Mapesgate

Before you judge former CBS-TV producer Mary Mapes, take a walk in her shoes

Reviewing Mary Mapes' new book, Truth and Duty, in the November 2 National Review, Byron York opens with a description of the 60 Minutes II story that got her fired from CBS last year. That story said CBS had new documents shedding light on an old story--that George W. Bush had spent the Vietnam War years in a playboy unit of the National Guard and skipped out when he got bored.

"CBS aired the documents in a 60 Minutes II report on September 8, 2004, and all hell broke loose," York writes in his review. "Within hours, the papers were exposed as likely fakes, and news-division executives found themselves desperately looking for anything to support the story."

I'm an anti-Bush guy, and I know Mary Mapes a little. She's a neighbor. But I hope you'll stick with me even if you're at the other end of the spectrum. Listen, some of my favorite neighbors are pro-Bush, and they're surprisingly decent people.

One of many intriguing points in Mapes' book--a thing I shouldn't have had to be reminded of--is that the documents she and Dan Rather based their story on were never exposed as fakes. In her book due out this week from St. Martin's Press, Mapes insists that the documents are authentic.

The people who made the most adamant accusations at the time were anonymous amateurs on the Internet, not known experts. Somehow all of a sudden everybody and his blog was an expert on 40-year-old typewriters and proportional spacing.

In the book Mapes presents expert opinion and evidence that the accusation--all the stuff about typewriters, superscripts, proportional spacing and typefaces--was just wrong. She says the people who presented those arguments didn't know what they were talking about.

After dealing with the typeface issues, Mapes presents contextual evidence to show that the documents make an uncannily smooth factual mesh with other documents of known provenance. Not the sort of thing one would expect from fakes.

Another telling point to recall is that not even the high tribunal and commission set up by CBS to explore the issue was able to corroborate the accusations of fakery. For all the money CBS spent on its commission, not to mention various private detectives--and for the amount of public bloodletting the network justified on the basis of the commission's findings--you have to think they would have found a way to call those documents fake if they could have.

That was the core accusation against Mapes, Dan Rather's producer for that story: that she bought off on fake documents and fooled her superiors. If CBS could have proved the documents were fake, then all the blame would have been on Mapes and much less of it on CBS.

Certainly on the technical side of this I am not a good arbiter. And I'm not entirely neutral on Mapes herself. But I can say this much for her book: Anybody with an honest intellectual curiosity about this story will have to read the book or find some other way to confront the arguments in it. Mapes' evidence supporting the authenticity of the Bush Guard documents is compelling enough to put the ball squarely back in the court of her accusers. The case for forgery is dead in the road until it finds a way around this book.

Like I say, she's a neighbor. I don't know her well. Her husband works for a company I call the Realm of Daily Darkness, otherwise known as The Dallas Morning News. There are indications he himself may not be evil. They walk their dogs in a mile-long park, a median strip, really, in an old part of inner-city Dallas that we all tell each other is lovely and charming. I've never seen him abuse his pets.

I have no idea how our neighborhood adds up politically, red-blue-wise. From the turn of the century through the '50s, the street Mapes and her husband live on was a mainly Jewish gold coast. My street, just a block away, was sort of a middle-class Gentile chrome coast. The whole area was dope and whorehouse hell-to-pay by the early '70s.

For a while, when the houses first were being renovated by "urban pioneers" (really bad carpenters), I think our area had sort of an ex-hippie liberal cast to it, like a pink aura. Later, especially on her street where the houses are grand old mansions, the values shot way up. The 'hood started attracting people with real money--the kind who actually can afford to replace tile roofs instead of doing the bucket brigade in the hallway thing.

So now we have all flavors--very strongly pro-Bush people, a few old hippies and many young couples with kids whose political persuasion is either very center-line or just totally unformed, depending on which day I talk with them while we walk our dogs.

We all walk our dogs. That's how I got to know Mary Mapes and her husband, Mark Wrolstad. Her mother died. She inherited a sweet old Labrador retriever. My 140-pound Weimaraner didn't like her Lab. That kind of thing.

Even though our acquaintance was very slight, it was strange to have even a passing familiarity with the human being at the center of "Rathergate." The first thing was that she and her husband disappeared from dog-walking. I was accustomed to seeing them, chatting with her, keeping an eye on the Morning News guy for any sign of pet abuse. But they evaporated.

And then she reappeared on my TV set and in my newspapers and magazines--again and again, this spectral hollow-eyed version of herself, always looking just askance from cameras as if somehow disembodied. A floating skull. In real life she's an attractive, lively woman, but on television she always looked like Banquo's Ghost getting booted out of the banquet.

Scary. And just two blocks away.

