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14 July 1999

Our current howler (part III): Two on the Bush

Synopsis: Two papers, examining Bush-in-war, seemed to be talking about two different people.

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

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

One hates to say it, but the spin seems to start right in the headline of the L. A. Times profile. Here's what the sub-headline said:

THE TIMES: During Vietnam War, he was given coveted spot in Texas unit...

But was it a "coveted" spot? Serrano gives that impression. He shows us 100,000 men waiting in lines to join the Guard. He shows us 150 people waiting in line in Bush's unit.

But on the same day that Serrano's story appeared, the Dallas Morning News also profiled Bush-in-war. And this is what the Morning News said about the "coveted spot" Bush was given:

SLOVER AND KUEMPEL (paragraph 3): Although Mr. Bush's unit in Texas had a waiting list for many spots, he was accepted because he was one of a handful of applicants willing and qualified to spend more than a year in active training, and extra shifts after training, flying single-seat F-102 fighter jets.

Later, the writers elaborated:

SLOVER AND KUEMPEL: (29) While guard spots generally were coveted, pilot positions required superior education, physical fitness and the willingness to spend more than a year in full-time training

(33) Most of those wanting to get into the Guard at that time, [two surviving Texas Air Guard officials] said, didn't want to put in the full year of active service that was required to become a pilot.

So Bush's position wasn't "coveted" at all, according to these Texas officials. And, in an article devoted to exploring the possibility that Bush got special treatment, it's amazing how little attention Serrano pays to this plainly relevant matter. Serrano does briefly quote Gen. Walter Staudt at one point, saying Bush got his spot because few would do pilot training. But he spends more time creating suggestive pictures that are irrelevant to Bush's case. We see those 100,000 people in line (in other states); we see people standing in line in Bush's unit (for non-pilot spots); he spends much more time crafting those images than explaining what happened with Bush. For example, Serrano never states, in his lengthy piece, that Bush's spot required a year of full-time training. But he does find time to sketch this contradictory image, which--again--is irrelevant to Bush:

SERRANO: (27) With the draft sending eligible men overseas to fight, Bush joined a flood of young men seeking other options-a deluge that would continue for several years.

(30) Around the nation, the state militias were a particularly popular alternative to active duty-relatively safe, convenient, and much less demanding. A volunteer, after completing his initial training, usually served just one weekend a month and a two-week period during the summer.

Pretty cushy, to hear Serrano tell it. And a reader has virtually no way of knowing that this description doesn't apply to Bush's spot.

At THE HOWLER, we can't resolve factual disputes between this pair of articles. But it's interesting to note one striking discrepancy, involving a man named Tom Hail. Both papers described Hail as "a historian for the Texas Air National Guard." Both papers approached Hail to determine if there were open spots in the Guard at the time Bush applied.

Two papers went to Hail, asking the same question--but it's like they dealt with two different guys. Here is how the Morning News reported data which Hail provided:

SLOVER AND KUEMPEL: (13) Records provided to The News by Tom Hail, a historian for the Texas Air National Guard, show that the unit Mr. Bush signed up for was not filled. In mid-1968, the 147th Fighter Interceptor Group, based in Houston, had 156 openings among its authorized staff of 925 military personnel.

(14) Of those, 26 openings were for officer slots, such as that filled by Mr. Bush, and 130 were for enlisted men and women. Also, several former Air Force pilots who served in the unit said they were recruited from elsewhere to fly for the Texas Guard.

According to the Morning News, there were many open spots in Bush's unit, and the unit was looking for pilots.

But the Times, which actually interviewed Hail, gave a different impression. We quoted this material Monday:

SERRANO: (23) Pilots were in demand in Vietnam. But Tom Hail, a historian for the Texas Air National Guard, said that records do not show a pilot shortage in the Guard squadron at the time.

(24) Hail, who reviewed the unit's personnel records for a special Guard museum display on Gov. Bush's service, said Bush's unit had 27 pilots at the time he began applying. While that number was two short of its authorized strength, the unit had two other pilots who were in training and another awaiting a transfer. There was no apparent need to fast-track applicants, he said.

Obviously, there is almost always more than one way that analysts can break down sets of numbers. But the two different papers almost seem to be talking about two different cases here. In the News, Bush's unit (specifically named) is full of openings, and is actively recruiting pilots. In the Times, we're talking about a much smaller universe of positions, and we're specifically told that there was no pilot shortage.

Here at THE HOWLER, we have no way of resolving the Rashomon the papers provide. But we note again what we noted on Monday-Serrano's data don't prove his point here. Was the unit full when Bush applied? That doesn't mean that it didn't need pilots. Perhaps the unit had struggled to fill its 29 slots; perhaps many pilots were about to leave. Once again, we see what we see all through the Times piece. We see data intended to prove a point, which in fact prove no such thing.

Is it important to understand hopefuls' life stories? Let's hope not. In this case, readers in two different cities read reports on the same topic-and, with the same official cited as the source, read baldly contradictory things.

Tomorrow: The pundits who obsessed over Gore's 4-H record didn't care about Bush-in-the-Guard.

For the sake of completeness: Again we quote Serrano's account of the waiting list for the full Guard:

SERRANO: (32) [F]or most, signing up did not mean getting in.

(33) The Texas Air Guard had about 900 slots for pilots, air and ground crew members, supervisors, technicians and support staff. Sgt. Donald Dean Barnhart, who still serves in the Guard, said that he kept a waiting list of about 150 applicants' names. He said it took up to a year and a half for one name to move to the top of the list.

(34) "Quite a few gentlemen were waiting to get in," he recalled.

It's hard to know how to square these data with those that the News provides.