Thoughts: Truth and Duty: the Press, the President and the Privilege of Power, by Mary Mapes

Finally back here, whew. Busy weekend doing exceedingly badly in the German iai nationals. Don’t worry; there’s always next year.

Anyway, it’s time to talk about a very frustrating book that was quite a competent film. More below.

But Danni, I hear you say, the film can never be better than the book!

Ah, sayeth I, wisely. It can when all the film has to do is tell a true story and the book zigzags all over the shop, not sure what it wants to be.

And I say “competent” because it was during a long spell of “based on true stories”, which is not necessarily my bag, and I frankly didn’t (and still probably don’t) know enough about American politics in the 70s and during the Bush era to get the full thrilling experience.

What do I mean, I still don’t know? I’ve read a whole book about it, surely. Well, quite. That’s part of the problem.

It’s hard to know where to start, but I’ll start with, what is this book about?

It purports to tell the story of what happened to CBS News (an American news broadcaster) in 2004 when Mary Mapes (the author, then-producer at CBS News) and Dan Rather (news anchor) put out a report on then-president George W. Bush’s dereliction of his National Guard duty, and faced a crazy backlash of vitriol from the public and non-support from the broadcaster.

I am going to explain what this means, because the book does not explain what this means in any clear way (i.e., a way designed for non-Americans or even perhaps Americans who do not remember 70s politics?). There’s this thing called the Texas National Guard, which seems to be a US-based military outfit so you can be in the military and not have to be deployed abroad. For this reason, during times of war it appears to be very popular for understandable reasons, and so it was during the Vietnam War during conscription. The Texas National Guard, however, during the time period Mapes was researching, was a big corrupt rich old boys’ club. If this doesn’t surprise you or comes across as tame, then all I can say is, same. That, however, is not Mapes’s fault. She didn’t know that we’d be living in an age when Americans seem to be OK with a president who not only dodges conscription but raises every red flag their hallowed system has. You do you, guys! The rest of us just live here!

So that’s the story – George W. Bush dodged conscription and even dodged his pretend-job and got it covered up because he’s a Bush. This seems to be beyond reasonable doubt – the one thing the book does clearly is prove that the original report stands quite solidly.

The problem is that this is also the least interesting part of the story – how much do I care that George W. Bush dodged being in the US Army in the ’70s? I don’t. This part of the story was always going to age badly, as the 70s get further and further away and George W. Bush is an ex-president for longer and longer. That’s just inevitable, especially because it’s just… not that thrilling a story in the first place. It’s very nitpicky and jargon-y and already old when it was reported. Not that it shouldn’t have been reported. Far be it from me to tell the Americans how to feel about their military. But this book loses out from being weighted towards it.

I sort of get it – in the aftermath of the original report, there was such a backlash against it (that I learned about from reading the book, as I say, I wasn’t particularly interested in foreign politics at the time) that it’s understandable that now, with nothing to lose, Mapes wants to avenge her journalistic integrity. This book might just not be the time or place. As I said, it wasn’t very explanatory, and it kept dropping names and acting as though I should know what she meant by them. I consider myself, for better or worse, to be quite well-versed in common US political pundits and opinion columnists, but I hadn’t heard of some of these, and they were never explained. If she had written a full report in book form and stuck to the topic, it would have been one thing.

What she also does that I didn’t get on with was get in little jabs at people she used to work with. Not subtly, and not sophisticatedly either. It looked unprofessional and was sometimes a bit embarrassing to read. I don’t know any of these people, and I was unwilling to pass judgement on anyone in such a personal respect.

And the final thing that I really didn’t like was her response to being called a liberal elite, which, by the way, took up a chapter of its own (the chapter structure was also a bit baffling). This took the form of a kind of essay about how she was Just One Of The Guys, raised on a farm and taught to change a tyre, and all the usual rural realness boxes were ticked. She loved being a mother and wasn’t a scary feminist (she knits, guys, how could a radical feminist ever knit!), and her son pledged his allegiance to a flag every day at school, and all this. My problem is twofold. Firstly, yes, it is because I am not American and it all comes across as weird posturing. Making all of your children pledge allegiance to a flag every day sounds like something a cult would do, and I’m not trying to be superior here, it just does. And secondly, in responding on these terms, Mapes is reinforcing the idiot rightwing view of “liberalness” and “eliteness”. She’s giving it the sort of weight it shouldn’t be given, because it’s bullshit. Whether she was born on a farm or born in the penthouse boardroom of the tallest skyscraper in New York City, this has no bearing on her beliefs and actions. Whether she can milk a cow or change a tyre or bake artisanal sourdough is not important to her willingness to fight for a free press.

And she is willing to fight for a free press! In one of the more interesting segments of the book, she talks about ending up in court because she refused to identify an anonymous source. This is a woman who seems to surprise herself with her own strength. Another interesting section dealt with a female death row inmate and Mapes’s reports on her and the strange friendship that grew up between them. Honestly, she could probably write a good memoir out of her years of experience, and then the deeper explanation of the Bush fiasco would have slotted right in.

But it’s not. The second part of the title gives it a much more universal, grandiose feel, and towards the end of the book, she seems to remember that this is something she wants to talk about and gets quite into it. The book might have something important and useful to say, but you have to wade through so much eye-watering detail to get there that I’m just not convinced it’s worth it. Watch the film instead.

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