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Media AWOL in Noting Irony of Bush's Flight
by Eric Zorn, Chicago Tribune

Published on Tuesday, May 6, 2003 by the Chicago Tribune

So much for that myth--the cynical distortion that has become conventional wisdom in many circles. During the presidential campaign of 2000, it started going around that Texas Gov. George W. Bush, then the leading Republican candidate, had significant gaps in his military record.

Specifically, that Bush failed to report for duty for an entire year toward the end of his hitch with the Texas Air National Guard.

The short version: In May 1968 the silver-spoon son of a U.S. congressman jumped to the top of a long waiting list despite mediocre scores on his pilot-aptitude test and was allowed to enlist in the Guard, a common way to avoid being drafted into combat in Vietnam.

In May 1972 he sought a transfer from Houston, where he flew F-102s on weekends, to a unit in Montgomery, Ala. There, he worked on the U.S. Senate campaign of a friend of his father's and, records indicate, blew off his military obligations.

Bush failed to take his annual flight physical in 1972 so Guard officials grounded him, the story went. He never flew again and received an early discharge to go to graduate school. His final officer-efficiency report from May 1973 noted only that supervisors hadn't seen him or heard from him.

Bush's campaign biography obscured or misrepresented these details. In the summer and fall of 2000, his spokesmen offered various and evolving explanations for what Democrats said represented a far bigger "character issue" than any of the windy exaggerations of their candidate, Vice President Al Gore.

"If he is elected president, how will he be able to deal as commander in chief with someone who goes AWOL, when he did the same thing?" Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey said to the Boston Globe, where veteran investigative reporter Walter V. Robinson, a former Army intelligence officer, wrote several major stories on the subject. "This stinks."

Yes, but like Bush at the end of his hitch, it didn't fly. A search of all news publications and programs archived in the LexisNexis database for the last seven months of the 2000 campaign found 114 stories referencing Bush, the Texas Air National Guard and Alabama. Over that same span, nearly 10 times that many stories--1,076 to be exact--referenced Al Gore and the expression "invented the internet," an allusion to the bogus charge then haunting Gore that he had wildly inflated his role in the online revolution.

The "Bush AWOL?" story appeared in this newspaper and was based on good reporting and still-unanswered questions. It faded away--a scant 14 mentions in the database for all of 2001 and 2002 due to the age of the allegations, the lack of any new developments and the urgency of current events.

Last week, though, the president all but wore a "Kick Me!" sticker on the back of his flight suit when he decided to land on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in the co-pilot's seat of an S-3B Viking jet.

Imagine the derisive merriment in the columns and on the chat shows if former President Bill Clinton revived the skirt-chasing issue by touring a sorority house or if Gore delivered a lecture to the engineers at Netscape Communications Corp. Think of the snickering and the sardonic rehash of history.

But for Bush in flyboy attire, a discreet silence. The only voices I encountered raising this issue were David Corn in the Nation; Newsday columnist Jimmy Breslin, who asked, "Tell me if you ever heard of anybody with as powerful a resistance to shame as Bush"; and talk station WLS-AM's token progressives Nancy Skinner and Ski Anderson, who spent a full hour Sunday afternoon savoring the irony of it all.

There was no relentless examination of the damning timeline on cable news outlets, no interviewing the commanders who swear Bush didn't show up where he was supposed to, no sit-downs with the veterans who have offered still-unclaimed cash rewards to anyone who can prove that Bush did anything at all in the Guard during his last months before discharge.

So much for the cynical distortion that has become conventional wisdom in many circles. So much for the myth of the "liberal media."

Copyright 2003, Chicago Tribune

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