The Newsman

Dan Rather's story as a journalist and a Texan is compelling and is the subject of a new Netflix documentary. He was dogged and unafraid and at 92, he is still relevant. His own story might be the best one he’s ever told.

The Newsman
George W. Bush, Texas National Guard, Prior to Disappearing to Alabama

“If I had my choice I would kill every reporter in the world, but I am sure we would be getting reports from Hell before breakfast.” - Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman

Dan Rather was twenty years a legend by the time I began to work in Houston television news. Eventually, I was to become an alum of the station where he got his start, KHOU-TV. His rise to prominence began there in 1961 when he was looking at a weather radar screen of Hurricane Carla and its spinning clouds covering the entire expanse of the Gulf of Mexico. The story told is that the young correspondent had his cameraman turn his lens on the image to enable the audience to get a sense of what would soon make a historic and devastating landfall. The decision probably saved an untold number of lives because the evacuations of Galveston accelerated and people were compelled to leave the island for inland safety.

Ultimately, I began to think of Rather as destiny’s darling, which is, effectively, an insult to his abilities and preparation as a reporter, though he was not without luck. His career followed American history’s arc, in part, because he was always aware and ready. CBS hired Rather away from KHOU-TV and sent him to run a bureau in Dallas. When the president announced a trip to the city, Rather is said to have asked his editors for additional resources because of the politics manifesting under community leadership in 1963. Texas later became a location for jumping over to Dixie and reporting on the brutality confronting the Civil Rights Movement, which was followed by an assignment covering the Democratic National Convention in Chicago where he was roughed up on live TV. Rather also got sent to report on the War in Vietnam and was later back in Washington covering Watergate before, finally, succeeding Walter Cronkite as anchor of the evening news.

Shortly after the Texan had ascended to the lead role at CBS, I was working at the network’s affiliate in Omaha. I had managed to come across the fact that a group of historic re-enactors were about to commemorate an anniversary of the Pony Express by riding from St. Joseph, Missouri to Sacramento, California, and I was able to prepare a feature report, which had interested editors in New York. My piece was the closing story on the CBS Evening New with Dan Rather that day, a moment of great note for an ambitious young man. I did not encounter Dan Rather in person, though, until August of 1992, when he came back to Houston and anchored his newscast from the city hosting the Republican National Convention. I was a lead political reporter at his early employer’s news department, KHOU-TV, and he briefly introduced himself in the hallway. Our futures, however, were to become entangled in a little more than a decade.

During the 1994 gubernatorial campaign between George W. Bush and Ann Richards, I had asked Bush how he had managed to get into the National Guard in Texas and avoid the draft and combat in Vietnam. My question grew out of the loss of friends who had died in Vietnam and my own anti-war activities as a protestor. I had decided that, short of leaving the country, the only way to avoid the draft was to enlist in the National Guard. Unlike Bush, I was told the waiting list to become a pilot was five years and it was three to join the infantry. Bush, however, simply walked into the Guard headquarters at Ellington Air Force Base outside of Houston and signed up to become a pilot, and told me during that statewide TV broadcast of the debate that his father, a U.S. Congressman, did not exercise influence to get him the slot. His answer was not just disingenuous, it was a lie.

“People,” he claimed, “did not want to spend the amount of time necessary to become a jet pilot. It requires a one year commitment to learn how to fly. It required another six and a half months to learn how to fly the F-102, as you may recall. I decided I want to learn how to fly a jet. And I did fly a jet. It took a year and a half worth of training something that most people did not want to do.” (40:15 below)

Houston, though, had numerous pilots home from Vietnam wanting to keep current on their qualification certificates, and there was no need for Ellington to spend a million dollars training a congressman’s son to be a pilot. Although it took decades for the truth to come out, the Texas House Speaker during that time, Ben Barnes, acknowledged in 2004 that he had gotten Bush into the Texas Guard as a favor to his father.

"I got a young man named George W. Bush into the National Guard when I was lieutenant governor of Texas, and I'm not necessarily proud of that, but I did it," Barnes said in a brief video. “I became more ashamed of myself than I've ever been because the worst thing I did was get a lot of wealthy supporters and a lot of people who had family names of importance into the Guard and I'm very sorry about that and I apologize to you and the voters of Texas.”

Bush never acknowledged the privilege or influence, and still has not. The morning after my debate question in 1994, I got a call from the communications director of Ann Richards’ campaign telling me that I needed to call Barnes and he would give me the full story. Barnes led me along, telling me he had the guy who ran the “political list” for the Guard, and he was willing to give me the full story of Bush’s enlistment. Barnes, however, the ultimate political animal, sniffed the political breezes blowing across Texas and decided Bush was going to be president, and pissing him off would not help his business or fund raising. He made up a story about why the source would not talk.

I spent the next ten years very quietly filing FOIA requests to the military and federal government to get relevant documents on Bush’s time in the service. Responses were incomplete, and clearly missing timelines and relevant documents. Eventually, though, I was able to piece together his history and his disappearance from the Houston air base at Ellington. The eldest son of the future president went to Alabama to work on a U.S. Senate campaign for a friend of his father and claimed he was still on duty at the Alabama National Guard in Montgomery. Records showed, however, he never showed up for duty and was only on base for haircuts and dental work.

