Michael Moore may not regret yelling "The general vs. the deserter! That's the debate!" at a Wesley Clark rally on Jan. 17. But Clark may regret Moore's choice of words, now that he's spent quite a bit of network air time being asked to explain, defend, rebuke or distance himself from Moore's spirited war cry.
At a nationally televised debate last Thursday, Peter Jennings assessed the deserter phrase this way: "Now, 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." On Sunday, Tim Russert again confronted Clark, saying he was giving the general "a chance to clear up this incident if we can." While Clark told Russert he himself would not choose the word "deserter" to refer to President Bush's spotty record of service in the Texas Air National Guard, the answer didn't satisfy Russert.
From the Meet the Press transcript:
"MR. RUSSERT: But words are important, and as you well know under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, if you're a deserter, the punishment is death during war. Do you disassociate yourself from Michael Moore's comments about the president?
GEN. CLARK: Well, I can't use those words and I don't see the issues in that way. But I will tell you this: that Michael Moore has the right to speak freely. I don't screen what people say when they're going to come up and say something like that. That's his form of dissent, and I support freedom of speech in this country, and I would not have characterized the issues in that way. I think this is an election where we have to look at the future, not at the past..."
The Annenberg Political Fact Check Center looks at both Moore's comments and Bush's record and issues this rebuke to the filmmaker: "Bush A Military 'Deserter?' Calm Down, Michael."
But some Bush critics wonder why journalists aren't focusing more on exactly what Bush did (or did not do) in the military. Misleader.org analyzes the evidence on Bush's national guard duty, saying "the facts relating to the president's military service, beginning in 1968, and abruptly ending in 1972 -- two years prior to his six-year commitment -- are not at all clear." DNC chairman Terry McAuliffe told Wolf Blitzer on Sunday that deserter may not be the right word -- AWOL is more appropriate. "The facts are that George Bush didn't show up when he was supposed to in the National Guard, and that's just the fact."