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12 July 1999

Our current howler (part I): Bush league

Synopsis: An L.A. Times study of Bush-in-war is a textbook of spin and insinuation.

Bush received quick air guard commission
Richard A. Serrano, The Los Angeles Times, 7/4/99

Bush’s stint in Guard scrutinized
Pete Slover and George Kuempel, The Dallas Morning News, 7/4/99


Back in the easy days of spring, when the press corps was pursuing its "farm chores" debacle, we naïvely assumed that the same kind of treatment might await Texas governor Bush. We were quick to react when Maureen Dowd (who else?) was out of the gate with silly Bush college tales (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 4/12/99 and 5/11/99). And we tasked the analysts with gathering the hoohah that we assumed would soon follow on Dub.

But our file of silly stories on Bush has remained almost empty as the weeks have flown by. Yep-the celebrity press corps, it's now quite clear, is in the throes of that cruel "puppy love." They loudly blustered, back in June, that they were going to examine every word the guy said; they've shown no such impulse in practice. Last week, for example, the news that Bush may raise astonishing sums was widely explained as a sign of his charm. We saw no mention of the conflicts of interest two papers saw when Gore led the chase-when Gore was raising much smaller amounts than the sums we now know Bush will raise (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/6/99).

But the DAILY HOWLER stands ready to act whenever celebrity pundits go bad, and so the analysts quickly swung into action when two articles appeared July 4. The Los Angeles Times and the Dallas Morning News each studied Bush's tenure in the Texas Air National Guard, which Bush had entered in 1968, upon his graduation from college. (Although Governor Bush is a well-known outsider, it turns out that he studied at Yale.) This was the dailies' first major effort to examine the Texas hopeful's life story, and our analysts threw themselves into the task of reviewing what the papers had said.

Especially in the case of the Los Angeles Times, the analysts have found their work daunting. The Times piece is remarkably poorly written-at times, it must seem, by design. Indeed, Richard Serrano's ten-paragraph opening is a study in the use of insinuation and spin. We start out, dear reader, by suggesting you scan the author's initial four paragraphs:

SERRANO: (1) On a Texas spring day during the height of the Vietnam War, a fresh-faced young man about to graduate from Yale University walked into the office of the commander of the Texas Air National Guard.

(2) Col. Walter B. "Buck" Staudt listened to the 21-year-old, who had no military or aviation experience but seemed polite and presentable.

(3) "He said he wanted to fly just like his daddy," Staudt recalled.

(4) The young man's "daddy," Staudt knew, was George Bush, then a Republican congressman from Houston and a former World War II bomber pilot.

Serrano damns applicant Bush with faint praise-he was "polite and presentable," we're told, but he lacked any military experience. And, of course, he was a "fresh-faced" fellow, an image reinforcing his youth. It all helps to set up Serrano's paragraph five-an image of preferential treatment:

SERRANO: Although getting into the state units was difficult for most others, Bush was soon in the Guard. He was sent to basic training and awarded a special commission making him an instant second lieutenant.

Why was young Bush "soon" in the Guard-something that was "difficult for most others?" Serrano hasn't said so, but it's clearly implied: Bush was taken because of his daddy. Serrano's opening clearly implies it; indeed, it's all that we've been shown. Bush, who had no relevant experience, was accepted quickly due to family connections.

It would have made an interesting story-if Serrano could just back it up. But despite the story's considerable length, Serrano can't make the case. He never shows that Bush was unqualified for admission, or that he was taken ahead of others more qualified. He never shows that Bush moved ahead of others as qualified as he. And when Col. Staudt explains why Bush was taken-there was a shortage of applicants willing to undergo pilot training, he says-Serrano never shows that the claim is false, despite more insinuation and spin. Nowhere is Serrano able to support the image of preferential treatment-an image that he clearly lodges at the top of his piece.

