than they really do. The next stop is a Federal Bureau of Investigation agent named Joe, whom Woodward and Bernstein get on the telephone late one night.
WOODWARD: You didn’t know Haldeman had control of the slush fund.
JOE: Oh, yes we did. It’s all in our file.
WOODWARD: Not about Haldeman.
JOE: Yeah, Haldeman, John Haldeman. Look, now, look, I’m very busy. I gotta go, I gotta go put the kids to bed.
We hear Joe hang up the phone abruptly. We see Bernstein hang up, exultant.
BERNSTEIN: That’s a confirmation! That’s a confirmation right there!
WOODWARD: [still holding phone] Wait a minute, wait a second. Did he say “John”?
BERNSTEIN: He said Haldeman.
WOODWARD: He said John Haldeman!
BERNSTEIN: What the hell difference does it make he said Isaiah or David, there’s only one Haldeman!
WOODWARD: Yeah, well, Isaiah or David aren’t assistant to the president!
We find out later that the reporters called Joe back to confirm it was Bob Haldeman he meant, which allows them to go to Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee and say, “Sloan told the grand jury, the FBI confirms, what more do you need?” Bernstein is “absolutely” sure of the story, and Woodward tells Bradlee he’s “sure” of it. But Bradlee demands yet another source giving yet another confirmation. So Bernstein calls a friend at the Justice Department and, well, lies a little.
BERNSTEIN: I’m sorry to disturb you, but we’re going with a story that says Haldeman was the fifth name to control the fund and they’re hassling us here. We’ve got three confirmations, but if you’d just help us, I’d appreciate it.
SOURCE: Look, I won’t say anything about Haldeman, not ever.
BERNSTEIN: I understand that, we wouldn’t want you to do that, we know it’s against the law for you to say anything, if there’s some way you could warn us to hold on the story, we’d appreciate it.
SOURCE: I’d really like to help you, but I can’t.
BERNSTEIN: Look, I’m going to count to 10, all right? If there’s any reason we should hold on the story, hang up on the phone before I get to 10. If the story’s all right, you’ll just be on the phone after I get to 10, all right?
SOURCE: Hang up, right?
BERNSTEIN: That’s right. You got it?
BERNSTEIN: We’re straight. All right. I’m going to start counting. Okay? We all right?
Bernstein slowly counts to 10, looking more and more relieved as he goes. He reaches 10 nearly in a state of bliss.
SOURCE: You got it straight, man? Everything okay?
BERNSTEIN: Everything’s fine. [He hangs up and goes running back to the newsroom.] Woodward! I got it! He confirmed!
WOODWARD: What happened?
BERNSTEIN: I said if I get to 10, you don’t hang up, it’s solid.
WOODWARD: Did he confirm?
[They run to Bradlee.]
WOODWARD: Bernstein got another source!
BERNSTEIN: Guy at Justice confirmed!
BRADLEE: If there’s any doubt, we can run it tomorrow.
WOODWARD: You don’t have to. The story’s solid, we’re sure of it.
BERNSTEIN: Just got off the phone with him. It’s gold.
BRADLEE: [doubt etched on face] Okay, we go with it.
But, in fact, something is very, very wrong. The next day, with the story that Sloan named Haldeman in grand jury testimony splashed all over the Post’s front page, White House press secretary Ron Ziegler is on television, blasting away.
ZIEGLER: All I know is that story that ran this morning is incorrect and has been so stated not only by me, but by the individual whose grand jury, secret grand jury testimony they based their story on. That individual has denied he ever so testified.
When Bernstein has a chance to talk to Sloan, he clears up the matter. Fearing audio surveillance, Bernstein types to Woodward: “Heard what we wanted to hear. [Sloan] said he would have named Haldeman to Grand Jury — was ready to blame Haldeman but nobody asked him about Haldeman!” They go tell Bradlee.
BRADLEE: What happened to that Justice source of yours?
BERNSTEIN: Well, I guess I made the instructions too complicated, because he thought I said “hang up” when I just said “hang on.”
BRADLEE: Oh, Jesus.
WOODWARD: The story is right. Haldeman was the fifth name to control the fund, and Sloan would have told the grand jury.
BERNSTEIN: Sloan wanted to tell the grand jury.
BRADLEE: Why didn’t he?
BERNSTEIN: Because nobody asked him.
WOODWARD: Nobody asked him!
The reporters’ tricks and arcane techniques had them lying even while three independent sources confirmed the truth of their information. Something similar may have happened to CBS and Dan Rather, as they confirmed the information in memos and, finding it correct, glossed over warnings about the vehicle in which that information arrived. If this is what happened, it’s a shame. But, Dan, it happens to the best of them, and the truth may yet survive.