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POST TOASTED! Did George Bush serve in the Bama Guard? Ancient, vague memories can’t tell us:


STARTING TOMORROW: A GUTTER RUNS THROUGH IT! The Drudges and Kauses are spreading the sludge. This time, the press should fight back.

POST TOASTED: How inept are our friends at the Washington Post? Consider Friday’s installment in the ongoing saga of Bush and the National Guard.

Did Bush report for duty with the Alabama Guard? During Campaign 2000, Bush officials couldn’t produce anyone who recalled serving with him in the state. But now, Bill Calhoun had finally stepped forward, Mike Allen reported in Friday’s Post! According to Allen, Calhoun—a former officer in the Bama Air Guard—“said in a telephone interview that Bush used to sit in his office and read magazines and flight manuals as he performed weekend duty at Dannelly Field in Montgomery during 1972.” Continuing, Allen laid out the tale:

ALLEN (2/13/04): Calhoun estimated that he saw Bush sign in at the 187th Tactical Reconnaissance Group eight to 10 times for about eight hours each from May to October 1972. He said the two occasionally grabbed a sandwich in the snack bar.

“He’d sit on my couch and read training manuals and accident reports and stuff like that,” Calhoun said. “The pilots would read those so they would see what other guys did wrong…He never complained about coming.”

Allen went on for five more paragraphs, summarizing what Calhoun had said. And make no mistake—Calhoun seemed like a credible witness. Indeed, he had even “faxed The Washington Post military records that show he worked at Dannelly Field when he said he saw Bush,” Allen said. The significance? “Calhoun’s claim was a rare respite for a White House that has had a difficult time locating anyone who served with Bush,” Allen judged. “A variety of veterans have said they do not recall his presence at the base.”

Finally! Finally, someone had reported serving with Bush! But there was one small problem with Calhoun’s claim. His account contradicted the basic chronology of the case—a timeline that has been clear and unchallenged for the past four years. Allen and his editors—hopeless incompetents—seemed ignorant of the story’s simplest facts.

What was wrong with Calhoun’s account? According to Allen, Calhoun said he served with Bush at Dannelly Field starting in May 1972. But Bush wasn’t even assigned to Dannelly until September 1972—four months later. The basic chronology was first laid out by the Boston Globe’s Walter Robinson in May 2000. In the very first article about the alleged “missing year,” Robinson presented the timeline:

ROBINSON (5/23/00): On May 24, 1972, after he moved to Alabama, Bush made a formal request to do his equivalent training at the 9921st Air Reserve Squadron at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama…In Houston, Bush’s superiors approved. But a higher headquarters disapproved, noting that [the 9921st] did not have regular drills…

Inexplicably, months went by with no resolution to Bush’s status—and no Guard duty. Bush’s evident disconnection from his Guard duties was underscored in August, when he was removed from flight status for failing to take his annual flight physical.

Finally, on Sept. 5, 1972, Bush requested permission to do duty for September, October, and November at the 187th Tactical Recon Group in Montgomery. Permission was granted, and Bush was directed to report to [William] Turnipseed, the unit’s commander.

According to last Friday’s Post, Calhoun said he worked with Bush at Dannelly Field from May 1972 on. Unfortunately, Bush wasn’t even assigned to Dannelly (to the 187th) until September—four months later!

Did Bill Calhoun ever work with Bush? Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t have a clue. But Allen (and his editors) didn’t seem to know the simplest facts of this ongoing case. Almost surely, the facts of this matter will never be clear; that’s how it goes with 32-year-old tales. But we’ll ask the question we always ask: Are professionals in any other sector allowed to be such screaming incompetents? And this: Do you really think that scribes like this will ever make this murky case clear?

At any rate, the recent focus on hazy claimed memory shows the press corps at its weakest. Consider a contrast in yesterday’s Post. If our Nexis-aided recollection serves, we think it went something…like…this…

EMILY’S MEMORIES: We were struck by the contrast in yesterday’s Post. In his ombudsman column, Michael Getler said the Post has tended to bury news “on the question of whether this country was led into war on false premises.” “[W]hatever one’s politics, it’s hard to think of an issue more basic to a democracy,” Getler wrote. And yet the Post had tended to place such reporting on page A17, he lamented.

And that’s where the contrast came in. Even as Getler decried the placement of his paper’s most important reporting, what appeared on page one, above the fold? A new—and remarkably pointless—story about Bush’s service in the National Guard.

What made Manuel Roig-Franzia’s story so worthless? You can probably guess from its headline. “Some in Ala. Recall Bush Mentioning Guard Duties,” the front-page headline said. Yes, this latest story dealt with hazy memory of ancient events, events that seemed trivial at the time. The events took place in 1972, some 32 years in the past.

