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« Rather still deluding himself on Bush memos

(Not familiar with this? Basically there are memos concerning the former President’s service in the National Guard in the early 1970s, and they make him look bad, and suggest that political pressure was what kept him in the National Guard. They are now fairly widely believed to be forgeries. The fact that the CBS TV news show “60 Minutes” initially treated the memos as authentic got several folks in trouble, and led to the departure of Dan Rather from CBS. The Wikipedia article is a fine start for more details.)

Killian Bush memos animated GIF

Charles Johnson's image comparing what CBS claimed was a 1973-​era typewritten memo with a 2004-​era Microsoft Word document, made with default settings using Times. (From Wikimedia)

Wow. I can’t believe it. Dan Rather in a recent CNN interview isn’t just saying that they did the best they could with what they knew at the time, but also claiming that the Bush National Guard memos have never been debunked: “the longer we go and nobody comes forward with proof that the documents were not what they report to be, the more I believe it.” He also said that “those who found the story uncomfortable for their partisan political purposes attacked us at what they knew to be the weakest point, which was the documents.”

So Rather is zero for two statements there.

First, it’s clear that opinions among actual relevant experts are mostly restricted to the range from “can’t tell with the information I have,” to “the documents are clearly forgeries.” I have an MS in printing, have worked as a font and typography geek since the 90s, and I’ve testified as an expert witness in this area in court, so I include myself as somebody with relevant expertise.

I’ve given my analysis of the Killian/​Bush documents in an interview and article on I have also presented this analysis repeatedly, starting with the conference at the St Bride Printing Museum in London in 2004, and at the Justified West conference in Vancouver in 2009, and at a talk for The Type Directors Club in New York City this past January.  I got plenty of questions and discussion, especially at the St Bride conference, but in the end, nobody disputed my analysis at any of these presentations. That’s in front of audiences including literally scores of expert typographers. On average, they probably tend towards the left politically, so you should expect them to not like my conclusions and challenge them.

I believe I have clearly and specifically disproven the specific devices that were initially frequently cited as possibly used for the memos, the IBM Executive proportional typewriter, and the IBM Selectric Composer, which latter was pretty much a low-​end typesetting machine.

Also, any typographers in the audience who were skeptical should have been encouraged by me offering $1,000 in cash out of my own pocket (an offer which I have repeated since, and hereby reiterate today) to anybody who could produce a device that:

Nobody has so much as proposed a device, presumably because it doesn’t exist. It’s been eight years.

The last loud defender of the memos who claims some expertise is Dr David Hailey. With his unique access to higher-​res scans of the memos from former CBS produceer Mary Mapes (who did not return my emails requesting such access, btw), he proved that they were not printed using Times New Roman, as some had claimed. What he didn’t realize at the time was that he had in fact proved that they were printed in Times Roman, the near-​twin of Times New Roman. See my comparison of the two fonts. In private correspondence since, he has conceded that Times Roman is plausible, and further that the memos are likely forgeries produced on a later model typewriter. He still believes that they were typed, because he believes the irregular degradations in letter shapes were consistent with typing. I just take it as consistent with a combination of photocopying and faxing, but that’s not critical to my argument. Hailey is not arguing that some typewriter available at the time could have produced the memos, and that’s what would be needed for the memos to be authentic.

This rebuts Rather’s statement that the memos have never been debunked. There’s tons of evidence against them, and nobody can point to a device that could have produced them.

Now as to Rather’s assertion that those who attacked the memos did so for partisan political purposes, there are only two problems.

First, it’s what logicians call an “ad hominem” attack. Instead of attacking the argument, attack the messenger or their motives. The only problem is, that tells you nothing about whether the argument is true or false. So it’s just bad form.

More importantly, the suggestion that all those attacking the memos were right-​wing partisans is simply untrue. I don’t usually talk about my political views here, but for once it’s relevant to my typographic views. So here goes.

I’m a flaming liberal in most people’s books. I donated money to the Democratic presidential candidate opposing George W. Bush in both of Bush’s elections. I don’t want to put into words the strength of my dislike of the former President and most of his policies (though there are a few things he did that I agreed with). When I was a kid growing up in Canada, even the Conservative party was to the left of the US Democratic party. My problem with Obamacare is that it doesn’t go far enough.

So I don’t like Bush, okay? But that doesn’t make the documents authentic. By the way, it’s not hard to find other liberal experts whose analysis of the documents is that they are fakes. For example, this fellow. So, no, not everyone attacking the authenticity of the memos is some right-​wing ideologue.

Dan Rather’s inability to admit having made a mistake is getting a little old after almost eight years.

2 commentsto “Rather still deluding himself on Bush memos”

  • May 15, 2012
    Richard Fink wrote

    The human capacity for self delusion is limitless.
    He should just stay away from the subject but he wants redemption so badly, it’s very sad to see.

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