The spin doesn't stop at the fifth paragraph. In the paragraphs that follow, Serrano admits he has no evidence of wrongdoing-and keeps suggesting wrongdoing occurred:

SERRANO (paragraph 6): An examination of nearly 200 pages of his service record obtained by The Times, plus interviews with Guard officials, veterans and military experts, show that Bush, now 52 and governor of Texas, received favorable treatment and uncommon attention in his time in the Guard.

(7) While there is no evidence of illegality or regulations broken to accommodate Bush's entry and rise in the service, the documents do show that doors were opened and good fortune flowed to him at opportune times.

Note first what Serrano has acknowledged. He has found no evidence that rules or laws were broken in Bush's handling by the Guard. But Serrano continues to insinuate otherwise, using carefully-chosen-and slippery-language. Let's take a look at the phrases chosen to say what did happen with Bush.

Bush received "favorable treatment," we're told, during his time in the Guard. "Doors were opened" for Bush at times, and not only that-"good fortune flowed to him." These characterizations coexist-in two cases, in the very same paragraph-with Serrano's clear, explicit statement that no rules were broken in the episodes described.

This paradox is possible because of Serrano's slippery language. "Doors were opened" for Bush, he says? The same can be said of any person ever accepted to any program. "Doors are opened" at "opportune times" for teen-agers attending rock concerts! Anyone accepted into any program can be said to have received "favorable treatment." And note: in saying that Bush received "favorable treatment," Serrano avoids the term "preferential treatment." The phrase he uses-"favorable treatment"-sounds vaguely incriminating to the ear. But it's hard to avoid the thought that this phrase has been chosen because it seems to suggest some sort of wrongdoing, although Serrano states, in the very same paragraph, that no evidence of same has been found.

In these paragraphs, Serrano's claims are so vague as to lack any meaning. But they do suggest wrongdoing occurred, which Serrano explicitly denies.

How willing is Serrano to use spin-driven images? Here's how he closes his opening segment (paragraph eight is a statement from the Bush camp, denying that Bush "was treated differently from other recruits"):

SERRANO: (9) When Bush was admitted into the Guard in 1968, 100,000 other men were on waiting lists around the country, hoping to win admission to similar units. The Guard was popular because those units were rarely sent to Vietnam.

Is this really the best we can do? The fact that 100,000 men were on waiting lists in other states has nothing to do with Bush's admission in Texas. This paragraph creates an image of Bush jumping ahead of others in line. But later on, Staudt will be quoted telling Serrano that there was no waiting list for Texas pilot training-and Serrano never shows different. And it doesn't get better in paragraph ten, where Serrano ends his introductory section. Serrano offers an image so slippery that it would have pleased sophists in ancient Athens' public square:

SERRANO: (10) He was able to jump into the officer ranks without the exceptional credentials many other officer candidates possessed. While Bush quickly won a place among the Guard's elite fighter pilots, other young men who earned their wings first had to build up extensive military experience and aviation skills.

Were there officers with better credentials than Bush? At a later point, Serrano seems to show that there were. But the same could be said of any pilot who wasn't the Top Gun in the unit. The fact that some had better credentials than Bush doesn't mean that Bush lacked minimum qualifications-or that he was taken ahead of others better qualified. Again, Serrano-who has said he lacks evidence of rules being broken-is offering plainly irrelevant constructs to suggest the wrongdoing he admits he can't demonstrate.

Was Bush taken due to family connections? At THE HOWLER, we have no way of knowing. It may be that Bush was taken because of "daddy"-although Serrano admits he can't show it. Later, Serrano does offer modest anecdotal evidence suggesting that Bush was treated in an irregular manner-and we can't help noticing how little interest the press corps has shown in those suggestions (more on that Wednesday). The press has shown more interest in Al Gore's 4-H record than in Bush's history with the National Guard. Puppy love has been wagging the dog as the press has rushed on from this topic.

Did Bush receive preferential treatment? We can't say that he did from these articles. But looking further into the pieces, we can see how much some scribes love to spin-love to suggest what they know they can't state.


Tomorrow: At times, the Dallas Morning News and the L.A. Times seem to be talking about two different Dubs.