Friday, January 23, 2004

Bush the 'Deserter'

George W. Bush's sketchy military record has finally surfaced as a campaign issue in 2004. It came out in last night's debate in New Hampshire, when Peter Jennings had the following exchange with Gen. Wesley Clark:
PJ: General Clark, a lot of people say they don't know you well, so this is really a simple question about knowing a man by his friends. The other day you had a rally here and one of the men who stood up to endorse you was the controversial filmmaker Michael Moore. You said you were delighted with him. At one point Mr. Moore, said in front of you that President Bush, he was saying he'd like to see a debate between you the General and President Bush who he called a deserter. Now that's a reckless charge not supported by the facts so I was curious to know why you didn't contradict him and whether or not you think it would have been a better example of ethical behavior to have done so.

WC: Well I think Michael Moore has the right to say whatever he feels about this. I don't know whether this is supported by the facts or not. I've never looked at it. I've seen this charge bandied about a lot but to me it wasn't material, this election is going to be about the future, Peter, and what we have to do is pull this country together, and I'm delighted to have the support of a man like Michael Moore, of a great American leader like Senator George McGovern, and of people from Texas like Charlie Stenholm and Former Secretary of the Navy, John Dalton. We've got support from across the breadth of the Democratic Party, because I believe this party is united in wanting to change the leadership in Washington. We're going to run an election campaign that's about the future. We're going to hold the president accountable for what he did in office and failed to do, and we're going to compare who's got the best vision for America.

PJ: Let me ask you something you mentioned then because since this question and answer in which you and Mr. Moore was involved, you've had a chance to look at the facts. Do you still feel comfortable with the fact that someone should be standing up in your president, in your presence and calling the president of the United States a deserter?

WC: To be honest with you, I did not look at the facts Peter. That's Michael Moore's opinion; he's entitled to say that, I've seen, he's not the only person who's said that. I've not followed up on those facts, and frankly it's not relevant to me and why I'm in this campaign.

Clark handled this question smartly, claiming a lack of specific knowledge (I suspect he knows all the details of the matter, in fact), leaving it up to journalists to dig into the meat of the matter.

Contrary to Jennings' assertion, the charge is neither reckless nor unsupported by the facts. In fact, it has been fully substantiated.

I posted on this subject back when Bush performed his little flyboy stunt on the USS Lincoln. To recap:
[T]he reality is that what we know about his record now should be considered a scandal, and should have been since it was uncovered during the campaign.

Namely, there is this salient point:

Bush blew off his commitment to the Texas Air National Guard by failing to take a physical, and thereafter failing to report to his superior officers at his old unit for at least seven months. His flight status was revoked, and he never flew again -- at least, not until the Lincoln stunt.

These facts have never been disputed since they were uncovered, and in fact were acknowledged by Bush's spokespeople. Moreover, as Joe Conason has already noted, Bush actually falsified this aspect of his service in his ghost-written autobiography, A Charge to Keep, describing his pilot's training in some detail, then concluding: ''I continued flying with my unit for the next several years." In fact, Bush was suspended from flying 22 months after he completed his training -- a period that does not even generously fit Bush's description.

Several of Bush's former superiors in the TANG -- most of whom remain on friendly terms with the president -- have defended his service and suggested that there was nothing wrong with Bush's behavior in what for most other servicemen would be considered a fairly clear case of dereliction of duty.

Consider, for instance, the rationalization offered by Albert Lloyd Jr., a retired TANG colonel, in the Boston Globe story that in many respects was the most serious effort by anyone in the mainstream media to examine the issue:

But Lloyd said it is possible that since Bush had his sights set on discharge and the unit was beginning to replace the F-102s, Bush's superiors told him he was not ''in the flow chart. Maybe George Bush took that as a signal and said, 'Hell, I'm not going to bother going to drills.'

''Well, then it comes rating time, and someone says, 'Oh...he hasn't fulfilled his obligation.' I'll bet someone called him up and said, 'George, you're in a pickle. Get your ass down here and perform some duty.' And he did,'' Lloyd said.

This rationalization, of course, begs the question: What if anyone else had pulled such a stunt?

The reality is servicemen do not ordinarily have the option of deciding whether or not to attend drills. They do not typically have the option of shortening their commitment to the task for which they have been trained based solely on their own assessments of where they fit into the scheme of things. Those decision are made by their superiors. Moreover, the military considers the training of its personnel to be a significant asset that it protects, particularly for high-skill positions like jet-fighter pilots. This training is expensive, and pilots' status -- particularly their availability for potential combat -- is a carefully monitored commodity.

... Just from what we know now, the question that needs answering is this: Why did Mr. Bush abandon his commitment to his country during wartime? Why did he blow off his valuable training and remove himself from flight status?

Of course, unsurprisingly, the pundits reviewing the debate ipso facto were outraged that Clark had failed to repudiate Moore. This was particularly the case at Fox News, where numerous "experts" proclaimed this the biggest outrage of the night. From the amount of energy they devoted to it, it was clear they thought this was Clark's "Yeeaaaarrrrgh!!" moment.

Funny thing about that: On Fox's Campaign 2004 page today, not a single mention of the exchange can be found. You have to wonder if they discovered that Clark wasn't so far off the beam after all.

For what it's worth, Michael Moore has an extended response up today, including a specific response to Jennings:
The question he posed to Clark was typical of a lazy media looking for a way to distract the viewers from the real issues: the war, the economy, and the failures of the Bush administration. But if they want to really get into the issue of Bush and his "service record," then I say, bring it on! The facts are all there, including the empty flyboy suit.

Moore also has a compendium of information on the issue.

Of course, I also strongly recommend anyone interested in the matter to review the hard information available at Martin Heldt's Web site, which includes the results of his numerous FOIA requests.

The real disgrace is not Gen. Clark's behavior, but the press'. All this should have been hashed out in 2000, when the press was too busy reading from its prepared script, pursuing Al Gore's supposed "lies" while declining to examine those uttered by Bush. Or does anyone remember how thoroughly Bill Clinton's draft record was examined in 1992?

Update: skippy the bush kangaroo catches Wolf Blitzer being a journalistic nitwit on this very subject.

A note: Bush's status technically was Absent Without Leave (AWOL), which is not precisely the same as desertion. Moore uses the term, as Bob Somerby notes, as a term of art, but it is not definitively correct.

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