Dan Rather's Botched Investigation Of George W. Bush Explained

Folks of a certain age will immediately recognize the name Dan Rather, and also might remember that he vanished from CBS almost 20 years ago. Rather, who worked as a news anchor at the station for a whopping 44 years, left his position following a controversial 2004 "60 Minutes II" report about none other than George W. Bush. This happened right at the height of the "War on Terror" fervor following the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks.

The gist of the "60 Minutes II" report was simple: The United States' commander-in-chief and president –- the man in charge of heading up global military operations to stamp out terrorists on multiple Middle Eastern fronts -– had been derelict in his military duties while in the Texas Air National Guard. The truth or non-truth of this assertion wouldn't have changed the course of U.S. military operations, but it would have undermined the reputation and actions of its commander-in-chief — even more than the War on Terror already did to many.

Leading up to Rather's report several other news outlets had pursued the same story. But, it was Rather's producer Mary Mapes who got ahold of documents verifying as much -– two months before Bush sought his second term as president. The public was curious — and the powers that be were furious. Blowback was severe, and the story's sources discredited. Mapes was fired, and Rather left CBS. But as Rather himself later told Hollywood Reporter, "We made some mistakes of getting to the truth. But that didn't change the truth of what we reported."

The claims against President Bush

Even now, decades after Dan Rather's "60 Minutes II" report aired, we don't know precisely what happened at CBS leading up to and following Rather's report. We also don't know the final truth of the claims against President George W. Bush. This is true even taking a dramatization of events into account in 2015's aptly-named "Truth," starring Robert Redford as Rather and Cate Blanchett as his producer, Mary Mapes. But, we can at least start with the claims levied against Bush.

Those claims weren't completely damning and entirely criminal, but they did portray Bush as a bungling, lazy, privileged serviceman during the Vietnam War. As AP News and Hollywood Reporter explain, he was deliberately placed in the Texas National Guard thanks to his influential family and their connections in order to avoid combat in the 1970s. He "skated through" his final year in the service — even his whereabouts were allegedly unknown for "a chunk of time." He never took a physical exam, and his former commander, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, felt obligated to evaluate him in a positive light.

Mapes obtained documents apparently conveying the above information, but she received copies and not originals. Also, a typed letter from Killian admitting the truth of his feelings supposedly contained a character that typewriters in the '70s couldn't produce. These were the only holes necessary for Rather's entire report to tank. After it aired, former Attorney General Richard Thornburgh and former chief executive of the Associated Press headed up a panel to investigate the validity of the report's documents. They couldn't -– or wouldn't -– do so.

Backlash to Rather's report

Dan Rather delivered his 2004 report confidentially and matter-of-factly and continued to stand behind it afterward. "You can argue that we never got to the original documents," AP News quotes him, "But nobody has ever proven that they were anything other than what they were purported to be."

And yet, following blowback both on-and-offline, including the aforementioned investigative panel, other news organizations besides CBS didn't pursue the matter further. This is especially true because Rather, his producer Mary Mapes, and three unnamed others got fired all but immediately over the incident. Rather experienced a softer dismissal and delivered his final report in March 2005. He didn't renew his contract with CBS and left the network the following year. "60 Minutes II," meanwhile — a spinoff series — got canceled.

As for the investigative panel's findings, they said that the authenticity of the report's documents couldn't be proven. This was especially true because George W. Bush's former commander, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, was dead. Plus, the man who passed the documents along to Mapes –- Bill Burkett -– admitted to lying about where the documents came from. In other words, the documents couldn't "pass journalistic muster," as AP News says. Or, as Rather's wife Jean in the dramatized film version "Truth" put it when speaking to her husband (per The Guardian), "You got into a fight with the president of the United States during his re-election campaign. What did you think was going to happen?"

Rather's on-air apology

Depending on where you stand, Dan Rather and Mary Mapes were either unwitting victims caught in the fallout of others' failings, or complicit in a deliberate attempt to undermine George W. Bush's wartime authority. But, if their sources indeed couldn't be verified, then Mapes, Rather, and whomever else are responsible for not doing due diligence in corroborating those sources. However, like Rather has said multiple times, that doesn't negate the truth of their report.

Rather, as the public-facing frontman, had to apologize on air. As The Wrap quotes him from 2004, "This was an error made in good faith as we tried to carry the CBS News tradition of asking tough questions and investigative reporting. But it was a mistake." Off the camera, he echoed his wife's above-cited sentiments in "Truth" when he told CNN's Brian Stelter, "They couldn't attack us on the facts so they changed the subject very successfully from the truth of the story to how we got to the story." On The Hollywood Reporter he also relatedly and bluntly said of the investigative panel, "It wasn't independent. It was never designed to determine whether the story was true or not; it was designed to determine why all of this hell was raised behind it."

While Rather's report supplied Bush critics with some more ammunition, it did little to steer the course of Bush's career. He wound up getting reelected for a second term in 2004. 

Rather's post-CBS career

After Dan Rather delivered his report, apologized to the public, and slipped away from CBS two years later in 2006, he continued his career at HDNet, a satellite TV network. He's continued doing reports and conducting interviews, some of which are available on his own YouTube channel, Dan Rather Reports. He's also developed a surprisingly prodigious social media presence, with active accounts on Facebook, X, Instagram, and more. On these platforms, he's spoken his mind freely about politics, culture, and current events over the years, and has been particularly vocal about President Donald Trump's lack of professionalism and divisiveness.

And yet, at the age of 92 in 2024, Dan Rather admitted that his departure from CBS was "the lowest point" of his career. "I've missed it since the day I left there," The Guardian quotes him. He continued, "I get up every morning, and as soon as my feet hit the ground, I say, 'Where's the story?'" But rather than blame CBS for anything that happened in the mid-2000s, he applauded the network — and himself — stating, "I gave CBS everything I had. They had smarter, better, more talent people, but they didn't have anybody who worked harder than I did."

Meanwhile, some might vaguely remember Rather's "60 Minutes II" report from the War on Terror days. For better or for worse, the report and the events of the time have fallen away to history and serve as a cautionary tale for the present and future.

Documentaries, books, movies, and more

Like we mentioned, the events surrounding Dan Rather's 2004 "60 Minutes II" report about President George W. Bush got transformed into the 2015 movie, "Truth." The film received above average reviews from both critics and the public. The movie was based on accounts from Rather's former producer Mary Mapes, who released the book, "Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power," in 2005, indicating that she must have written it very, very quickly. The book rather sensationally frames the shutdown of CBS' Bush report as a type of "digital McCarthyism" — as Goodreads quotes the book back blurb — that highlights collusion in the inner ranks of government to protect its own. 

After that, Rather resurfaced recently in 2023 with the self-titled documentary, "Rather," which charted the course of his rather long career in journalism, particularly the time period surrounding the "60 Minutes II" report. A year later he showed up on CBS for the first time in 18 years, but this time as a guest on CBS Sunday Morning. In his interview — available on YouTube — he reiterated how his departure following his 2004 report "still stings," and said that he's watched "60 Minutes" from time to time over the years.

As for the word that keeps coming up time and again regarding President George W. Bush's time in the military — "truth" — no one could say for certain. Unless Bush himself comes forward and tells all, it's likely that the truth will remain unknown.