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
Bushs 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,"
(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
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
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.