After endless calls for interviews and searching for printed evidence, I was referred to a rancher in West Texas. Bill Burkett claimed to have been in the Texas National Guard and witnessed a purging of Bush’s military files by people on the governor’s staff. He told me he and a Guard colleague had retrieved certain pages of the paper files from a waste basket, and had retained them for future reference. No matter how many times I requested the materials, they were never delivered to me even after Burkett insisted they were proof Bush had gone AWOL and never performed his duty. His story was not, however, fanciful, and fit with the timeline I had developed from the files I had received via FOIA.

Dan Rather’s producer, Mary Mapes, had been in pursuit of the same story regarding Bush and the Texas Guard. Burkett presented her with the documents he had consistently refused to provide me, even though he never wavered in saying he had them available in safekeeping. Mapes took the material to forensic experts whose analyses convinced her she was looking at copies of originals that explained Bush’s Guard absence and various failures while he was serving, including not passing a physical. Rather and her created a report, which I am convinced, was true, even though the documentation was never one hundred percent verified. The Guard materials I published in my second book corroborated the missing info that Rather’s piece had provided.

Rather and Mapes were assaulted online before his half-hour newscast had concluded. The Internet trolls claimed the letters purported to be National Guard documents were fake because they used a superscript type face that was not available at that time. In fact, the Texas Guard was one of the early purchasers of electric typewriters with superscript capitalization. Nobody wanted to hear the contradiction because the noise of the critics was too loud and the political right was ascendant. Mapes contacted me and asked me to go on the air with Rather, which I did, and although I was unable to speak to the veracity of the letters and other documents they had acquired, I affirmed my confidence the story they had reported was true.

A special commission investigated the reporting and concluded it was unsupportable. His own employer, CBS News, appeared to be coming after a correspondent and anchor who had frequently risked his life to serve their advertisers and his journalistic audience. There was, however, no chance of survival. Rather signed off, left the network, and, eventually, his producer Mapes was no longer employed, either. Mapes published a book that laid out the experience in great detail, Truth and Duty, which was later made into a movie with Robert Redford playing Rather. The early script had an Australian reporter in my debate role but the scene ended up on the cutting room floor.

My book on Bush and the Guard was released in early September of 2004 as the president’s reelection campaign was launching. In January, as I began work on a new book for a new publisher, I was catching a flight from Austin to Columbus, Ohio to begin research. While trying to print a boarding pass at a kiosk, I got the “see agent” message, and went to the airline’s ticketing desk. I was told by the agent that I was now on the “No Fly Watch List,” which is a lesser sin than the No Fly List. I demanded an explanation and she was unable to provide one but called Homeland Security and handed me the phone.

“Ma’am, I don’t understand,” I told the anonymous female voice. “How can I be on the No Fly Watch List?”

“I can’t answer that, sir,” she said. “And even if I had that information, I would not be able to give it to you.”

“Is there anything you can tell me?”

“Well, only that there is something in your background that is similar to, or might relate to, someone the government is looking for.”

“Seriously? I’ve never even had a parking ticket and I have the most mundane name in all of the English language. My dad walked across Europe shooting enemies of this country and now his son is getting screwed around by the government he defended?”

“I’m sorry, sir. I wish there were more than I could tell you.”

The No Fly Watch List does not prevent you from flying but it does make travel tedious. There was no checking in online, or using baggage curb check, no printing boarding passes on kiosks, either. I had to always go to a ticketing counter to get cleared and then was given a boarding pass that indicated I required extra attention when I went through security. I talked to an attorney in Washington about suing DHS but was told everyone who attempted was shut down during the discovery process.

“As soon as you get discovery,” I was informed, “The judge gets told that releasing the needed documents to plaintiffs will jeopardize national security, and the case gets dismissed.”

A process was finally developed to allow people to submit materials and information to appeal their status, and DHS would reach a conclusion. Even when a disposition was reached, though, you were unable to know what it was. Your case was assigned a number in the DHS that was recorded in the Traveler’s Redress Inquiry Program (TRIP). Airlines can look at the number when you load it into their reservation system and it will determine if you are worthy to board an airplane. I have suspected from the first time I was informed that I was placed on the NFWL it was a consequence of my reporting on Bush’s military service record.

I am certain Mr. Rather had no such difficulties, though his accomplished career was treated cavalierly by an employer and a nation to whom he had been faithful. His story as a journalist and a Texan is compelling, regardless, and is the subject of a new Netflix documentary premiering tonight (May 1), and I’ll watch with my usual admiration. He was dogged, and unafraid, and at 92 still maintains a relevance with his Substack Steady. Turn on your TV. His story might be the best one he’s ever told.

And he’s told a lot of great ones.

James Moore is a New York Times bestselling author, political analyst, and business communications consultant who has been writing and reporting on Texas politics since 1975. He can be reached at