MONDAY, MAY 5, 2003
MEMORY SERVES: After Bush splashed down on the Abraham Lincoln, pundit Ann Coulter began dissembling about his record in the National Guard (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 5/3/03). He was a pilot, she declaimed on Hardball. I mean, it wasnt like the typical avoiding the military service by serving in the National Guard. He was a pilot in the National Guard. He was training to be a pilot. Its a dangerous National Guard duty. If the Vietnam War had continued, he would have gone to the Vietnam War as a pilot, soI mean, he is a pilot, though he was not, he did not serve in wartime. This, of course, is absolute nonsense. Whatever one thinks of Bushs military serviceand we dont have a problem with ithis unit was never going to Nam. As usual, Coulter was craftily making it up. But host Chris Matthews and Hardball Democrat Pat Caddell pretended not to notice.
But by Friday morning, Bushs splashdown on the Lincoln had other folks checking his record. When George Stephanopoulos guested on Washington Journal, a caller questioned Bushs service in the Air National Guard. In response, Stephanopoulos described the way the issue was covered during Campaign 2000. On the surface, his memory failed to serve:
STEPHANOPOULOS: The Boston Globe did a major, major, exhaustive studyI dont remember all the details now, but Walter Robinson of the Boston Globe dedicated about five or ten thousand words to this investigation back in the 2000 campaign You know, I dont even again remember all the details. There may have been some questions about what happened for a couple of months, but the bottom line is that George Bush did serve, he was a pilot, he did not see active duty, but he was in the reserves. [full transcript below]Stephanopoulos was right about one thinghis memory was faulty, in two basic ways. The Boston Globes Walter Robinson did produce the press corps definitive report on this topic (May 23, 2000). But Robinsons piece was 2415 words longsubstantial, but not the behemoth Stephanopoulos recalled. And while Stephanopoulos overstated the length of the report, he understated the problem it described. Had there been some questions about a couple of months? In fact, the headline on Robinsons article said this: 1-YEAR GAP IN BUSHS GUARD DUTY/NO RECORD OF AIRMAN AT DRILLS IN 1972-73. According to Robinson: In his final 18 months of military service in 1972 and 1973, Bush did not fly [for the Air National Guard] at all. And for much of that time, Bush was all but unaccounted for: For a full year, there is no record that he showed up for the periodic drills required of part-time guardsmen. According to Robinson, Bush seemed to have been missing from his guard unit for a year, not the few months the pundit recalled. Officially, the period between May 1972 and May 1973 remains unaccounted for, Robinson said.
At THE HOWLER, weve never discussed this topic. In general, were not especially interested in what public figures did when they were young. But when it comes to Bushs National Guard record, Stephanopoulos memory lapses were really remarkably typical. The pundit presented a pleasing talethe Globe had done a massive report, and had come away with very little. That, of course, isnt really the truthbut its exactly the way the mainstream press corps has always liked to present this tale. In fact, mainstream pundits have always avoided the story Robinson reported that day. And the press corps desire to avoid the story seems to persist to this day.
For example, consider the way Matthews finessed the issue Thursday night. When Matthews appeared on MSNBCs Countdown, Keith Olbermannstill learning the ropesfoolishly mentioned Bushs record:
OLBERMANN: Now, back aboard the Lincoln here, and the one thing that you mentioned about his experience in the Air National Guard. It did, in some quarters at least today, bring back that Boston Globe report from 2000 that Mr. Bush did not exactly finish that tour with the Texas Air National Guard. Was there something of a defeating thatyou know, sort of nailing that vampire story?Olbermanns question was a bit hazy. But Matthews knew what a pundit must do when confronted with this topic. He skipped the facts and changed the subject, speculating (quite stupidly) about Robinsons motives and offering brisk blather on politics:
MATTHEWS: [Do you think], Keith, theres any chance that The Boston Globe city room will ever endorse George Bush for president? I mean, theres a hopeless case! Give me a break! Those guys love to begrudge. You know, theyre good reporters. They digI think Robbie Robinson dug that story up They know what theyre doing, and they have a lot of fun going after this Republican from Texas. Theres still a lot of regional competition there. Great reporting, but is it going to cost him a single state? Theyre not going to get Massachusetts, to start with. The fight now is over Pennsylvania, Michigan. Those are the two states the Republicans are trying to build up as pickups. If he wins them, hes got a comfortable victory. He doesnt have to worry about Florida.Later this week, well savor the varied dimensions of Matthews fakery in that one answer to Olbermann.
But make no mistakemainstream reporters have always chosen to avoid the facts in Robinsons report. It was great reporting, Matthews enthusedbut absent-mindedly, he forgot to mention what this great report actually said! This week, well give you a look at the way your press corps avoided this topic during Campaign 2000. To all appearances, Bush had missed a year of dutyand hed misstated the facts of the case. But your press corps had typecast a pleasing drama, in which Al Gore had been cast as BIG LIAR. So on this story, they slip-slid the facts. Quite plainly, theyre slip-sliding them still.
Thats right, kids. Your press corps conducted a wide-ranging fraud as it presented Campaign 2000. On this topic, true to their ideals, your press corps is deceiving you still.
TOMORROW: Turnipseed to Robinson: Bush wasnt there. And everyone knew not to notice.
THEIR COURAGE ATTACKED: A fuller transcript of the C-SPAN exchange, with a few of our own closing comments. And dont miss todays Daily update:
CALLER: Good morning. I know when I ask this question it seems as if everyones eyes glaze over, and I dont get answered very well. We searched back on Bill Clinton 35 and 40 years, and now the Republican demonizing group has started to go back on Hillary, back to Whitewater and Arkansas. Why is it we cannot find out about George Bushs military record? Every timethousands of people keep asking it, day after day after day, and we get a blank stare as if someone is saying, behind their eyes you see, Well, I havent got enough courage to tackle that. Why is it we knew everything about Bill Clinton, for 35 years?In his closing remark, Stephanopoulos misses the point of the callers question. To state the obvious, many voters did carevery muchabout Clintons service or lack of service. But the caller wasnt asking if people care; he was asking why the facts about Bush have been covered up. Stephanopoulos is certainly right on one point; voters wont care about Bushs service if pundits keep refusing to tell them the facts. By the waydid Coulter dissemble about Bushs service or lack of service because nobody cares about the topic? Having bungled the facts of the case, Stephanopoulos tried to work a slick dismount.
But Stephanopoulos was right on one other point. Some people wont be satisfied as long as Coulter dissembles, Stephanopoulos downplays, and Matthews deftly changes the subject. On Thursday and Friday, three major pundits had a chance to recite basic facts of a three-year-old case. None of them did, and as our study goes on, well see that the press corps memory lapses have been serving The Dub for three years now.
RUSSERT: And we are back. Lots of discussion this week, group, about presidential imagery. I want to show you some tape and lets come back and talk about it [tape of Bush on USS Lincoln]. USS Lincoln, and coming back holding his helmet after being co-pilot, greeting the sailors and Marines aboard that plane. Now [tape of Dukakis in tank], contrast that to 1988 [group laughter], Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis driving in a sound bite and photo-op that was widely criticized and ridiculed. David Broder, whats the difference? What happens? Why is one perceived as real and the other as [group laughter]Why was Bushs splashdown so great? It has to do with body posture and so on, Broder said. And so on may strike you as somewhat vague. But heres what The Dean chose not to say: It has to do with body posture and the way well all sit here and spin it.
As usual, the pundits all had the very same thoughts. But then, the last to speak is well known for her copying. Today, as she echoed what others had said, she aped three reliable sources.