Bush accuser finds himself as the subject of media's spotlight

`Burkettgate': A retired Texas National Guard officer is in seclusion at his ranch.

September 21, 2004|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Bill Burkett knows what it's like to get wooed by a national news network. And now he knows what it's like to get dumped by one, too.

The retired Texas National Guard officer who provided CBS with documents purporting to show that President Bush received preferential treatment during his Vietnam-era National Guard service was singled out by the network yesterday for deceiving its staff about the origins of those documents.

Now Burkett, 55, finds himself behind the locked gate of his ranch just east of Abilene, trying to avoid those who would call this "Burkettgate." TV crews are staked outside his ranch, everything from his political activities to his medical records have been analyzed in the press and yesterday the White House impugned him as a "previously discredited source" and suggested he was working in concert with the Democratic Party.

Screening all calls

Friends who make it past the Burketts' home answering machine - Burkett and his wife, Nicki, are screening all calls - find a man with few allies; a former cattle rancher alone on the West Texas plain.

"I told Bill, `You've been skewered every way but Sunday, how you holding up?'" said Dave Haigler, chairman of the Taylor County Democratic Party and a friend. "And he said he was doing fine, and he expected CBS was fixing to turn on him."

Burkett insists the memos are genuine. Friends say Burkett has gone further out of his way to protect his source than CBS went to protect him.

"He was put out with CBS," said Dennis Adams, a retired lieutenant colonel who served with Burkett and spoke with him Sunday. "They sold him down the ... river."

Burkett's detractors, however, say he is a calculating man with a vendetta: A 28-year veteran of the Army National Guard, he retired in 1999, noting medical reasons. Later he attempted to sue the Guard, alleging he was denied medical care for a tropical disease he contracted while stationed in Panama in 1998.

"I think that now this has given him a new avenue to vent his anguish," said Texas State Rep. Rob Hunter, who said Burkett seemed angry when he sought assistance from his office with his dispute with the Guard.

Burkett, a Democrat, has said he tried to contact John Kerry's campaign with the documents he gave to CBS, and that he spoke to former Georgia Sen. Max Cleland, a Kerry ally, but Cleland referred him to someone else and his request went nowhere. Cleland says he let the matter drop, and the campaign says that it has not tried to track down Burkett's memos.

Yesterday, the White House suggested that Burkett may have had a deeper relationship with the Democrats.

"There are reports that he [Burkett] had senior-level contacts with members of the Kerry campaign," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan.

Burkett made news in February when he claimed he caught Guard commanders in 1997 trying to purge Bush's service record of potentially embarrassing documents at the behest of Joe Allbaugh, a top aide to then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

Allbaugh and the White House have called those charges baseless.

Burkett has called himself a whistleblower, arguing that he was angry with Guard leadership and Bush for failing to live up to a military honor code; Bush, he alleged, used privilege to get into the Texas Air National Guard and then became a "ghost soldier" who shirked his duties once he got there.

`He was angry'

"He was angry because he wanted to defend the honor of the Guard and because here was Bush ascending to high office based on a whole series of frauds," said Royse Kerr, president of the Taylor County Democratic Club who invited Burkett to speak at their gathering when he was making national news last winter.

In Abilene, where Republicans outnumber Democrats more than two-to-one, Burkett's efforts to discredit Bush's Guard service have drawn sneers and, he says, death threats - Burkett told a friend that he received eight threats Friday. Friends describe Burkett as a straight-talking but frail man who can launch into an anti-Bush tirade with gusto, but whose hands shake and who suffers from a heart condition.

The media glare can be hard to ignore, and Burkett notices his press. In February, he complained to a local reporter after Allbaugh called him a "goober" on CNN.

No doubt, in the coming days, Burkett will read descriptions far harsher than that.

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