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 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,"
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.
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
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