WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 26, 2003
POSTPONEMENT: Well finish our Days of Bernie on Friday. So much to laugh at, and so little time! But on Friday, Days of Bernie must end.
WAR WITHOUT END: It was right on page one of last Saturdays New York Times. The paper was fly-specking Howard Deans troubling draft record, detailing how he escaped Vietnam. We had to chuckle when we read Jan Lewis letter in todays Times:
To the Editor:But so it goes at the vacuous Times. I suppose that may count as news, but barely, Lewis writes. [T]he American people have already demonstrated that they are willing to elect to office men who all used one stratagem or another to avoid going to Vietnam.
That may be true, but the press corps has demonstrated something as well. The press corps has shown that it never will tire of the how did you get out of Vietnam story. Except in the case of one former hopeful, of course. That lucky hopeful? George Bush.
Since weve spent two weeks watching Bernie Goldberg rant about the Times liberal bias, lets compare the way the New York Times covered the histories of Dean and Bush. Candidate Dean was splayed out on page one. With Candidate Bush, things were different.
Howler history: By the spring of 2000, it was clear that Bush would be the GOP nomineeand it was clear that there were unanswered questions about his military service. On May 23, 2000, the Boston Globe ran a 2400-word, front-page story. 1-YEAR GAP IN BUSHS GUARD DUTY, said the headline. NO RECORD OF AIRMAN AT DRILLS IN 1972-73. According to the Globes Walter Robinson, Bush had missed all required Air National Guard drills for a year, starting in May 1972. Bushs evident disconnection from his Guard duties was underscored in August , Robinson wrote, when he was removed from flight status for failing to take his annual flight physical. At one point, Bush was directed to report to Gen. William Turnipseed, commander of an Alabama Guard unit. But [i]n interviews last week, Turnipseed and his administrative officer at the time, Kenneth K. Lott, said they had no memory of Bush ever reporting, Robinson wrote. And this: Officially, the period between May 1972 and May 1973 remains unaccounted for.
Did Bush skip a year of his National Guard service? Here at THE HOWLER, we arent really sure. But Candidate Clintons deeply troubling draft record was widely scrutinized in 1992and Walter Robinson foolishly thought that the press would treat Candidate Bush the same way. [T]he puzzling gap in Bushs military service is likely to heighten speculation about the conspicuous underachievement that marked the period between his 1968 graduation from Yale University and his 1973 entry into Harvard Business School, he tactfully wrote. Robinson framed his judgment in the most polite way. And he was totally wrong in that judgment.
Indeed, the Washington press paid little attention to Bushs puzzling record. And no one ignored Bushs service interruption any more than the liberal New York Times. Deans draft record would be limned on page one. But at the liberal New York Times, Bushs puzzling absence from duty was almost completely ignored.
Just how odd was the New York Times coverage? On May 21, 2000, Nicholas Kristof began an intermittent series of biographical profiles of Bush. Most installments were roughly 3800 words long; on June 10, for example, the Times published a 3700-word Kristof piece about Bushs days in prep school. And on July 11, the Times published the fourth installment in Kristofs seriesa look at Bushs service in the Guard. But the story was only 1200 words longand it didnt even mention the flap about Bushs missing year of service. It had been more than six weeks since Robinsons story appeared in the Boston Globe. And New York Times readers still hadnt been told that such a gap had been found in Bushs record.
Indeed, the Times would mention Turnipseed only once before the week of the election. Oddly, the Times published another profile of Bushs post-college years on July 22, just eleven days after Kristofs piece appeared. This profile was penned by Jo Thomas, and yes, she mentioned the Air Guard flap. But she only mentioned the topic in passing, as part of a much longer, 3400-word work. She first mentioned the matter in paragraph 63 (out of 78). Heres how she handled the flap:
THOMAS (7/22/00): When Mr. Bush went to work on the [Winton Blount Alabama Senate] campaign he was still obligated to serve in the National Guard, and accordingly he sought a transfer to Alabama. His original request, to serve with the 9921st Air Reserve Squadron in Montgomery, was rejected because the unit would not meet his military obligation. He requested another assignment in July, and the Texas Air National Guard recommended letting him serve with another Montgomery group, the 187th Tactical Recon Group, from September to November 1972.Do records show that Bush served on November 29? Weve spoken with researchers who have studied this matter; theyve told us that they dont know what document Thomas meant, and that Thomas wouldnt respond to their questions. Do such records actually exist? Robinson didnt seem to have seen them. On October 31, he wrote a follow-up piece for the Globe:
ROBINSON (10/31/00): In Alabama, a group of Vietnam veterans recently offered a $1,000 reward for anyone who can verify Bushs claim that he performed service at a Montgomery air guard unit in 1972, when Bush was temporarily in Alabama working on a political campaign.There are no records of any service in Alabama, Robinson said. Plainly, this contradicted what Thomas had reported.
What is the truth about Bushs record? Its still hard to say. Simply put, the Washington press corps struggled and strained to avoid exploring this topic. Meanwhile, Candidate Dean gets no such ride. Last Saturday, Deans deferment got a page-one review, with Rick Lyman assuring readers that the issue was providing ammunition for critics. But four years ago, the New York Times avoided Bushs puzzling record. Bernie Goldberg and other screamers love to denounce the Times liberal bias. Remember this episodeand emit those low chuckleswhen you see Bernie stage his slick act.
CREDULOUS THOMAS: On November 3, 2000, Thomas directly replied to Robinsons October 31 storyand she claimed even greater service by Bush. How did she know that Bush had served? Bush aide Dan Bartlett had shown her some recordsrecords no one else seemed to have seen:
THOMAS (11/3/00): Mr. Bartlett pointed to a document in Mr. Bushs military records that showed credit for four days of duty ending Nov. 29 and for eight days ending Dec. 14, 1972, and, after he moved back to Houston, on dates in January, April and May.Why did Thomas say one thing and Robinson another? We dont have the slightest idea. But just how helpful was this Credulous Thomas? As Robinson noted, Bush was removed from flight status [in August 1972] for failing to take his annual flight physical. Thomas was happy to repeat helpful comments by Bushs old girl friends, and she happily said that Turnipseed was only 99 percent sure. But she didnt mention Bushs suspension in either one of her reports. It didnt make Kristofs piece either.
Why did Thomas say one thing and Robinson another? Here at THE HOWLER, we simply dont know. But Robinson was wrong on that one assessment; the Washington press corps showed no interest in straightening out the facts about Bush. The facts were unclear on Election Day. After that, the press corps hid beneath its desks, and the facts are unclear to this day.
KRISTOF LOCATES A LIAR: In his own puzzling profile of Bushs Guard service, Kristof showed mastery of one press corps ruleall reports in Campaign 2000 must reflect poorly on Gore. Remember, Kristof was reporting on Bush, not on Gore. But he managed to sound a key press corps theme. Despite the problems in Bushs record, it turned out that Gore was the liar:
KRISTOF (7/11/00): Mr. Gore was always a serious, ambitious young man struggling with deep moral questions and, in the case of Vietnam, with deeply practical calculations about how his actions would play in his fathers re-election campaign. Some critics have also suggested that in later years he embellished his Vietnam role for his own political career.Bush was far more normal, Kristof wrote! Amazing, isnt it? Six weeks after Robinsons article, Kristof never even mentioned the apparent problem with Bushs service. Nor did he mention the way Bushs campaign bio seemed to contradict the facts. But he did remember to say something else: Critics have said that Gore is a liar. It was Press Corps Lawyou had to say it. And thats just what Nick Kristof did.