The last seven days brought this: Dick Cheney suggested that the election of John Kerry would result in “devastating” terrorist attack. (His nominal boss merely opined that Mr. Kerry is a fan of Saddam Hussein.) Two generals informed the Senate Armed Services Committee that the C.I.A., in contravention of international and military law, kept up to 100 Iraqi detainees off the Abu Ghraib prison rolls in order to hide them from the Red Cross. The “Coalition of the Willing” lost another member when Costa Rica, which doesn’t maintain an army and never joined it in the first place, asked to be taken off the White House list. Remaining international relief workers began clearing out of Iraq, after four of their number, including two Italian women, were kidnapped from their headquarters in downtown Baghdad. The U.S. effectively ceded the Sunni Triangle to the bad guys, who said thank you by launching one of the heaviest ever mortar barrages on the center of the capital.
And, oh yes: American deaths in Iraq passed the 1,000 mark. (Actually, this happened roundabout the time Mr. Bush was citing phony figures for Al Qaeda leadership killed or captured during his convention acceptance speech, but the Pentagon was late owning up.)
Small potatoes, in short. Bagatelles. Asterisks to the REALLY BIG story this week, which was exactly when Times New Roman showed up on typewriters.
Doubtless you’re aware that this was the font employed in the composition of several three-decade-old documents that came into the possession of Dan Rather of CBS News. Their gist: George W. Bush was not recruiting-poster material while serving with the Texas Air National Guard. Such was the view of the documents’ purported author, Mr. Bush’s squadron commander, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, about whom one of the few items not in dispute is that he’s been dead for 20 years. Pretty much everything else about the late colonel-including whether he could type-is jump ball. Ditto opinion on whether the documents are forgeries, and, if so, a clumsy scheme hatched by Democrats (the position of Fox News et al.), or a clever snare laid by Republicans (the hunch of-among Kerry-backing others-Terry McAuliffe, who’s suggested the trap-setter may be Lord Vader himself, Karl Rove.)
What this has to do with who should be standing on the Capitol steps holding his right hand up Jan. 20 is beside the point, in media calculations. All focus now is on type fonts, graphology, the expertise of dueling experts and the history of typewriters, which is far more storied and studied than you might expect.
Before plunging in, an admission: Your correspondent doesn’t have a clue whether the documents in question are genuine. And cares less-either about their authenticity, or what Dubya was up to when he was (or wasn’t) serving with the Texas Air National Guard. What Mr. Bush has been up to the last four years, and will be for another four, given the chance-that’s tastier fish to fry.
So what’s the excuse for what follows? Well, maybe it’s not as interesting as how the Vice President decided last week that trading on eBay could be a solution for unemployment, but it does offer a window on the press, the right, our politics in general, and why Ralph Waldo Emerson was no dope when he said, “When you strike at a king, you must kill him.” Who knows? There may also be instruction on how John Kerry ought to handle himself as the days tick down.
With that preamble, here goes, starting with a tick-tock of the hoo-hah filched from ABC’s “The Note” and the Los Angeles Times .
At 8 p.m. last Wednesday, 60 Minutes broadcast Mr. Rather’s report, which centered on ex–Texas House Speaker and Democratic power Ben Barnes describing how he’d greased Mr. Bush’s way into the Guard (putting the lie to the longstanding claim that Dubya had made it on his own hook), and now felt bad on account. Mr. Barnes’ assistance wasn’t exactly a scoop, though that’s how Mr. Rather advertised it; in 1999, he’d told essentially the same story to the Dallas Morning News . All that was new was being on camera. Sandwiched between his recollections and White House communications director Dan Bartlett kicking them as “dirty politics,” the documents appeared, accompanied by Mr. Rather saying they’d been verified by “a handwriting analyst and document expert.” To bolster credence, there was an interview with a Texas Air Guard officer and friend of Killian’s, Robert Strong, who said the papers were “compatible” with the fella he remembered Jerry Killian being.
Not the most ringing testimony. Nor was the word of a single, unidentified, off-camera “expert” exactly open-and-shut proof. But Mr. Barnes was emphatic and-better yet-truthful. And Ben Barnes, Dan Rather said, was what the story was all about.
That’s not how it worked out.
Mr. Rather’s report hadn’t been over 10 minutes when a post appeared on the right-wing Web site FreeRepublic.com from “TankerKC,” saying the documents were “not in the style that we used when I came into the USAF … can we get a copy of those memos?”
