In the same league as Fox

Don't major outlets like ABC News and CNN know better than to trot out a discredited former Guardsman as a source for stories about Bush's military service?

Published September 10, 2004 9:35PM (EDT)

Working on the premise that you can fool some of the people all of the time, a Bush supporter who asserted that he saw Bush serve his National Guard duty in Alabama in 1972 returned this week to retell his already discredited story and was embraced by several news organizations that are not Fox News -- ABC News, CNN and the Associated Press.

With controversy raging over revelations that President Bush failed to fulfill his obligations to the Texas Air National Guard, particularly after he refused to undergo a physical and moved to Alabama, retired Lt. Col. John "Bill" Calhoun told ABC News Wednesday that he saw Bush "five or six times" with the 187th Tactical Reconnaissance Group in Montgomery, where he said the two men occasionally ate lunch together. For the White House, Calhoun's story is invaluable because in the more than three decades since Bush supposedly served in Alabama, Calhoun is the only member of Bush's unit to come forward to say he remembers performing drills with the future president of the United States.

Calhoun is a self-confessed die-hard Republican who has been in regular contact with campaign officials about his Guard story. Large rewards have been offered -- by cartoonist Garry Trudeau, among others -- to any former Guardsman who can prove that Bush showed up in Alabama to serve, yet nobody has yet claimed the cash prize. And Calhoun won't win the money, either.

When Calhoun first emerged in February, he announced he'd seen Bush "eight or 10 times" on the base performing drills between May and October of 1972. But within 24 hours of his statement, the White House released Bush's military pay records -- which aides touted as definitive proof of Bush's service -- definitively proving that Bush was not credited for any training in Alabama for the months of May, June, July, August and September 1972, and that Bush showed up only in late October. So how could Calhoun have seen Bush several times in one summer if Bush's own records indicate he was never there?

Calhoun's story is even less believable in light of the fact that Bush in 1972 originally tried to transfer from his Texas Air National Guard unit in Houston to a National Guard unit at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. That request was eventually denied, so Bush ended up at the Montgomery unit where Calhoun served. But again, according to Bush's records, he didn't even apply for the transfer to Montgomery until September and didn't show up until late October. How did Calhoun see Bush performing drills throughout the summer of 1972 when Bush didn't even request an assignment there until the fall?

The brief answer is that Calhoun's story is likely untrue, and has been known to be doubtful for six months. Still, it's not surprising that Bush backers trotted him out again to create doubt and static about the factual reports on Bush's failure to complete his Guard duty.

Their options are limited. White House communications director Dan Bartlett, unable to refute these reports, has tried to dismiss them as "partisan politics." Perhaps the most imaginative response came from Republican pundit and operative Peter Roff, who suggested on MSNBC Thursday that perhaps aides of Bill Clinton ransacked Bush's military records in the 1990s, which would account for the gaps in Bush's personnel file. (In fact, during the 1992 campaign, Bush administration officials hunted through Clinton's records and even prompted the Conservative government of Prime Minister John Major in Britain to search its security files to find any damaging information about Clinton from the time when he was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford.)

Incredibly, even though Calhoun had been exposed as telling a yarn in February, and despite the recent Boston Globe and CBS reports, he was once again treated as a credible source by several major news outlets that either didn't know the basic facts surrounding the National Guard story or are incapable of doing a simple Google search. Or perhaps didn't care that Calhoun's story was bogus.

On Wednesday, Calhoun was featured on ABC News, attempting to refute a new TV commercial made by Texans for Truth, a group of National Guard veterans, which asserts that Bush never showed up for duty in Alabama. "I have no doubt in my mind that it was George W. Bush, that he made his drills," Calhoun told ABC White House correspondent Terry Moran, who made no reference to the fact that the dates Calhoun claims to have seen Bush don't match up with Bush's own service records. Moran could not be reached for comment.

On Wednesday, while interviewing Bob Mintz, a veteran who appears in the Texans for Truth ad, CNN's Wolf Blitzer mentioned Calhoun, asking how it was that Mintz never saw Bush if another man in the same Alabama unit did? A CNN spokesman says Blitzer referred to Calhoun because during a Feb. 13 CNN interview Calhoun said he'd seen Bush. Yet that shouldn't have prevented Blitzer from noting that Calhoun's story was subsequently discredited.

Earlier in the week, the Associated Press, in an otherwise strong piece about Bush's service, noted, "One member of the unit, retired Lt. Col. John Calhoun, has said he remembers Bush showing up for training with the 187th." Again, the story did not mention that Calhoun recalled seeing the phantom Bush on dates that not even the president's aides have suggested he served.

Unsurprisingly, Fox News was the most aggressive and egregious in presenting Calhoun's tale. He was booked on Fox's "Hannity & Colmes" show Monday night, his first major media appearance since the obvious discrepancy in his story was first exposed last February. Fox caused Calhoun no discomfort, however, because neither Fox host bothered to ask Calhoun how he could have been in Montgomery with Bush in the summer of 1972 when Bush wasn't even assigned to the unit until September 1972. Fox News' lapse of basic journalistic due diligence was hardly out of character. In this case, however, ABC News, CNN and the A.P. fell down into the same league.

By 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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Abc Cnn Fox News George W. Bush Msnbc