The Times plays dumb on Bush Guard story

Published September 24, 2004 3:34PM (EDT)

The New York Times today announced why the story of President Bush's suspect Texas Air National Guard duty has not taken hold as a campaign issue, while attacks on Sen. John Kerry's war record have. Politely ignoring the fact that the original Swift Boat Veterans for Truth allegations turned out to be fictitious, the Times declares Bush's Guard story didn't work because it's old news, having already been fleshed out in 2000. Writes the Times' Jodi Wilgoren, "Much of the public had already confronted similar questions about Mr. Bush's service during the 2000 race, and voters judge incumbents far more on their time in the White House than on personal history, so the issue was already a hard sell."

Interesting theory. It also happens to be the working definition of revisionist history. Because the plain fact is, very few press outlets during the 2000 campaign (which was allegedly about candidates' "character") paid serious attention to the Bush Guard story and his lack of service. If they had, the same Guard questions first raised four years ago would not still be percolating today. And guess which prominent newspaper was among the most reluctant to report on the fact that Bush in the spring of 1972 stopped flying, walked away from his military obligation and was grounded for failing to take a mandatory flight physical? Yep, the New York Times.

Sure, ABC's "World News Tonight" covered the entire 2000 presidential campaign without making a single reference to questions surrounding Bush's military service. That, according to a search of the LexisNexis electronic database. But as Salon noted in February, "It was the New York Times, and the way the paper of record avoided the issue of Bush's no-show military service [in 2000], that stands out as the most unusual."

The Boston Globe story detailing how Bush essentially walked away from his final two years of his Guard obligation broke on May 23, 2000. The next day, Bush answered reporters' questions on the campaign trail, defending his military record. His comments were covered by the Times Union (of Albany, N.Y.), the Columbus Dispatch, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the Houston Chronicle, among others, which all considered the story newsworthy. Not the Times: The paper ignored the fact that Bush was forced to respond to allegations that he'd been AWOL during his Guard service.

Throughout the 2000 campaign, the Times' Nicholas Kristof wrote a series of biographical dispatches about Bush's personal history. On July 11, he wrote about Bush's post-college years, including his National Guard service. But there was not a single mention of the controversy surrounding Bush's missing year. The Times finally addressed the issue on July 22, two months after the Globe story was published, with an article that focused on Bush's post-Yale years in the late '60s and early '70s. The obvious gap in Bush's service was mentioned only in passing.

Times readers can be forgiven if they failed to grasp the issue of Bush's Guard service during the 2000 campaign. That's because the paper of record ignored it. How ironic for the Times to announce now that the whole controversy is old news.

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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