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KIT-FLOP! “Kit” Seelye flipped about Bush and the Guard. Ain’t it time that the press limned this story?


HAIL TO THEE, O MANCHESTER: Hail to thee, O Manchester, New Hampshire, frozen Queen City by the Merrimack! We enjoyed our barroom chats with Mickey Kaus, in which the Angelino took back every word he’s ever written. Well, we think that’s what we heard Mickey say. You know how it can be in those bars! There was the usual ambient noise, so we’re not really sure what our pal really said...

And hail to Riley Yates, of the Manchester Union-Leader, quoting our own incomparable critique of the press corps’ attacks on Howard Dean. (Yates reviewed Sunday’s comedy concert.) “When Chris Matthews is complaining about ‘red-faced rants,’ hasn’t justice been turned on its head?” we had asked. Continuing: “Message to Chris—you may not be the person to decide who is ‘manic.’” And yes, we did the thing with our fingers, showing which words came in quotes.

Final note from Sunday night: Which well-known “Fox Democrat” approached the comedians’ table and boasted about how much money Fox pays her? (Brought it up twice!) “That’s exactly what we’ve been saying,” one mordant wag later said.

TOMORROW: More notes from the frozen banks of the Merrimack! Incomparable thoughts regarding Jon Stewart’s critique of the major press.

KIT CONTRADICTS: “Kit” Seelye got off to her standard weird start. In Monday’s Times, the imaginative scribe was reviewing the Clark campaign. As she opened, she offered a strange account of a speech by the jive-talkin’ general:

SEELYE (pgh 1): It was Gen. Wesley K. Clark’s turn to make his pitch to the hundreds of members of the New Hampshire Democratic Party jammed into a hotel room on Saturday night. General Clark, who declared his party affiliation only four months ago, knew that some in the audience of lifelong Democrats might be skeptical of his credentials, so he began:

(2) “I have to tell you honestly, I haven’t been a member of the Democratic Party for that long.”

(3) To the doubters in the audience, the comment came like a slow, fat pitch right over home plate. “We noticed,” some grumbled. “We’ve heard!” one man yelled. “Yeah, we know,” said another, rolling his eyes.

Could this possibly have happened in the way it’s described? Was Clark really heckled in this semi-surreal way, right at the start of his speech? We don’t know, but we will say this: Although 500 media types attended this major event, no one else seems to have noted the heckling. For example, the Union-Leader published a full report on this Nashua dinner, but didn’t mention any heckling of Clark. (Six of the seven Dem candidates spoke.) But you know Seelye! Displaying her matchless listening skills, she somehow made out the following:
  1. She heard “some” people grumbling, “We noticed.” (Presumably, she heard at least three people say this.)
  2. She heard someone else yell, “We’ve heard.”
  3. She heard another person say, “Yeah, we know.” And she saw that this man was “rolling his eyes.”
This reads like a dream sequence, not like a real event. But Seelye knew what this strange moment “suggested:” “The moment suggested that General Clark had still not met one of the threshold tests for a Democratic candidate, convincing voters that he has a rightful claim to the party’s presidential nomination.” Was Clark really heckled? We don’t have a clue. But then, we know this scribes matchless skills at making out “the quiet voices other people don’t hear.”

But Seelye really grabbed our eye with something she said a bit later. The scribe was discussing Michael Moore’s reference to Bush as a “deserter.” Her account of the facts stopped us short:

SEELYE: General Clark has spent much of his time here explaining controversial statements. Perhaps most damaging has been his failure to repudiate comments by Mr. Moore, who called Mr. Bush a deserter for his unexplained absence from the Air National Guard between April 1972 and September 1973.
In her own voice, Seelye refers to Bush’s “unexplained absence from the Air National Guard between April 1972 and September 1973.”

