The Ben Barnes blackout

Even with new video of the Texas pol saying he's "ashamed" of helping President Bush get his National Guard slot, the story gets little play from the media.

By Eric Boehlert
Published August 30, 2004 6:21PM (EDT)

Faced with fresh news in the ongoing debate about the presidential candidates' military service during the Vietnam War, the media blinked this weekend, doing its collective best to ignore an embarrassing new revelation by the prominent Texas politician who says he landed President Bush a coveted pilot spot in the Texas Air National Guard during the height of the Vietnam War, and is now "ashamed" of his actions.

The explosive comments from a central player in the National Guard drama -- captured on video and available online -- have received just cursory coverage in the mainstream media since it was brought to light on Friday. The shoulder-shrugging response stands in stark contrast to the media orgy that has greeted the hollow, secondhand allegations made about John Kerry's Vietnam service by the Republican-financed Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which has yet to make a single factual allegation stick about the circumstances surrounding Kerry's five war medals.

During a May 27 appearance before Kerry supporters in Texas, Ben Barnes, a former lieutenant governor of Texas, apologized for his role in getting Bush a safe, stateside spot in the National Guard. "I got a lot of other people in the National Guard because I thought that was what people should do when you're in office, and you help a lot of rich people." Recalling a recent visit to the Vietnam Memorial, Barnes added, "I looked at the names of the people that died in Vietnam, and I became more ashamed of myself than I have ever been, because it was the worst thing I ever did, was help a lot of wealthy supporters and a lot of people who had family names of importance get into the National Guard. And I'm very sorry about that, and I'm very ashamed."

At the time of the string pulling, Bush's father was a Houston congressman. When taking his Air Force pilot test, Bush listed "none" under his background qualifications, and scored in the 25th percentile, the lowest possible passing grade for the test's pilot-aptitude portion.

The Associated Press did pick up the story of Barnes' highly embarrassing comments over the weekend, and the Washington Post ran a 300-word version of the wire story, as did the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Kansas City Star, and the Contra Costa Times. The New York Times, the Dallas Morning News and the Houston Chronicle ran their own, equally brief staff-produced accounts. (The Times' story was buried deep inside, next to a big takeout on GOP-connected Swift Boat Vets leader John O'Neill.) The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune and Contra Costa Times inserted a sentence or two about Barnes' comments into larger campaign trail dispatches. The Austin American-Statesman ran the longest story, at roughly 600 words. According to a search of the Nexis electronic database, those were the only major newspapers in the country that even mentioned the Barnes revelation.

On television, CNN made just a few passing references to Barnes' Guard comment on its chat shows, and one of those was by conservative pundit Robert Novak, who labeled it "Outrage of the Week" while managing to bungle central facts of the incident. Fox News stayed clear of the embarrassing development, as did ABC, CBS and NBC.

Given the press' past behavior, both in embracing the Swift boat allegations and in its lead-footed approach to the ongoing National Guard story, it's unlikely reporters will seize the initiative and further investigate the Barnes story. It's also worth noting that the Democrats haven't been aggressive in pushing the Barnes story to the media, either. (Imagine how GOP attack dogs would hype a revelation from a politician who pulled strings to get Kerry his medals.) On the off chance the media decides to pursue the Barnes story on its own, reporters might want to ask White House spokesman Scott McClellan about his effort to dismiss Barnes' Guard comment. "It is not surprising coming from a longtime partisan Democrat. The allegation was discredited by the commanding officer. This was fully covered and addressed five years ago. It is nothing new," said McClellan.

There are two problems with that claim. First, rather than acting as a partisan Democrat, Barnes for years has turned down press inquiries and refused to talk publicly about his role in getting Bush into the Guard. It was only under threat of legal action back in 1999, and only after efforts to assert "executive privilege" failed, that Barnes came forward, and even then he did it through a written statement from his lawyer. (The lawsuit dealt with whether a company Barnes lobbied for was able to keep a lucrative Texas state contract in exchange for Barnes' remaining silent about helping Bush get into the Guard.) If Barnes was looking to inflict partisan damage he could have done so throughout the 2000 campaign. Instead, he remained silent.

Additionally, what McClellan and the White House hope the press forgets is that in 1998 Barnes met privately with Bush's then-campaign manager, Don Evans, in order to give him a heads-up about the unfolding Guard story. Bush himself sent Barnes a note thanking him "for his candor" on the matter.

Second, when Barnes finally came forward in '99 and confirmed that a wealthy, and now deceased, Houston businessman with close ties to the Bush family had called Barnes in '68 asking him to find a slot for Bush, neither Bush nor his campaign denied the story. They simply stressed that nobody from Bush's family had placed a call directly to Barnes asking for the inside help.

The press may get one more shot at covering the National Guard angle. In a brief interview with the AP, Barnes suggested he might have more to say on the issue later in the week. If the press ignores Barnes a second time it will be obvious journalists just are not interested in covering the lingering presidential Vietnam debate fairly.

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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