You know, sometimes I have doubts about my sensitivities. Looking back, I think I was mainly worried about the dogs. How the heck were they going to get walked?

In her living room the other day, she talked to me about what it was like to be Mary Mapes when the political hurricane made landfall in the neighborhood.

"People on the Internet put up my home address," she said. "They put up property tax information. They started calling people I had worked with at previous jobs in Seattle. People would write, 'I just drove past her house. She has dogs. It looks like no one's home.'

"We were sitting right in this room. I was probably in this chair. I looked out, and I saw this big red pickup pull up. You know, one of those Texas big-boy pickups. The window came down, and a big guy leaned out with a camera. Ching, ching, ching, taking pictures. Mark ran out. 'Hey, can I help you?' The guy sped away.

"There also were on the Internet--I found this out eventually, I wasn't even looking at it, because it was so upsetting--there were [mentions] of me having a red dot on my head, having a laser scope on my head. Which is what? Like a gun sight on my head? And if someone can lean out to shoot a picture, can they lean out and shoot me? Can they shoot into my window? What the heck is going on here?

"There was so much political hatred in the air at the time that it scared me. It scared me."

I asked her why she stopped walking her dogs.

"I used to begin every day prior to this, put on my headset, and I would walk two or three miles in the neighborhood."

She was able to enjoy three great pleasures at the same time--the dogs, the neighborhood and the news on her headset.

"When this happened, that stopped abruptly because, A, I didn't have the energy for it. B, I didn't want to hear the news because too often I was part of it, and it wasn't good. And C, I felt ashamed and hurt and embarrassed and overwhelmed.

"It was like there had been a death in my family, and it had been a very humiliating death in some ways, tragic and yet shameful."

So I asked when she started back walking the dogs.

"This all started September 8," she said. "I was fired January 10. I did a certain catatonic walk, but I wouldn't go by myself. I had Mark there to cover for me if I was unable to communicate."

So I asked when she started walking the dogs by herself.

"I would say I started walking by myself again maybe in February. Really, I had to get my confidence back."

Once she got back out there with the dogs, she said the neighborhood was a source of solace and strength.

"People were real good," she said. "Real loving."

One family sent her and her husband a gift certificate for dinner at The Grape.

"People called and said, 'How are you doing?' People sent over pumpkins and hay bales and put them in my front yard, because every year I like to do chrysanthemums and pumpkins and that stuff. I was so completely drained and felt so worthless, I couldn't do that. Friends brought over lotions and potions and soft products. It was so nice.

"They sent cards. 'Keep your chin up.' And people reminded me--and this was exactly what I needed to hear--'No one you love is sick. No one you care about is hurt. You haven't lost a family member. Everybody you love still loves you.'

"You know, very corny things, but when you're at the center of this very destructive angry thing...I mean, it was like I was caught inside a tornado, and I couldn't quite get out of it."

Hmm. So she has all good things to say about the neighborhood.

I rag on this neighborhood all the time. For one thing, many of us have lived here way too long. My wife and I moved into our house on the Chrome Coast in 1984, and we were latecomers. Our kids have all grown up together. Or not.

We are bound together by certain legal tendrils because of our status as the city's first historic district, requiring... ugh!...meetings. I sometimes think of us like an East Texas all-cousin town with ancient feuds and other issues that will only be cured by an expansion of the gene pool. But that is also what is anomalous and valuable about the neighborhood. We do know each other. We're not raw-dirt McMansion flotsam and jetsam.

I didn't say this to her, but I know: Some people in the neighborhood who are ferociously pro-Bush were thrilled to see her Guard story trashed. Some people are so anti-Bush they didn't need any additional evidence. The spectrum of political opinion is at least as broad here as it is in the rest of the country. But we all walk our dogs together.

I asked Mapes what the difference was between the universe of the blogosphere and the world of our little neighborhood. Without missing a beat she said, "The neighborhood is face to face."

I'm reading a great book: Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, by John M. Barrie. In the section I'm on now, he's telling the story of the terrible division of America in the early 1920s between progressive urban forces and the Ku Klux Klan movement that engulfed much of rural and small-town America.

Decent Southerners like the powerful Percy family in the Mississippi Delta stood up to the Klan. One of their most effective strategies was to ridicule the Klan's penchant for secrecy, for hiding behind masks. Eventually the better impulses of Americans allowed them to see the masks and robes for what they were--emblems of cowardice.

I promise I am not asking you to change your opinion of George W. Bush. I don't even care if you still think the Guard documents are fake. None of that is the point for me.

My point is that the anonymous haters and extremists on the Internet are the Ku Klux Klan of today. They are the vile enemies of fundamental decency.

And by the way, as far as I could tell, even after all those months shut up in the house with the Morning News guy, the dogs are fine.

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