Campaigning last week in the town of Worland, Wyo., VicePresident George Bush claimed victory. “I need combat pay for last night,” the presidential hopeful told a lunchtime meeting. Bush was not celebrating an early triumph over other contenders for the Republican nomination. His antagonist the night before had been Dan Rather, anchorman for the CBS Evening News. In an extraordinary nine-minute shouting match, seen live by an estimated 10 million households in the United States and Canada, Bush angrily rebuffed Rather’s attempts to question him on his role in the Irancontra affair. Analysts generally agreed that Bush’s hard-nosed manner had helped modify the so-called wimp factor—a widespread perception that he is not tough enough for the White House. Indeed, viewers flooded both CBS and Bush’s campaign offices with calls praising the vice-president. Urged one supporter at the Wyoming lunch: “Now take on [ABC News White House correspondent] Sam Donaldson.”
For Bush, the televised tiff was perfectly timed. It came two weeks before
the first test of the 1988 race, the Iowa caucus votes. And although all polls show Bush as the Republican favorite nationwide, in Iowa he trails Senate minority leader Robert Dole by eight to 12 per cent. But while the incident may have gained the vicepresident admirers from the ranks of those who view television journalists as left-leaning and overly powerful, it did not dispose of the issue haunting his campaign—how much he knew about the arms-for-hostages deal with Iran and the diversion of illegal funds to the Nicaraguan rebels. As Dole put it, “This issue is not going to go away.”
The Monday night television confrontation was fraught with drama and tension. CBS scheduled the interview with the vice-president—live, at his request—to run immediately after a hard-hitting videotaped report on Bush’s role in that affair. Before the show CBS producers took turns playing the vice-president in mock interviews with Rather. Ten minutes before air time Bush entered his office in the Capitol building where a CBS camera crew—linked to New York City by satellite-waited. But although Bush had
been briefed by aides about the Irancontra matter, he clearly caught CBS executives off-balance by acting surprised and angry when Rather announced his intended line of questioning.
Over an open phone line from Bush’s office, Evening News executive producer Tom Bettag in New York heard the vice-president complain, while watching the videotaped report on a monitor: “I didn’t know this was about the Iran-contra affair. If he talks to me about [that], they’re going to see a seven-minute walkout here.” The walkout reference clearly concerned Rather’s widely criticized absence from a CBS studio last September in protest of a decision to delay the Evening News for a tennis match,
blacking out the entire network for seven minutes. Through an earpiece, Bettag warned Rather that Bush was in a fighting mood. The tip did not help. When Bush, on-air, dismissed the preceding videotaped report as “a rehash” and complained that CBS had got him on the air by misrepresentation, Rather appeared to lose his composure. Tempers rose, each man constantly interrupting the other. Finally, Bush dropped a verbal bombshell: “How would you like it if I judged your career by those seven minutes when you walked off the set in New York?” With eight scheduled minutes left for the interview, Bettag began screaming into Rather’s ear,
“Cut! Cut! Cut! You gotta cut!” Bush was in mid-sentence when the anchor cut him off with: “I gather the answer is no. Thank you very much for being with us Mr. Vice-President.”
When the network switched to a commercial, Bush was already claiming victory. Over the open line he was heard to say, “The bastard didn’t lay a glove on me,” and called CBS “your God-damned network.” In .Pierre, S.D., two days later, Bush apologized for having “taken the Lord’s name in vain.”
Bush’s handling of Rather generated widespread satisfaction among Republicans—even those on the far right who oppose Bush’s bid for the presidency on the grounds that he is too moderate. Said conservative fund raiser Richard Viguerie, a longtime critic: “I say right on, stick it to him [Rather], If you want to vote against Dan Rather you have to vote for George Bush.”
Still, the showdown refocused attention on Bush’s role in the Iran-contra affair. A former director of the CIA, Bush has insisted that he had only a vague knowledge of the armsfor-hostages swap with Iran. He has said that he expressed reservations about the deal to Reagan but has refused to elaborate, claiming that it would be a breach of trust to reveal confidential discussions with the President. Like Reagan, Bush has also denied that he knew funds were being diverted to the contras.
But documents and testimony before congressional investigating com-
mittees show that Bush was at several meetings where the Iranian arms sales were discussed in detail, and one memo indicates that Bush was extensively briefed on the deal by an Israeli official. As well, Bush had at least one meeting with former CIA agent Felix Rodriguez while Rodriguez was involved in sending the contras weapons bought with profits from the Iran arms sales. This month, the special prosecutor investigating the scandal is expected to seek criminal indictments against former White House aides, leading to more pressure on Bush to reveal all he knows.
But before that candidates will pass two important milestones in the complicated process of presidential nominee selection—the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 8 and the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 16. Because those are the first significant votes of election year, the media place them under scrutiny and the candidates clearly long for attention-grabbing events to push their names to the forefront. Said Everette Dennis, executive director of Columbia University’s Gannett Centre for Media Studies: “It’s part of the insanity of the system— an incredibly complex system of elections that feed right into crazy media hype.” Although it may eventually rebound on him, last week’s encounter with Rather clearly gave Bush all the media attention he could have hoped for.
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