As he described it, Bill Burkett was sick of the Kerry campaign’s sheer ineptitude. A member of the Progressive Populist Caucus of the Texas Democratic Party and a retired Army National Guardsman, he became incensed as he watched his candidate’s credibility suffer from TV ads sponsored by Swift Boat veterans, while Kerry and his staff bungled their responses.
Burkett wanted to do something about it, and believed he had the means to do it. But Kerry’s people weren’t listening.
In an Internet posting, he candidly wrote that he waded through “seven layers of bureaucratic kids trying to get a job after the election” before he finally got on the phone with former Sen. Max Cleland (D.-Ga.), Kerry’s veterans coordinator. Burkett also hinted that he spoke to other “seniors” in the campaign.
In an August 21 Web posting about his conversation with Cleland, Burkett wrote: “I asked if they wanted to counterattack or ride this to ground. . . . He said counterattack. So I gave them the information to do it with. But none of them have called me back.”
Exactly what “information” did Burkett give the Kerry campaign? Was it, as Republicans are now asking, the same now-discredited documents he provided to CBS’s “60 Minutes”?
‘Knee Deep in Big Muddy’
Another Kerry campaign principal, Joe Lockhart, admits he spoke with Burkett several days before the “60 Minutes” broadcast. But both Lockhart and Cleland deny any involvement in bringing the story to the attention of CBS.
A Kerry campaign spokesman and a Democratic National Committee spokesman both failed to respond to voicemail messages asking them if they knew what Burkett meant when he said, “So I gave them the information to do it with.”
Meanwhile, Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie and White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett, pointed to evidence they believe indicates that Kerry’s campaign had foreknowledge that Bush’s Guard service would become an issue soon.
“Did the Kerry campaign know about the existence of the documents in question in advance of the CBS report? A chronology of events indicates they did,” Gillespie told reporters in a September 22 conference call.
For example, Kerry’s response to Bush’s September 2 convention speech–a scathing Kerry indictment of Bush’s service during the Vietnam era–came as a surprise to many pundits. Kerry, who had just suffered through weeks of ads questioning his brief Vietnam service, presumably would have wanted to shift attention away from the Vietnam era.
Gillespie said that on September 6, former Hillary Clinton aide Howard Wolfson started work at the DNC on “Operation Fortunate Son,” a public relations campaign that was officially launched September 9, one day after the CBS report, to attack Bush’s National Guard service. It included a three-minute Internet advertisement portraying Bush as a privileged shirker that included footage from the “60 Minutes” broadcast.
Responding to questions about the timing of “Operation Fortunate Son,” Wolfson released a statement, saying: “Republican allegations of a ‘Vast Left Wing Conspiracy’ designed to expose the truth about the President’s military service are laughable.”
The same day as the “60 Minutes” report, an independent group called “Texans for Truth” began its own ad campaign on Bush’s guard service.
“One might argue that these steps were taken without advance knowledge of the existence of the documents and this is all coincidence,” said Gillespie. “But that strains credibility.”
Moreover, it is undisputed that Burkett was in contact with Cleland in August and with Joe Lockhart, a top Kerry aide, on September 4. Lockhart has acknowledged that CBS producer Mary Mapes–a network news veteran who reportedly holds her left-wing views in plain sight–gave him Burkett’s phone number and encouraged him to call Burkett. “She said there was someone helpful on the story who had been trying to reach the campaign and really wanted to talk to me,” Lockhart said. He said he did call Burkett, but claims the two did not discuss the National Guard documents.