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SPINNING BUSH AT WAR (PART 1)! Pundits recalled a leader’s war record. Their memory was weak—but it served:

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 wasn’t 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. It’s a dangerous National Guard duty. If the Vietnam War had continued, he would have gone to the Vietnam War as a pilot, so—I 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 Bush’s military service—and we don’t have a problem with it—his 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, Bush’s splashdown on the Lincoln had other folks checking his record. When George Stephanopoulos guested on Washington Journal, a caller questioned Bush’s 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 study—I don’t 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 don’t 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 thing—his memory was faulty, in two basic ways. The Boston Globe’s Walter Robinson did produce the press corps’ definitive report on this topic (May 23, 2000). But Robinson’s piece was 2415 words long—substantial, 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 Robinson’s article said this: “1-YEAR GAP IN BUSH’S 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, we’ve never discussed this topic. In general, we’re not especially interested in what public figures did when they were young. But when it comes to Bush’s National Guard record, Stephanopoulos’ memory lapses were really remarkably typical. The pundit presented a pleasing tale—the Globe had done a massive report, and had come away with very little. That, of course, isn’t really the truth—but it’s 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 MSNBC’s Countdown, Keith Olbermann—still learning the ropes—foolishly mentioned Bush’s 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 that—you know, sort of nailing that vampire story?
Olbermann’s 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 Robinson’s motives and offering brisk blather on politics:
MATTHEWS: [Do you think], Keith, there’s any chance that The Boston Globe city room will ever endorse George Bush for president? I mean, there’s a hopeless case! Give me a break! Those guys love to begrudge. You know, they’re good reporters. They dig—I think Robbie Robinson dug that story up…They know what they’re doing, and they have a lot of fun going after this Republican from Texas. There’s still a lot of regional competition there. Great reporting, but is it going to cost him a single state? They’re 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, he’s got a comfortable victory. He doesn’t have to worry about Florida.
Later this week, we’ll savor the varied dimensions of Matthews’ fakery in that one “answer” to Olbermann.

But make no mistake—mainstream reporters have always chosen to avoid the facts in Robinson’s report. It was “great reporting,” Matthews enthused—but absent-mindedly, he forgot to mention what this “great report” actually said! This week, we’ll 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 duty—and he’d 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, they’re slip-sliding them still.

That’s 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 wasn’t 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 don’t miss today’s “Daily update:”

CALLER: Good morning. I know when I ask this question it seems as if everyone’s eyes glaze over, and I don’t 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 Bush’s military record? Every time—thousands 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 haven’t got enough courage to tackle that.” Why is it we knew everything about Bill Clinton, for 35 years?

LAMB: Thanks. As a matter of fact, let me just tell you, because we talked about this earlier. We get a call—oh, maybe one in twenty—about George Bush’s year, last year—

STEPHANOPOULOS: In Alabama, right?

LAMB: Yeah. And we even had a fellow call this morning with a huge address on the Internet that has all the details and the background on this, supposedly. My question to him is, Why has no one that I know of in the media still pursued this thing?

STEPHANOPOULOS: I don’t think that’s true!

LAMB: I know they did. For whatever reason, the big organizations don’t care about this any more.

STEPHANOPOULOS: Well, the Boston Globe did a major, major, exhaustive study—I don’t 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—

LAMB: No, but my question to you is, Why is it there’s a whole bunch of folk out there that think this is still a problem? And has the media given up on it because they think they’ve exhausted the study?

STEPHANOPOULOS: I think the trail is dead and they’ve exhausted the study. There may have been—and you know, I don’t 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. And you know, some people are never going to be satisfied. But my guess is that, just as—the truth is, voters, you know, didn’t care in the end about Bill Clinton’s service or lack of service. I don’t think they care one way or the other about George W. Bush.

In his closing remark, Stephanopoulos misses the point of the caller’s question. To state the obvious, many voters did care—very much—about Clinton’s “service or lack of service.” But the caller wasn’t asking if people care; he was asking why the facts about Bush have been covered up. Stephanopoulos is certainly right on one point; voters won’t care about Bush’s service if pundits keep refusing to tell them the facts. By the way—did Coulter dissemble about Bush’s “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 won’t 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, we’ll see that the press corps’ “memory lapses” have been serving The Dub for three years now.

The Daily update

FOUR MORE RELIABLE SOURCES: On Meet the Press, four more pundits knew the corps’ Standard Scripts about Bush’s “Super Dave” splashdown. Bush looked manly in his jump suit. No Dem hopeful could have looked half as good. It’s “silly” and “crazy” for Dems to complain. And in an act of apparent pre-emption, Bob Novak even said that Dems will get nowhere talking about the National Guard. The players sit at a round table:

RUSSERT: And we are back. Lots of discussion this week, group, about presidential imagery. I want to show you some tape and let’s 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, what’s the difference? What happens? Why is one perceived as real and the other as— [group laughter]

BRODER: It has something to do with physical posture and so on. This president has learned how to move in a way that just conveys a great sense of authority and command, which Governor Dukakis never did. But the other thing is that it has something to do with what they had done before they got to that moment. This fellow’s won a war, and Dukakis, to the best of my recollection, never did win a war.

RUSSERT: Bob Novak?

NOVAK: Well, I think he looks good in a jump suit. A lot of people don’t, Tim. Maybe you and I wouldn’t look that good in a jump suit as a fly-boy.

RUSSERT: Maybe an orange prison garb for you there, more likely.

NOVAK: But I would say that the response by our Democrats that, well, he missed a lot of National Guard meetings, that is not going to do the trick. The other thing is that the leader in some of the polls by a fairly wide margin, is Joe Lieberman. Could Joe Lieberman get into a jet pilot’s jump suit and look credible? I doubt it, so this is one little advantage that George W. has.

RUSSERT: Doris, take us through history. Presidents have always tried to cast themselves riding horses, Roughrider Teddy Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln, log cabins. This kind of imagery, how important is it to projecting an image for the American voter?

DORIS KEARNS GOODWIN: Well, you see, I think what worked about the speech the other night was not only the imagery. The imagery is a kind of static thing, even the plane going in, but what made it work was partly what David said. There’s a war behind it. It was a real event, and by speaking to those soldiers who were on their way home, it gave it such an emotional connection between him and the soldiers, just like when Reagan spoke on the anniversary of D-Day before that incredible rock. And people had climbed up that rock and those rangers were there. There’s a connection then between the commander in chief and the troops that you cannot take away. So I think it is crazy to criticize it. I think it was a good thing he did for himself, for the country and the Democrats have plenty of other things to criticize, but it’s silly to go on about that.

Why was Bush’s 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 here’s what The Dean chose not to say: “It has to do with body posture and the way we’ll 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.