Man at center of CBS debate has Portales roots

By Mike Linn

The man at the center of CBS’ reports questioning President Bush’s National Guard service is a native of Portales.
Bill Burkett of Baird, Texas, near Abilene, graduated from Portales High School in 1967 and was student-body president at Eastern New Mexico University in 1970-71.
Burkett also served as commander of New Mexico National Guard headquarter battery in Tucumcari, said his brother, Jerry Burkett, who still lives in Portales.
Documents Bill Burkett gave to CBS were said to have been written by Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, indicating he was pressured to “sugarcoat” the performance ratings of a young Bush.
CBS’ Dan Rather used the documents in a Sept. 8 “60 minutes” episode, defending their credibility for a week after the show had aired before apologizing Monday for a “mistake in judgment.”
Bill Burkett, 54, also a retired Texas National Guard official, told Rather on Monday’s “CBS Evening News” he deliberately misled a CBS producer, giving her a false account of the document’s origin to protect a promise of confidentiality to a source.
Bill Burkett, who last was in Portales in 2002 for his mother’s funeral, could not be reached for comment Monday.
“We’re pretty concerned about what’s going on,” his brother said. “This is pretty serious. I just hope everything was on the up and up. I have no reason to believe it isn’t, but I don’t know. This is an election year and a lot of things get put out of proportion.”
Jerry Burkett described his brother as a “strong Democrat,” but said he used to be a Republican in the Reagan years. He said his brother spent 20-plus years in the New Mexico and Texas National Guard units and now works in the cattle business in Baird.
Jerry Burkett also said his brother has physical health problems, but he declined to elaborate.
Jerry Burkett said he hasn’t spoken to his brother since recent news broke on the documents. He urged caution for his brother’s critics.
“I don’t want him hammered about things we’re not sure of,” said Jerry Burkett, a Republican.
Jerry Burkett, who farms west of Portales, said he can’t fault his brother if he didn’t know documents were likely forged.
Wayne Collins, who graduated Portales High with Bill Burkett and used to work with Bill’s ex-wife, said he hasn’t seen his classmate in 15 years.
But he wasn’t surprised to see him in the media spotlight this weekend.
“I think he was deliberately going for the attention,” said Collins, a homebuilder in Albuquerque. “There’s no other way around it. I think Dan Rather made some mistakes and CBS made some mistakes and I know they can be pushy. But it was all set up (by Burkett). He was wanting the attention of it all and he thought he could have some influence.”
Collins said he believes Burkett’s actions will ultimately have an impact on the presidential race.
“I think it will probably go the opposite way he was looking at, but yeah, I think it will have some influence (on the election). Ultimately I think it will hurt John Kerry,” Collins said.
Jerry Burkett said he doesn’t know what triggered his brother to switch from Republican to Democrat in the mid-1980s, but said his political views have grown stronger over the years.
Jerry Burkett described his brother as direct and having strong beliefs, and said the two have had heated discussions on politics.
“The Democratic people there in Taylor County, in Abilene, they think a lot of him,” his brother said. “He’s not considered a kook at all.”

Freedom Newspapers of New Mexico Editor David Stevens and The Associated Press contributed to this report.