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15 July 1999

Our current howler (part IV): Drop it

Synopsis: Examining candidates’ bios makes sense--until the press corps starts doing it.

Bush offers defense of his Guard service
AP, The Washington Times, 7/5/99

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

Commentary by Tim Russert, Richard Serrano
Meet the Press, NBC, 7/4/99

Commentary by James Warren, Mona Charen
Watch It!, MSNBC, 7/6/99

We couldn't help chuckling, here at DAILY HOWLER World Headquarters, when we scanned our clips on the Bush-in-war stories, and hit upon a next-day dispatch from the Washington Times. The Times was reviewing the July 4 pieces that discussed how Bush got in the Guard:

THE WASHINGTON TIMES (AP): Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes said the Texas Air National Guard was short of pilots, and a candidate had to be a commissioned officer to go to flight school.

"The military found him absolutely qualified to be commissioned," she said.

The [Los Angeles] Times said it was told by Tom Hail, a historian of the Texas Air National Guard, that Mr. Bush's unit had 27 pilots at the time he began applying, two short of its authorized strength.

We could only chuckle when we read the passage about Air Guard historian Hail. In the Washington Times/AP rendition, historian Hail gave data which showed Bush's unit had been in need of pilots. But in the L. A. Times article the AP was citing, Hail was cited making the opposite point. Hail said the unit had 27 pilots, all right. But he also cited two pilots in training, and one more who was transferring in:

SERRANO: 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.

Do show, do not show--it's close enough for the press corps! Hail, cited by the L. A. Times as saying one thing, was quickly written up saying the opposite.

Do you see, dear readers, why we're less than sanguine about exploring the lives of the hopefuls? In principle, it would only be prudent. But the work would have to be done by the press--and the Bush-in-war stories show the problems that occur when this press corps goes after big game. Back to Hail--each of the original articles had cited the scholar, giving data on Guard staffing matters. But the two articles had Hail making opposite points--it was as if he was discussing two different Guard units--and the next day, the AP took what Hail told the L. A. Times, and completely reversed his point. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/14/99, for our report on the dueling Hail treatments.)

Will the press corps try to straighten this mess--try to sort out the confusion? Please. In the aftermath of the Bush-in-war stories, we saw no one call attention to the puzzling way the stories presented contradictory information (from the same source). We saw no one point to the grisly spin that littered the L. A. Times piece.

And we saw no one suggest that there might be a point in trying to develop an accurate story. Indeed, a press corps that had just spent three embarrassing months discussing Vice President Gore's 4-H record seemed to have no particular interest in examining Bush in the Guard.

Several news programs devoted time to the story, but the coverage was typically weak. On Meet the Press, Serrano appeared, and the following exchange took place:

TIM RUSSERT: Now, your article specifically states, "While there is no evidence of illegality or regulations broken to accommodate Bush's entry and rise in the service, documents do show that doors were opened and good fortune flowed to him at opportune times." But if he didn't do anything illegal or didn't break any regulations, how important or how serious is this allegation?

SERRANO: Well, it's serious in the sense that others probably had to go into the regular service because of the favoritism that he got. We're not alleging that he pushed any buttons or that his father pushed any buttons. What we are trying to point out, this was a time, you know, thirty years ago--the Guard officials knew or were aware that his father was a congressman. There was a son of Senator Lloyd Bentsen who also got into the Guard rather quickly. But, you know, they wanted them in there. It was good PR for them, and it was certainly an accommodation for the young Bush.

But did Bush receive "favoritism," or an inappropriate "accommodation?" It's precisely that question Serrano's article doesn't answer--although none of the panelists, perhaps understandably, seemed prepared to address the problems with the article on the very morning it appeared in the press.

Given the caliber of our current press corps, maybe it's better that matters like this not come up. Here's the sort of thing that occurs when this gang starts talkin' bio:

WARREN: Gang, doesn't this look a little bit like Dan Quayle in 1982, the notion of preferential treatment in getting into the Indiana National Guard? But then again, who is [Bush] up against? Most of the [other candidates] had no combat service...

CHAREN: I cannot stand it. I cannot stand the double standard of the press on this issue. They always ask Republicans whether they had special influence, family and so on that helped them get--when Al Gore was named as Clinton's vice president, the press had a huge lovefest. "Oh, he served in Vietnam"...He served as a journalist and he used parental influence, his father was a senator, to get a very cushy [job].

To Warren, this "sounded a little bit like" something else, although he made no effort to evaluate facts. Charen, in turn, made an allegation about Gore with no apparent basis. We know of no one who ever has charged that Gore's father got him a cushy job in the army. Indeed, Gore's Regnery biographer, Bob Zelnick, has explicitly stated that nothing like this occurred.

Would it be helpful to know about Bush-in-the-Guard? In an ideal world, it would be. Hopefuls seeking the office he seeks are pursuing a powerful post. Ideally, it would help to know as much as we could about their personal background. There are elements in these articles which do suggest that Bush may have gotten special treatment from the Guard. In an ideal world, knowing if that did occur might deepen our knowledge of Bush.

But the Bush-in-war stories show something else--this press corps ain't up to the mission. This press corps is extremely selective in the topics it pursues, and profoundly limited in its skill sifting facts--and it rarely shows the slightest inclination to demand quality work from itself. That's why you'll likely not hear one word said about this puzzling pair of war stories--and why you'll likely not hear one question asked about the spin we saw in the L. A. Times.

Tomorrow: Melinda Henneberger "does Jay" covering Gore.