The press: AWOL on Bush story

Published September 20, 2004 3:03PM (EDT)

What's worse, the fact that most political reporters have decided to passively accept the White House's constantly changing stories about President Bush's mysterious National Guard service, or that when some journalists do address the story, it's hard to tell if they understand key elements in play?

How else do you explain the New York Post headline over the weekend, "Bush: Guard Brass Gave Me the OK to Take Time Off"? The piece was a recap of an interview Bush gave on Saturday to a New Hampshire newspaper in which he defended his service and his decision to leave the Texas Guard to transfer to Alabama in order to work on a political campaign. "I was granted permission by my superiors," said Bush.

Nowhere in the interview did Bush suggest he was given the OK to take time off, because nowhere in Guard regulations -- particularly not during the height of the Vietnam War -- was there an option for a member to simply take time off in order to work on a campaign in a neighboring state. (Bush was supposed to train regularly in Alabama.) The Post simply created that out of thin air.

Equally puzzling is an AP dispatch that was widely picked up over the weekend, which stressed at the top of the story that Bush had reviewed the controversial memos from Bush's late squadron commander, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, and that Bush didn't recall ever seeing them before. Aired on CBS, the memo indicated that Killian felt pressure to "sugar coat" Bush's performance from higher-ups. Critics have charged the memos are forgeries.

In its article, the AP reported, "The president's communications director, Dan Bartlett, "showed the president the documents provided by CBS that allegedly came from Col. Killian's personal files," said spokesman Brian Besanceney. "The president had no recollection of ever seeing the documents previously."

Why is that newsworthy? Most of the memos CBS aired came from Killian personal files, which meant they were notes he wrote to himself, so of course Bush wouldn't have recalled ever seeing them. The one guard document in question Bush would have seen was an order from Killian for Bush to take a required physical. Bush says he doesn't remember seeing it, but that's beside the point. Every Guard pilot knew they had to take an annual physical, and in 1972 Bush refused. The point was made quite clear on Sept. 29, 1972, when Bush was formally grounded for failing to take a flight physical, and informed in a letter written by Maj. Gen. Francis Greenlief, chief of the National Guard Bureau. Whether Bush says he has "no recollection of ever" seeing the letter doesn't matter. The facts behind the letter are not in dispute.

But perhaps the most egregious example came from an ABC News piece posted on its web site last Friday. ABC landed an exclusive interview with Retired Col. Walter Staudt, who was brigadier general of Bush's unit in Texas. Staudt adamantly denied that Bush received any special treatment when he skipped over a waiting list of applicants and was accepted into the Guard in 1968. It's clear ABC considered getting the exclusive interview to be the bulk of its journalistic responsibility, because the rest of the piece is pure fluff.

For instance, one of the most enduring mysteries about Bush's service record is why, in the spring of 1972, did Bush, a fully trained pilot with two years left on this obligation, refuse to take an annual, mandatory physical. Wouldn't the brigadier general of Bush's unit be a good person to ask about that anomaly; to find out just how rare it was for a Guard pilot to simply refuse his physical? Perhaps, but ABC never asked Staudt.

In fact, ABC didn't press Staudt on much of anything. Instead, they let him pontificate about what a solid pilot prospect Bush was in 1968. "He was highly qualified. He passed all the scrutiny and tests he was given," according to Staudt. Highly qualified? Bush had no ROTC background, which was preferred, and on his pilot application where it asked for "background qualifications," Bush wrote "none."

Staudt also told ABC, "I'd say [Bush] was in the upper 10 percent or 5 percent or whatever we ever talked to about going to pilot training." Truth is, Bush scored in the 25th percentile on his pilot aptitude test; the lowest possible passing grade for a would-be pilot.

It's obvious why, years later, Staudt and others associated with the Texas Air National Guard would want to tell reporters there was nothing out of the ordinary in the way the son of a Texas Congressman found a coveted spot in the Guard and managed to avoid serving in Vietnam. What's less obvious is why reporters would want to facilitate that kind of blatant spin.

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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