And that’s where the problem comes in. No, dear readers, people can’t recall what they did, said or heard in 1972. You’ll never learn if Bush served in Bama based on such claimed recollections. How inane—how irrelevant—was Roig-Franzia’s report? He started by noting what a former Bush girl friend told a small newspaper four years ago. Emily Marks Curtis “told the paper that she had dated Bush while they both worked on the 1972 Senate campaign of [Winton] Blount, and that Bush had talked of going to Guard duty on the weekends,” the Post scribe said. But alas! As Roig-Franzia noted, “even [Curtis] has no firsthand knowledge of [Bush’s] service in the Alabama National Guard, and relies, she said, on what she heard from the 26-year-old Bush.” Alas! We have no way of knowing if Curtis was sincere when she made her claims about Bush; beyond that, if she was sincere in her claims, we have no way of knowing if her memory is accurate. In short, you can’t settle anything with “evidence” like this. But on the very day that Getler complained about the way the Post buries crucial reporting, this stupid story was out on page one, wasting the paper’s prime real estate.

Why is the Post suddenly pushing the Guard—a story it hid from four years ago? In part, it’s because the press has begun to flip on Bush—seems worried about his performance and credibility. But basic facts almost never come clear when we try to tease out ancient stories. And hazy, claimed memories of former Bush friends will never really tell us what occurred.

As we have repeatedly said, this story should have been researched and reported during Campaign 2000. It should still be researched and reported now. But no, it doesn’t deserve much of the treatment your hapless press corps is currently giving it. You can’t learn squat from Emily’s memories, and—thanks to hapless reporters like Allen—the factual record will likely remain a big jumble. Of course, you really might learn about Bush’s character by examining the way we got into Iraq. But that story’s hard, and it’s actually dangerous. That’s why it ends up on A17. As always: The Washington “press” has a taste for sheer trivia. Silly foofaw appears on page one. For the real deal, visit A17.

A BULLDOG KEPT PURRING: By Sunday, the Post had noted that Calhoun’s story didn’t comport with the actual facts. Roig-Franzia did the honors:

ROIG-FRANZIA (2/15/00): Only one person has vivid recollections of serving with Bush at Dannelly field. John B. “Bill” Calhoun, 69—whose name was provided by a Republican ally of Bush’s—said he saw Bush sign in at the 187th eight to 10 times for about eight hours each from May to October 1972.

But Calhoun remembers seeing Bush at Dannelly at times in mid-1972 when the White House acknowledges Bush was not pulling Guard duty in Alabama yet; his first drills were in October, according to the White House. White House press secretary Scott McClellan on Friday was at a loss to reconcile the discrepancy.

Is Calhoun sincere in his claims? Did he serve with Bush? We don’t have the slightest idea. But his story contradicted the basic facts. Two days later, the Post finally said so.

Of course, none of this stopped retired bulldog Tim Russert from vouching for Calhoun all through Meet the Press. You know what a puddy that “bulldog” can be! Early in yesterday’s hour, he asked this of Charlie Rangel:

RUSSERT: The president has now released all his military records. General Calhoun, who was in Alabama, said he observed him coming to duty on weekends in Alabama. Should the Democrats withdraw the charge of AWOL towards George W. Bush?
“General?” Calhoun is actually a retired lieutenant colonel, but Russert promoted him for the occasion. Nor did he mention the problem with Calhoun’s recollection. But you know how friendly this retired bulldog can be! And later, during his journalists’ panel, Russert vouched for Calhoun again:
RUSSERT: Everything has now been released according to the White House. General Calhoun, Gwen Ifill, has came forward and said, “I remember being with George W. Bush in Alabama.” Has this issue been closed down?
Never forget how weak and inane your celebrity “press” tends to be.

TURNIPSEED FLIPS: One final note on hazy recall: This week, William Turnipseed, Bush’s Alabama commander, backtracked on his claims from Campaign 2000. Four years ago, Turnipseed said he was “99 percent certain” that Bush never reported for duty in Bama. Now, Turnipseed says he isn’t sure. “I’m beginning to find out my memory is not any good any more. I’m 75 years old and getting Alzheimer’s,” he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Dave Hirschman last week. For the record, Turnipseed’s second in command, Kenneth Lott, had also told the Boston Globe that Bush failed to report back in ’72. But as far as we can tell from the record, no one has checked back with Lott to assess the strength of his recall.

But Turnipseed and Lott’s ancient memories were always the weaker part of the case against Bush. Stronger evidence? Bush’s suspension from flight duty in 1972, and the formal report, filed in May 1973, saying that he had been absent from his Houston base for a year. Hazy memory makes a weak case. But your celebrity press corps loves a good tale, and murky memory helps make a good novel. No, hazy claimed memory can’t settle this case. But don’t expect that your “press corps” will know it.