Slime Time Live

The rap on Mary Beth Cahill, even inside the presidential campaign she administers, is that she is too reserved--a schoolmarmish sort who rules with icy glances, who frets overmuch about "going negative" and who, therefore, is the wrong person to guide the fortunes of Sen. John Kerry during this hypernasty political season. Maybe so, but hers was among the first congratulatory calls Ben Barnes received in Austin late last Wednesday night. As the speaker of the Texas House in 1968, Barnes now says, he had helped the well connected--including George W. Bush--find safe haven from Vietnam by applying pressure to the state Air National Guard. These days a high-octane lobbyist with business ties to both parties, Barnes had been reluctant to discuss the Guard--until his Democratic allies (and his own anger at charges aimed at Kerry by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth) persuaded him to tell his story on "60 Minutes II" last week. "You did a great job," Cahill told him after it had aired. "You did a brave thing." Sen. Ted Kennedy (for whom Cahill once worked) called with the same message.

And here it is: it's slime time in the most vituperative presidential campaign since the divisive days of Richard Nixon--which, not coincidentally, was the last time the country was so riven by war, culture and fear, and the last time our politics was so inundated by a flood of unregulated cash. In the old days--pre-Watergate--money traveled in big bills and brown bags, and wound up as "walking-around money" on Election Day. Now it's in big checks and materializes as attack ads on cable and the Web.

The slimy tide of money--especially the new, unaccountable kind--rides on a sea of political emotion churned up by the war. The president declares he is fighting "Evil" with a capital E; and last week his veep said, before dialing back a tad, that if Kerry were elected, Americans would be more likely to get "hit hard" by terrorists. Liberals who never reconciled themselves to the legitimacy of Bush's victory in 2000 nurture their hatred and open their wallets. Strategists for both sides preach to their own choirs in apocalyptic tones. Bush primarily sells himself, rather than his policies (after attacking Kerry in $60 million worth of ads); Kerry defends in kind, turning the Democratic convention into the Biography Channel. Though voters face profound questions, the war on terror has engendered not a high-minded discussion of geopolitics but an obsession--even by American standards--with our would-be commander's character. In Austin, where they play for keeps--where LBJ once roamed and Karl Rove plotted George W. Bush's rise--aficionados say they haven't seen such mean and personal campaigning in decades. "It's more vicious at this point than I have ever seen it," said George Shipley, a Democratic operative and former professor whose knack for collecting damning information once gave him the nickname "Dr. Dirt." He didn't sound entirely unhappy about it.

Stung by airstrikes on his Vietnam years, Kerry and his allies are fighting back. His sidekick on the plane is now John Sasso, a Boston consultant who derailed Joe Biden's campaign in 1988 by circulating evidence that the senator had plagiarized portions of his stump speech. On the ground, a hard-core Kerry group is setting up a new "oppo" squad. Tentatively called Sealords II--Kerry's Mekong Delta mission in Vietnam was known as Sealords--the group has a $1 million budget and will be housed at the Democratic National Committee, where, one of its members says, the mission will be "message, debate prep, attack, attack."

Now Democrats are invading familiar ground: Bush's years in the National Guard. Enlisting in 1968, he trained as a fighter pilot on F-102s with the 111th Fighter Interceptor Squadron in Houston. In May 1972, he won permission to transfer to a unit in Alabama, so he could work on a Senate campaign there. Through aides, Bush has admitted that he did not show up that year for a required annual pilot's physical in Texas. His explanation: he knew he would not fly in Alabama because the unit there didn't deploy F-102s. Bush performed ground duties in Alabama, his biographers say, before enrolling in Harvard Business School. Though he technically had another year to serve, he was honorably discharged.

But CBS's "60 Minutes II" aired a story that cast the Bush saga in a harsher light. The program reported on a series of purported personal memos-to-the-file the network said had been typed in the early '70s by Bush's Texas commander, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian. In them, Killian says that he had "suspended" Bush from flight status for failing to undergo the physical and that he was under pressure from his superior, Col. Walter (Buck) Staudt, to "sugarcoat" increasingly negative evaluations of Bush. (Killian died in 1984.) Rumors about the memos had circulated in the Democratic Party and media circles for weeks; in fact, CBS had used their existence to help persuade Barnes to talk. He told Democratic friends before the "60 Minutes II" broadcast that if documents the network was hunting for were found--and were authentic--"the election is over."

Well, it is not entirely certain that they are authentic. The memo about pressure from Staudt to "sugarcoat" Bush's evaluations is dated Aug. 18, 1973. But Staudt had been honorably discharged from the Guard on March 1, 1972. CBS sources say that they knew about Staudt's departure, and that the time discrepancy proves nothing, because Staudt remained influential in Guard circles long after he left.

Critics point out other possible flaws in the story. Friends and relatives say that Killian was a poor typist who didn't have a home office and was not the kind to write memos to himself. While CBS says more than one document-evaluation expert vouched for the memos' authenticity, other experts say the typeface and spacing are more likely to have been produced by a modern computer than an old typewriter. CBS anchor Dan Rather dismissed criticism as either politically motivated or generated by the "professional rumor mill" of journalism. "This is going to hold up," said CBS News president Andrew Heyward. (NEWSWEEK has a strategic partnership with NBC and MSNBC, two of CBS's rivals.)

Where did the documents come from? CBS won't say. But the trail pieced together by NEWSWEEK shows that in a sulfurous season like this one, the difference between obscurity and power is small, and anyone can get a hearing. A principal source for CBS's story was Bill Burkett, a disgruntled former Guard officer who lives in Baird, Texas, who says he was present at Guard headquarters in Austin in 1997, when a top aide to the then Governor Bush ordered records sanitized to protect the Boss. Other Guard officials disputed Burkett's account, and the Bush aide involved, Joe Allbaugh, called it "absolute garbage." Burkett may have a motive to make trouble for the powers that be. In 1998, he grew gravely ill on a Guard mission to Panama, causing him to be hospitalized, and he suffered two nervous breakdowns. He unsuccessfully sued for medical expenses.

Still, in theory, Burkett may have had access to any Guard records that, in a friend's words, "didn't make it to the shredder." Fellow officers say he wasn't a crank, but rather a stickler for proper procedure--a classic whistle-blower type. Burkett was impressive enough to cause CBS producer Mary Mapes to fly to Texas to interview him. "There are only a couple of guys I would trust to be as perfectly honest and upfront as Bill," says Dennis Adams, a former Guard colleague. The White House, through Communications Director Dan Bartlett, called Burkett a "discredited source." Indeed, Bush strategists are convinced--or have convinced themselves--that the issue will backfire on its purveyors.

But the tale is evidence of a grim truth: traces of mud usually stick, whatever they are made of, whoever hurls them. Kerry learned as much in August, when the Swifties went after his war (and antiwar) record. Now, it seems, it's Bush's turn--at least in small measure. The president's postconvention bounce was certain to disappear, and it largely did. In the new NEWSWEEK Poll, he now leads Kerry by five points in a two-way race (50 percent to 45 percent) compared with an 11-point lead of a week earlier. More to the point, voters now label him "honest and ethical" by a 55-40 percent margin, far less than the 62-33 percent ratio of a week ago. Democrats tried to claim that the president's reputation as a straight shooter was ruined. That was hardly the case. But slime is slime--and there is much more to come from both sides between now and November.