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THE LAST BULLDOG DIES (PART 3)! Bush’s comments called for challenge. But last Sunday, that bulldog wouldn’t hunt:


SOME FACTS ARE STILL MISSING IN ACTION: Wonders never cease! In this morning’s New York Times, Elisabeth Bumiller offers a lengthy, page-one report about the new National Guard records. What’s the new state of evidence concerning the alleged “missing year”—the year from May 1972 through May 1973? The new records seem to show that Bush performed drills starting in late October 1972. But contradictions still exist. During Campaign 2000, Bush’s Alabama commanders said they were “99 percent sure” that Bush didn’t report there for duty. And real-time evidence exited in Texas; on May 2, 1973, Bush’s Houston commanders had refused to file his annual review, saying that he had been absent from that base for the preceding year. How does Bumiller handle these contradictions? Here’s her basic summary:

BUMILLER (pgh 5): [White House spokesman Scott] McClellan could not say why some of Mr. Bush’s commanding officers did not recall his turning up on the dates he was paid, but he suggested they might have forgotten. “We’re talking about 30 years ago,” Mr. McClellan said.
Later, Bumiller says that Alabama commander William Turnipseed “has said that while he is not sure, he does not remember Mr. Bush reporting for duty.” She never mentions the Texas commanders, who filed that real-time, formal report saying Bush had been missing all year. Imperfect memory plays no role in the Texas part of this story.

In her piece, Bumiller offers a lengthy summary of the year in question. She notes that the new records seem to show that Bush performed some drills. But she only mentions the weakest contradictory evidence—the memory of the Alabama commanders. She fails to mention the stronger evidence—the real-time, formal report filed by Bush’s Texas commanders. And she never mentions an undisputed fact—she never says that Bush, while in Alabama, was suspended from flight duty for failing to take his annual physical. It’s a basic, undisputed fact. But it’s AWOL from this report.

Bumiller’s report is over 1200 words long. It’s accompanied by a margin-to-margin chart—a chart which purports to show key events of the alleged “missing year.” But nowhere are Times readers told that Bush was suspended from duty during this year—and readers aren’t told that his Houston commanders said he was absent from that base the whole year. She mentions the weaker contradictory evidence—the memory of the Alabama commanders—and omits the stronger contradictory evidence—the real-time, formal Texas report. The undisputed fact of Bush’s suspension has gone down the memory hole, too.

What are the facts about Bush’s service? The ultimate facts are still unclear. This, of course, is a built-in problem when we try to judge a candidate’s “character” based on 30-year-old events. But duh! You simply can’t summarize the “missing year” without mentioning the fact of Bush’s suspension. Nor can you simply decide that you want to deep-six that real-time, formal Texas report. Times readers may think that they’ve read a full summary. But several key facts have gone missing today. At the Times, such desertions never stop.

THAT BULLDOG WOULDN’T HUNT: A fearsome bulldog was missing in action when Bush sat down with Russert last week. Right from the start, his absence was evident. After Russert asked his first question, Bush gave a lengthy, rambling reply. The “answer” had nothing to do with the question—but Russert, feared bulldog, didn’t yelp, bark or growl (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/9/04). And when Russert asked if he the pre-war intelligence had been hyped, Bush side-stepped that question too (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/10/04). Did Russert pose a follow-up question? No. He just let it slide by.

Indeed, was there anything Bush could have said this day that would have provoked a follow-up question? Russert is praised as a junkyard dog—a host who chomps down hard on his prey. But when he sat with Bush last weekend, the bulldog became a poofed poodle. Repeatedly, Bush’s statements cried out for challenge. But guess what? That bulldog wouldn’t hunt!

How tame was Russert’s performance this day? Let’s consider a string of instances where the bulldog refused to follow up.

First, consider the tenure of Tenet. Early on, Bush volunteered some surprising news. George Tenet is doing great work!

RUSSERT: Will you testify before the [new] commission [on intelligence]?

BUSH: This commission? You know, testify—I mean, I’d be glad to visit with them. I’ll be glad to share with them knowledge. I’ll be glad to make recommendations if they ask for some. You know, I’m interested in making sure the intelligence gathering works well. Listen, we’ve got some fine—let me, again, just give you a sense of where I am on the intelligence systems of America. First of all, I strongly believe the CIA’s ably led by George Tenet. He comes and briefs me on a regular basis about what he and his analysts see in the world.

RUSSERT: His job is not in jeopardy?

BUSH: No, not at all. Not at all. We’ve got people working hard in intelligence gathering around the world to get as good an information as possible. Intelligence requires, you know, all kinds of assets to bring information to the president, and I want that intelligence service to be strong, viable, competent, confident, and provide good product to the president so I can make judgment calls.

What a surprising statement! We had a major intelligence shortfall before 9/11, and we’ve now found another big problem in the intelligence about Iraq. Why isn’t Tenet’s job in jeopardy? Bush may have a very good answer—but Russert didn’t bother to ask. But then, this was just the first of many timers that an obvious follow-up question was skipped. A bulldog had joined the stenographer’s pool. It was the role that he’d play this whole day.

Indeed, it soon became clear: There was nothing Bush could say that would lead to a challenge from Russert. Tenet was serving ably, Bush said. Instantly, the prez added this:

RUSSERT: There’s another commission right now looking into September 11th. Will you testify before that commission?

