The Bush White House is still licking its wounds from last week’s press beating over the president’s alleged AWOL status from his National Guard post. But Bush aides should consider themselves lucky; if reporters had decided that the story was worthy of their attention when voters were getting their first look at candidate Bush back in 2000, it’s entirely likely that Bush would today be "clearing brush" back in Crawford.
"What if" history is always a dicey game. But imagine that, that historically close election, the mainstream press had done nothing more than aired the established facts about Bush’s Guard service (laid out by the Walter Robinson Boston Globe story in May 2000) the eleventh-hour revelation about the 1976 Bush DUI cover-up. If voters already knew that between 1972 and 1973 Bush simply walked away from his National Guard duty, if they had that context, the one-two punch of DUI and the Guard would have likely doomed Bush’s campaign.
Now the press, chasing the exact same Guard story that reporters chose to ignore in 2000, is showing the same kind of memory Drew Barrymore demonstrates in "Fifty First Dates"; that is, none at all. In an editorial last week calling on Bush to clarify the gaps in his Guard record, The New York Times – AWOL on the story in 2000 – opines, "The issue is not whether Mr. Bush, like many sons of the elite in his generation, sought refuge in the Guard to avoid combat in Vietnam. The public knew about that during the 2000 campaign. Whether Mr. Bush actually performed his Guard service to the full is a different matter."
Guess what? Any number of reporters and commentators in 2000, including those employed by the Times, knew there were serious questions about whether Mr. Bush actually performed his Guard service to the full. But they chose to look the other way.
(The Times continues to play it safe on the story even today. On Saturday, the paper reported the "White House said it had decided to release all documents from the president’s National Guard files." But the White House refused to release to the public 44 pages of Bush’s military medical records. Instead, a small pool of reporters were allowed to look at the documents for 20 minutes at a time. The Times made no mention of the restricted medical records in its story.)
Time magazine this week reports that "whether Bush performed his National Guard duties while he was working on the Blount campaign" as well as during much of the year starting in May 1972 "was raised in his past campaigns and always fluttered away quickly, an issue regarded as irrelevant after two decades or more."
See, in 2000, the fact that one of the major presidential candidates failed to take an Air Force physical as a young man, was stripped of his flying status, and there is little or no evidence to suggest his fulfilled his military obligation, that was deemed "irrelevant" by the same press corps sent into a frenzy investigating whether Al Gore served as the inspiration for Erich Segal’s "Love Story."
Remember this was a campaign that was dominated by questions of the alleged "character" of the two candidates. But this key window into just what kind of fellow young Bush had been, was deemed uninteresting or unimportant, CBS News aired not one story on the topic= Ditto ABC News. Just about the closest any network came was, on the eve of the election during a "Meet the Press" telecast, when, on Nov. 5, 2000, host Tim Russert read back his guest, Gore supporter Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-NE), a series of quotes he’d made attacking Bush’s military service, and which appeared in a follow-up Oct. 31, 2000, Boston Globe article: "[Bush] needs to explain where he was when he was supposed to be fulfilling his military obligation." But Russert didn’t raise the issue with Kerrey for further discussion, but rather to frame the debate around Bush campaign talking points; that Kerrey’s comments about Bush’s military record were "out of bounds," as Russert put it.
The host never bothered to inform viewers what the Oct. 31 Boston Globe article actually reported, that not only had Bush failed to report for duty in Alabama during most of 1972, but that even upon returning to Houston the next year, existing records "raise questions about whether Bush performed any duty" the final 18 months of his commitment.
ABC’s "World News Tonight" never once reported the controversy surrounding Bush’s military record. Not once. During September 2000 primetime biographical program about Bush and Gore, ABC addressed the candidates’ service during the Vietnam War. Here’s ABC’s entire take on Bush: "George W. had a plan. He arranged to join the Air National Guard in Texas, which meant he would not be sent to Vietnam."
ABC then spent six paragraphs looking at Gore’s service in Vietnam, suggesting he volunteered for Vietnam for political reasons. That thread was typical. Friends of the Bush family admitted to pulling strings in order to young George in the National Guard where he proceeded to blow off his stateside responsibilities for months at a time, but the cynical press corps thought the Gore angle was more interesting. Despite the fact Gore was among a tiny group of Ivy League graduates, much less sons of senators, who actually chose to volunteer to serve in Vietnam – a war he personally opposed – journalists combed over his service record, trying to prove either a) his volunteered simply to help his anti-war father win re-election to the Senate, or b) he was never in any real danger because he just an Army journalist. Newsweek dismissively labeled it, "Al Gore’s patriotic chore."
In May 2000, Fox News did address the Boston Globe story, but only as a chance to distort and run interference for the Bush campaign. Sean Hannity described the article this way: "In today’s "Boston Globe," there were charges that Governor Bush may have been embellishing his years of service. The report suggested that G.W. did not fly at all from 1972 to 1973, also that he worked on a U.S. Senate campaign from May to November of ’72, and that he was only required to attend drills at an Air National Guard unit in Montgomery, Alabama."
Of course, the Globe story was about how Bush had failed to attend drills at an Air National Guard unit in Montgomery, Alabama. (Fox continues to play defense for the Bush on the issue today; TV talker Fred Barnes told viewers the controversy was over the fact Bush "missed some [Guard] meeting," which was "quite common" at the time.)
In the wake of the press’s boycott in 2000 it’s not surprising the White House was so confident the media would never make a peep about Bush’s missing year in the National Guard that they dressed the president up in a flight suit and staged a landing for him just off the coast of San Diego on the USS Abraham Lincoln. And for the most part the press corps played along, pretending there was no gaping hole in the president’s military record.
Instead, pundits like the Washington Post’s David Broder cooed over the pictures of Bush, a man who lost his flying status for refusing to take a mandatory Air Force physical in 1972, strutting around in a flight suit. "This president has learned how to move in a way that just conveys a great sense of authority and command," he told NBC’s Tim Russert. MBNBC’s Chris Matthews took an even more bizarre tack. Dismissing the Boston Globe story on the basis of no independent reporting of his own, Matthews conceded it to be "great reporting," but argued the story didn’t matter because Bush is never going to win Massachusetts and the Globe is never going to endorse Bush.
During the past four weeks since the issue finally resurfaced thanks to Michael Moore and Wesley Clark, we’ve learned few if any facts we didn’t know in 2000. Back then media agreed it didn’t matter. Now that we’ve got a president who deliberately misled the nation into war, will not admit that he was wrong about the threat presented by Iraq, and is no longer trusted by a majority of Americans to tell the truth, we find that "character" does indeed matter. Too bad the media can’t make up their minds about just what it means.
Eric Alterman is a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress and the co-author of The Book on Bush: How George W (Mis)Leads America.