Why were we struck by Seelye’s construction? Because on November 3, 2000, Seelye’s own New York Times insisted that Bush had not been absent. Four days earlier, the Boston Globe’s Walter Robinson had again written that “as the Globe reported in May, two documents and the recollections of officers…raise questions about whether Bush performed any duty between April 1972 and September 1973, the month Bush entered Harvard Business School.” But the Globe was all wet, the Times quickly retorted. “Documents reviewed by The Times showed that Mr. Bush served in at least 9 of the 17 months in question,” Jo Thomas said in the November 3 piece. “A review by The Times showed that after a seven-month gap, he appeared for duty in late November 1972 at least through July 1973.” According to the credulous Thomas, here’s what the documents said:

THOMAS (11/3/00): [Bush aide Dan] Bartlett pointed to a document in Mr. Bush’s military records that showed credit for four days of duty ending Nov. 29[, 1972] and for eight days ending Dec. 14, 1972, and, after he moved back to Houston, on dates in January, April and May...

Another document showed that Mr. Bush served at various times from May 29, 1973, through July 30, 1973, a period of time questioned by The Globe.

Would it kill the Times to get straight on this story? In November 2000—with the election on the line—the paper said that Bush had served. Four years later, Seelye says something different.

This contradiction draws attention to the press corps’ slipshod approach to this story. As of Election Day 2000, the facts of the case were clear as mud; we had the Boston Globe saying that Bush hadn’t served, and the Times—describing at least two documents—insisting that he actually had. And from that day to this, the press hasn’t made the slightest attempt to sort out the contradiction. After Election 2000, the corps dropped this topic like a hot rock. No one ever tried to explain what “documents” Thomas was citing.

Result? Last week, Peter Jennings lectured Clark about “the facts” of this muddled case (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/23/04). And four days later, there was Seelye, asserting an absence the Times had once claimed to debunk. There are obvious reasons why the press corps may have wanted to avoid this story. But Seelye’s contradiction of Thomas’ report shows the puzzling state of the evidence. The facts of this case are still clear as mud, right up to this very day.

Ain’t it time for the press corps to screw up its courage and follow this story wherever it leads? They took a dive in Campaign 2000. Before Jennings offers more scolding lectures, shouldn’t they clarify now?

CREDULOUS THOMAS: What “documents” was Thomas most likely describing? In his October 31 Boston Globe story, Robinson described one shaky doc which the Bush camp was peddling around:

ROBINSON (10/31/00): Dan Bartlett, a Bush campaign spokesman, pointed to incomplete records—one a torn page without Bush’s name or any discernible dates—as evidence that he did enough drills in Houston in the closing months of his service to satisfy military obligations.
Ah yes, the mysterious “torn document.” On November 2, George Lardner described this strange document in the Washington Post:
LARDNER (11/2/00): The Bush campaign points to a torn piece of paper in his Guard records, a statement of points Bush apparently earned in 1972-73, although most of the dates and Bush’s name except for the “W” have been torn off.

According to the torn Air Reserve Forces sheet, Bush continued to compile service credits after returning to Houston, winding up his fifth year with 56 points, six above the minimum needed for retention. However, Bush’s annual effectiveness report, signed by two superiors, says “Lt. Bush has not been observed at this unit during the period of the report,” May 1, 1972, to April 30, 1973.

How weird! Bush’s superiors had said that he didn’t appear! And yes, they said this in real time! But how convenient! The Bush camp had (belatedly) found a torn document, on which only his middle initial appeared! Apparently, Thomas accepted this absurdly strange document, and—without telling her readers how strange the doc was—she said it proved that the Globe was all wet. But then, the Times pandered to Bush all through Campaign 2000. This late report by credulous Thomas was the paper’s one last, parting gift.

Pitiful, isn’t it? That the press corps left the facts of this story in this absurd state? There are other mysteries about this “torn document” which we’ll note another day. But let’s face it—it wasn’t just Bush who refused to report. Your press corps avoided its duty during Campaign 2000, and we’ve seen the results of their dereliction this past week. We’ve seen Seelye contradict her own paper’s report. We’ve seen Jennings imperiously lecture Clark on “the facts.” In truth, “the facts” of this case are still grossly unclear—as unclear as the origins of that strangely torn document. But who exactly are the “deserters?” In our view, it’s time that the press corps returned to its post and worked its way through this strange story.