When Michael Moore called George W. Bush a "deserter" at a January 18 rally for Wesley Clark, he stepped way over the line, injecting into the public discourse a scurrilous charge with no basis in fact, the kind of defamation that has rightly earned the moniker "political hate speech" from Republicans.
Or at least that's what you'd think if you listened to reporters' comments on Moore's statement. Speaking for his colleagues, ABC's Peter Jennings told Clark during Thursday's debate, "That's a reckless charge not supported by the facts. And I was curious to know why you didn't contradict him, and whether or not you think it would've been a better example of ethical behavior to have done so."
Clark declined to do so, saying he didn't know enough about it. Unfortunately, most Americans don't either -- because reporters have refused to tell them. But the press consensus has been reached: Moore's charge was beyond the pale, and General Clark made a big mistake by not repudiating it.
"Clark should have distanced himself from the remark," wrote The Boston Globe. On FOX News, Chris Wallace said Clark's failure to do so was the one place in the debate when "my reporter's antenna went up. And I thought, 'This is news' Doesn't that raise questions of perhaps being a little amateur?" Clark, the United Press International's story about the debate contended, "may have stumbled most when he was quizzed as to why he stayed silent when documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, who has endorsed him, called Bush a deserter in Clark's presence and Clark did not immediately condemn the remark or disassociate himself from it."
If you've been reading the news, though, you may've a hard time figuring out just what Moore was talking about. The New York Times referred obliquely to "Bush's attendance record with the National Guard in Texas," while National Public Radio offered that the charge "refer[red] to his time in the Texas Air National Guard." The Los Angeles Times gave a non-explanation, writing, "Bush served as a pilot in the Texas National Guard during the Vietnam War, a relatively safe posting. In 1972, Bush was allowed to transfer to the Alabama National Guard for three months so he could work on the campaign of a Senate candidate there."
But with the notable exception of those who came across a brief story by The Washington Post's David Broder, who actually explained the controversy, the typical news reader would be hard pressed to discern that, depending on what your definition of "desertion" is (call it AWOL if you like), Moore was exactly right.
So some clarification may be in order. In 1972, Bush was training as a pilot in the "Champagne Unit" of the Texas Air Guard, a spot secured for him (along with the sons of other prominent Texans like Lloyd Bentsen, John Tower and John Connolly, as well as some members of the Dallas Cowboys football team) by Ben Barnes, then the speaker of the Texas House of Representatives. Bush requested a transfer to a unit in Alabama so that he could work on a Senate race there, and a transfer he was granted.
This is where it gets interesting. When asked in 2000, Bush claimed he had "some recollection" of performing service in Alabama, but there is no evidence -- no Guard records, that is, and the word of no one who would have served with him (despite an exhaustive search by the Bush campaign) -- that Bush ever showed up in Alabama for duty.
After the 1972 election, Bush returned to Houston, whereupon he should have reported for duty with his unit at Ellington Air Force Base. But in May of 1973, his superiors there reported that they were unable to conduct his yearly evaluation because "Lt. Bush has not been observed at this unit during the period of this report. A civilian occupation made it necessary for him to move to Montgomery, Alabama. He cleared this base on 15 May 1972 and has been performing equivalent training in a non-flying status with the 187 Tac Recon Gp, Dannelly ANG Base, Alabama." Which he wasn't.
Finally, there is the question of whether Bush ever completed his obligations to the Guard before being discharged. In 2000, his campaign claimed that he crammed in 36 days of duty with his Houston unit during his last three months. The only evidence his team could provide, however, was a torn page listing drills performed -- with no dates and without Bush's name. But given that Bush's official records show no service whatsoever between May of 1972 and his discharge in October of 1973 (by which time he was attending Harvard Business School), one cannot conclude that there is any evidence that he satisfied the obligations of his service. When the National Guard Review asked Bush during 2000 what he'd learned in the Guard, he responded, "[T]he responsibility to show up and do your job."
One can certainly quibble about whether Bush's failure to show up in Alabama and his apparent failure to fulfill his obligations makes him a "deserter" or not, but that question is one of semantics. (The most generally accepted definition of the term involves abandonment during wartime; the reader may decide whether Bush's service in the defense of Corpus Christi from the Vietcong would qualify as combat duty.) But to say the charge is, in Peter Jennings' words, "not supported by the facts" is simply false.
If this story is news to you, you're not alone. In the 2000 campaign -- in which journalists were supposedly vetting the candidates' records to ferret out the good and the bad -- there was little interest in Bush's Vietnam record. If one compares the coverage given in 1992 to Bill Clinton's efforts to avoid Vietnam with that given to Bush's similar situation, the disparity is rather striking.
In 1992, there were no fewer than 526 stories about Clinton and the draft in major American newspapers. In all the news outlets covered by Lexis-Nexis, there were 950 stories about the subject. But when the 2000 election rolled around, reporters were decidedly less curious about the topic. There were 77 stories in 1999 and 38 stories in 2000 in major papers about Bush and the National Guard. In all news outlets, there were 258 stories in 1999 and only 98 in 2000.
In other words, during their respective election years, there were nearly 10 press stories about Clinton's efforts to avoid serving in Vietnam for every one story about Bush's efforts to avoid serving in Vietnam. In major papers, there were almost 14 Clinton stories for every Bush story. The only major newspapers that investigated the issue with any vigor were The Boston Globe and the Los Angeles Times.
And on television? The three networks did a grand total of one, count 'em, one story about Bush and Vietnam during the 2000 campaign. And that story, on NBC, consisted mostly of Bush's denials that he had been given special consideration to get into the Guard. The question of whether he went AWOL was not mentioned.
So we come to 2004, and among the Democratic candidates are two Vietnam veterans, each carrying medals for the bravery he showed and the blood he shed. The contrast with President Bush is a stark one, and we'll no doubt be hearing more about it should Clark or John Kerry become the Democratic nominee. But if the way they've handled the issue since Michael Moore's comments is any indication, reporters will work hard to make sure Bush doesn't have to answer any difficult questions about what he did -- or didn't -- do when his country called on him to serve.
Paul Waldman is the executive editor of The Gadflyer, a new progressive Internet magazine. His latest book is Fraud: The Strategy Behind the Bush Lies and Why the Media Didn't Tell You.
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