Three hours and a little later, fat met fire with another FreeRepublic posting, this one from a blogger named “Buckhead.” He (or she-Buckhead won’t reveal his identity outside cyberspace) wrote:
Every single one of these memos to file is in a proportionally spaced font, probably Palatino or Times New Roman. In 1972 people used typewriters for this sort of thing, and typewriters used monospaced fonts. The use of proportionally spaced fonts did not come into common use for office memos until the introduction of laser printers, word processing software, and personal computers. They were not widespread until the mid to late 90′s. Before then, you needed typesetting equipment, and that wasn’t used for personal memos to file. Even the Wang systems that were dominant in the mid 80′s used monospaced fonts. I am saying these documents are forgeries, run through a copier for 15 generations to make them look old …. This should be pursued aggressively.
Here the plot starts a-thickening.
First (leaving aside how suspiciously well Buckhead puts sentences together for a righty blogger), there’s the extraordinary, yeah, boggling, knowledge of typewriting arcana. More remarkable still are the circumstances under which discernment occurred. Namely, viewing the document on a TV screen from a presumed distance of six to a dozen feet. Folks who make their living at this sort of thing rely on magnifying glasses, if not microscopes. And they don’t venture opinions unless the document’s in their puss.
Then there’s the warp speed with which Buckhead discerned monkey business. The last big document mess was the trove that conned Seymour Hersh into believing Jack Kennedy signed a contract with Marilyn Monroe agreeing to pay a hundred grand in consideration of her shutting up about their adventures between the sheets, as well as his pillow talk of owing the 1960 election to the good offices of Chicago mob boss Sam (Momo) Giancana. Their exposure (in which your correspondent had a walk-on) took weeks. And those documents were nutso on their face.
Another timing oddity which may or may not be related to the mysterious Buckhead, depending on your choice of villain, is the Pentagon’s release of allegedly newly-discovered records of Mr. Bush’s flight hours and middling piloting abilities one day almost to the minute before Mr. Rather’s report-following four months of insisting there were no more documents to disgorge. Second coincidence: The Pentagon release came hours after the Boston Globe , poring through yet other records, reported that Mr. Bush “fell well short of meeting his military obligation” by failing to report to a Boston-area Guard unit after he enrolled in the Harvard Business School, and by earlier ducking out on required training and drills for a total of nine months. Either could have landed Mr. Bush on full-time active duty for two years, potentially in Vietnam. But he received no punishment whatsoever.
Finally, there’s a detail that appears to have escaped press notice: The Web site where Buckhead’s posting appeared also happens to be the repository for anti-Jew, anti-Catholic, anti-homosexual, anti-John Kerry rants by Jerome R. Corsi, Ph.D. And whom, you ask, is Dr. Corsi? Co-author of the best-selling Unfit for Command: Swift Boat Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry , that’s who.
Anyhow, FreeRepublic devotees batted Buckhead’s discovery around a bit, in fashion somewhat less refined than Oxford Union joustings. Sample: “KERRY IS A NARCISSISTIC LIAR, GOLDBRICKER, AND TRAITOR!”
Meanwhile, things were cooking at another right-wing site, littlegreenfootballs.com, which joined the party at 11:30 p.m. eastern time with its own take. By morning, other bloggers were twittering and alarums were issuing from the established right, including ( Salon reported) Cybercast News, part of veteran “liberal media” basher L. Brent Bozell’s empire; and Creative Response Concepts, an Arlington, Va., P.R. emporium whose clients include the Republican National Committee, the Christian Coalition and a lengthy list of like-minded others. Its senior staff is heavy with Pat Robertson alumni, one of whom serves as official spokesman for-you guessed right again-Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.
Bloggers were in a frenzy now, traffic so heavy that one site got knocked offline by the volume. But most stayed in the hunt, and at 2:41 Thursday afternoon, with the Rather story less than 19 hours old, a blogger reported consulting with a forensic expert who’d assessed the Killian documents as fishy, too. Soon thereafter, an uncharacteristically tardy Matt Drudge weighed in with his first “FLASH!” This led to Bill Kristol’s Weekly Standard professing indignation at 5 p.m. An hour later, so did even huffier Fox, where Brit Hume reported that an office elf had created a Killian clone with Microsoft Word.
All that remained was for the allegedly nonpartisan mainstreammedia-”MSM,” in blogspeak-to get into the act. They did so with relish, led by the A.P. and happy-to-pee-on-CBS-News ABC. The next day, the contretemps made The New York Times and The Washington Post , which played the story the same as they had the Swift Boat stuff: This guy says this, that guy says that, and even if we know who’s full of it, our job ain’t telling you.