BUSH: We have given extraordinary cooperation with [sic] chairmen Kean and Hamilton. As you know, we made an agreement on what’s called presidential daily briefs, so they could see the information the CIA provided me. That is unique, by the way, to have provided what's called the PDB because—

RUSSERT: Presidential daily briefs.

BUSH: Right. And, see, the danger of allowing for information that I get briefed on out in the public arena is that it could mean that the product that I receive or future presidents receive is somewhat guarded for fear of it being revealed, for fear of people saying, “Well, you know, we’re going to second-guess that which you told the president.” I need good, honest information, but we have shared this information with both those gentlemen, gentlemen I trust, so they can get a better picture of what took place prior to September the 11th.

Say what? “We have given extraordinary cooperation with chairmen Kean and Hamilton?” In fact, the cooperation has been so extraordinary that Kean and Hamilton have persistently threatened to sue the White House for withheld information. These battles continue in the papers today, as they have for months on end. But Russert posed no challenge to Bush, any more than he had done when Bush side-stepped his opening question—the question about why Bush tried to avoid a commission to study failed intel.

By now, the stenography was in high gear. Nothing Bush said would provoke a response. Russert moved on to the matter of intel. As we’ve seen, Russert allowed Bush to sidestep the key question on this key topic. But there was more. Even as Russert asked about hyped intelligence, the affable host took a total pass on this presentation by Bush:

BUSH: Now, let me—this is very—there’s a vital question—

RUSSERT: Nothing more important.

BUSH: A vital question. And so we expected—I expected there to be stockpiles of weapons. But David Kay has found the capacity to produce weapons. Now, when David Kay goes in and says, “We haven’t found stockpiles yet,” and there’s theories as to where the weapons went. They could have been destroyed during the war. Saddam and his henchmen could have destroyed them as we entered into Iraq. They could be hidden. They could have been transported to another country. And we’ll find out. That’s what the Iraqi Survey Group—let me finish here. But David Kay did report to the American people that Saddam had the capacity to make weapons. Saddam Hussein was dangerous with weapons. Saddam Hussein was dangerous with the ability to make weapons. He was a dangerous man in a dangerous part of the world.

Speaking of selective presentations, look at that list of theories Bush offered—a list the bulldog politely accepted. What might have happened to the stockpiles of weapons? All the theories Bush recites presume they existed until just before the war! Bush fails to mention all other theories; indeed, he makes precisely the sort of selective presentation Russert was pretending to challenge! But there was no attempt to follow up when Bush presented this selective list. The bulldog failed to notice.

Readers, what ever became of that pugnacious dog—the one to whom the press throws its bones? As the interview dragged along, Bush offered long, repetitious, slow-talking answers to vague and repetitious questions. And it became abundantly clear: There was nothing Bush could say that would provoke a real follow-up qauestion. In particular, Bush’s comments on the budget were so absurd that many observers—of the left, right and center—have assailed him for what they refer to as “lies.” But Russert took absolutely no notice. Would the prescription drug entitlement reduce the deficit? Had Clinton massively outspent Bush? Would Bush’s budget cut the deficit in half? Those are the things Bush said—and Russert didn’t peep in protest. By now, almost everyone has challenged Bush’s statements (see below)—but Russert, the bulldog, failed to take notice. In the past, he would gnaw on a candidate’s leg. Now he just wagged his short tail.

On this day, that dog wouldn’t hunt! And he’d left his very best weapons at home. Consider what the president said when he was asked about “changing the tone.” Why had Tom Daschle complained about Bush? “I don’t speak ill of anybody,” Bush replied. “I think if you went back and looked at my comments, you see that I don’t attack.” Say what? We think you know what that fearsome old bulldog would have done! Up on the screen, we’d have seen the president making the statements which provoked Daschle’s complaints in the first place! We’d have seen the tape from September 2002, when Bush said that Senate Democrats were “not interested in the security of the American people” because of their stand on the bill to create a Department of Homeland Security. (“Outrageous. Outrageous,” Daschle had said. You’d likely have seen that clip too.) And there’s something else you would have seen. You’d have seen those Republican TV ads morphing Max Cleland into Saddam and Osama—and Russert would have asked the prez what he had done to change the tone in his party. But the tape machine was missing this day. There were none of those trademark clips—the embarrassing clips for which Russert is famous! A bulldog had left his best weapons at home. He now seemed to sleep in the sun.

Yep—Tim was a different dog this day. Since Sunday, the scribe has taken a victory lap—and has seemed to explain the change in his conduct. Tomorrow, we’ll look at what he has said. Question: Should this bulldog be sent out to pasture?

BREAKING UP IS HARD TO DO: How they hate to criticize Russert! In The Nation, David Corn capably critiques the bulldog’s toothless performance. We especially recommend his treatment of Bush’s budget discussion. “Budget experts across the political spectrum…have all said that the Bush White House is engaged in fake accounting and that his deficit projections are a fantasy, a dishonest coverup,” Corn writes. “They agree that the deficits in the coming years will be much higher than Bush is claiming. Just a few days before this interview, The Washington Post editorialists blasted Bush for engaging in outright budgetary deceit.” But Russert noted none of this—and accepted more funny numbers from Bush. “I waited for Russert to pounce on Bush. But no pounce came,” Corn says.

Corn’s analysis is right on the mark. But more intriguing is the obvious pain he feels at having to criticize Russert. It’s Hard Pundit Law—all must pander to Tim. Corn serves brilliantly in this fine column. But even David would plainly prefer to be stroking this big bulldog’s brow.