Fresh from offering Bob Dole a platform to spread unchallenged slanders about John Kerry’s war wounds, Wolf Blitzer chipped in by posting on CNN’s Web site a 30-year old transcript of Dan Rather being unawed by Richard Nixon during a Watergate press conference. “Now,” intoned Wolf, “the 72-year-old CBS News anchor finds himself in yet another confrontation with a Republican President.” (For a hint of lupine motive, Google “Blitzer AIPAC”).
From there it was off to the races, every furlong adding new typewriter experts offering this, that and the other opinion about Times New Roman, proportional spacing and “superscript,” the gizmo that makes tiny “th’s” after numbers. Demonstrating thoroughness (or need to fill airtime and column inches), the press also served up quotes from various and sundry friends and family members of the principals involved-including the daughter of Ben Barnes, who phoned up a Dallas talk-radio station to call her father a liar.
Poor Mr. Barnes. Even if he did condemn some other mother’s son to Vietnam, you had to feel for him. On top of the Oedipal run-in with the kid (that’ll be an interesting Thanksgiving dinner), the Republican National Committee, well-prepared for this moment, disgorged an encyclopedia of bile enumerating his “ethical mishaps.”
Midst the hubbub, which Mr. Kerry passed assuring Time (which was about to report him 11 points down and sinking), “I think we are doing extraordinarily well”-the Boston Globe stepped forward with new, unflattering information on Mr. Bush’s Guard tenure gathered from an officer in his unit, who identified himself as a non-Dubya-hating Republican lately gone over to the Dark Side. This elicited the following post on the conservative “News Forum”: They are Hanoi Boi’s kneepad-wearing, Kool-Aid drinking buttboys.
On it went, until Dan Rather got fed up a lot quicker than John Kerry did with the Swift Boat buccaneers, and-as they say down Sam Houston State way-stuck an apple in the pig’s mouth.
Partly, at least.
Leading off his Friday newscast with the firestorm, Mr. Rather noted that “many” of those besieging him “are partisan political operatives” and stuck to his six-shooters about the Killian papers being on the up-and-up. For proof, he displayed a 1968 document about Mr. Bush’s service released by the Pentagon using the superscript feature his critics claimed hadn’t existed then, and quoted the owner of the company that distributes Times New Roman as saying it had been around since 1931. He also trotted out Robert Strong again and interviewed the previously unnamed document and handwriting expert, Marcel Matley, who’d done the verifying for 60 Minutes . Momentarily, that was good enough for Matt Drudge, who headlined: “KEY CHALLENGES TO NATIONAL GUARD DOCUMENTS ANSWERED.”
Did that end it? Not on your life.
The furor’s continued, as have the attacks on CBS News, whose reach the right has reason to loathe. The New York Post even thinks it’s fingered the source of the Killian papers, an ex-Guardsman whose background couldn’t be better for Mr. Bush’s backers: illness acquired while on a Guard mission to Panama; lawsuit filed against the government; and-the really good part-two nervous breakdowns. Stand by for even grubbier tidbits, ’cause the Post ‘s on the case.
But a retired four-star who fought bravely in Vietnam pretty well settled one aspect of the debate in his autobiography some years back.
“I am angry that so many sons of the powerful and well-placed managed to wangle slots in Reserve and National Guard units,” he wrote. “The policies determining who would be drafted and who would be deferred, who would serve and who would escape, who would die and who would live were an anti-democratic disgrace.”
The book was called My American Journey ; the author was Colin Powell.
Is there a moral in any of this, save further confirmation how sordidly frivolous “the most important election in our lifetime” has become?
Only for John Kerry.
Until lately, he’s had his finger in his ear, wondering how to stave off the looming prospect of losing Secret Service protection the morning after the election. The side that’s been urging caution, according to The Times , is led by the odd couple of Joe Lockhart and Bob Shrum, who has apparently been tuning in to Dr. Phil . The forces urging flank-speed attack are commanded by David Thorne, Mr. Kerry’s Yale roommate, former brother-in-law and still best friend.
Mr. Kerry’s usual guides in tough spots-polls and focus groups-delivered a mixed message, so this time he was on his own. It’s not yet certain where he’ll come down. And whether (for a change), he’ll stick to it when he does. But from what Mr. Kerry’s been saying the last week or two-calling Iraq “the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time” and the “W.” in Mr. Bush’s name standing for wrong on about everything else-it looks like he’s got his flak jacket on, and is steering to the sound of the guns.
If the Killian papers are a set-up, meant to discredit, distract, deflect (all of which they’ve done splendidly, whoever’s behind them), he knows who’s waiting in the weeds around the bend: people who will stop at nothing.
John Kerry met an enemy like that a long time ago. He did all right, then. He might again.