Michael Moore called George W. Bush a "deserter"
at a January 18 rally for Wesley Clark, he stepped
way over the line, injecting into the public discourse
a scurrilous charge with no basis in fact, the
kind of defamation that has rightly earned the
moniker "political hate speech" from Republicans.
at least that's what you'd think if you listened
to reporters' comments on Moore's statement. Speaking
for his colleagues, ABC's Peter Jennings told
Clark during Thursday's debate, "That's a reckless
charge not supported by the facts. And I was curious
to know why you didn't contradict him, and whether
or not you think it would've been a better example
of ethical behavior to have done so."
declined to do so, saying he didn't know enough
about it. Unfortunately, most Americans don't
either -- because reporters have refused to tell
them. But the press consensus has been reached:
Moore's charge was beyond the pale, and General
Clark made a big mistake by not repudiating it.
should have distanced himself from the remark,"
wrote The Boston Globe. On FOX News, Chris Wallace
said Clark's failure to do so was the one place
in the debate when "my reporter's antenna went
up. And I thought, 'This is news' Doesn't that
raise questions of perhaps being a little amateur?"
Clark, the United Press International's story
about the debate contended, "may have stumbled
most when he was quizzed as to why he stayed silent
when documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, who
has endorsed him, called Bush a deserter in Clark's
presence and Clark did not immediately condemn
the remark or disassociate himself from it."
you've been reading the news, though, you may've
a hard time figuring out just what Moore was talking
about. The New York Times referred obliquely to
"Bush's attendance record with the National Guard
in Texas," while National Public Radio offered
that the charge "refer[red] to his time in the
Texas Air National Guard." The Los Angeles Times
gave a non-explanation, writing, "Bush served
as a pilot in the Texas National Guard during
the Vietnam War, a relatively safe posting. In
1972, Bush was allowed to transfer to the Alabama
National Guard for three months so he could work
on the campaign of a Senate candidate there."
with the notable exception of those who came across
a brief story by The Washington Post's David Broder,
who actually explained the controversy, the typical
news reader would be hard pressed to discern that,
depending on what your definition of "desertion"
is (call it AWOL if you like), Moore was exactly
some clarification may be in order. In 1972, Bush
was training as a pilot in the "Champagne Unit"
of the Texas Air Guard, a spot secured for him
(along with the sons of other prominent Texans
like Lloyd Bentsen, John Tower and John Connolly,
as well as some members of the Dallas Cowboys
football team) by Ben Barnes, then the speaker
of the Texas House of Representatives. Bush requested
a transfer to a unit in Alabama so that he could
work on a Senate race there, and a transfer he
is where it gets interesting. When asked in 2000,
Bush claimed he had "some recollection" of performing
service in Alabama, but there is no evidence --
no Guard records, that is, and the word of no
one who would have served with him (despite an
exhaustive search by the Bush campaign) -- that
Bush ever showed up in Alabama for duty.
the 1972 election, Bush returned to Houston, whereupon
he should have reported for duty with his unit
at Ellington Air Force Base. But in May of 1973,
his superiors there reported that they were unable
to conduct his yearly evaluation because "Lt.
Bush has not been observed at this unit during
the period of this report. A civilian occupation
made it necessary for him to move to Montgomery,
Alabama. He cleared this base on 15 May 1972 and
has been performing equivalent training in a non-flying
status with the 187 Tac Recon Gp, Dannelly ANG
Base, Alabama." Which he wasn't.
there is the question of whether Bush ever completed
his obligations to the Guard before being discharged.
In 2000, his campaign claimed that he crammed
in 36 days of duty with his Houston unit during
his last three months. The only evidence his team
could provide, however, was a torn page listing
drills performed -- with no dates and without
Bush's name. But given that Bush's official records
show no service whatsoever between May of 1972
and his discharge in October of 1973 (by which
time he was attending Harvard Business School),
one cannot conclude that there is any evidence
that he satisfied the obligations of his service.
When the National Guard Review asked Bush during
2000 what he'd learned in the Guard, he responded,
"[T]he responsibility to show up and do your job."
can certainly quibble about whether Bush's failure
to show up in Alabama and his apparent failure
to fulfill his obligations makes him a "deserter"
or not, but that question is one of semantics.
(The most generally accepted definition of the
term involves abandonment during wartime; the
reader may decide whether Bush's service in the
defense of Corpus Christi from the Vietcong would
qualify as combat duty.) But to say the charge
is, in Peter Jennings' words, "not supported by
the facts" is simply false.
this story is news to you, you're not alone. In
the 2000 campaign -- in which journalists were
supposedly vetting the candidates' records to
ferret out the good and the bad -- there was little
interest in Bush's Vietnam record. If one compares
the coverage given in 1992 to Bill Clinton's efforts
to avoid Vietnam with that given to Bush's similar
situation, the disparity is rather striking.
1992, there were no fewer than 526 stories about
Clinton and the draft in major American newspapers.
In all the news outlets covered by Lexis-Nexis,
there were 950 stories about the subject. But
when the 2000 election rolled around, reporters
were decidedly less curious about the topic. There
were 77 stories in 1999 and 38 stories in 2000
in major papers about Bush and the National Guard.
In all news outlets, there were 258 stories in
1999 and only 98 in 2000.
other words, during their respective election
years, there were nearly 10 press stories about
Clinton's efforts to avoid serving in Vietnam
for every one story about Bush's efforts to avoid
serving in Vietnam. In major papers, there were
almost 14 Clinton stories for every Bush story.
The only major newspapers that investigated the
issue with any vigor were The Boston Globe and
the Los Angeles Times.
on television? The three networks did a grand
total of one, count 'em, one story about Bush
and Vietnam during the 2000 campaign. And that
story, on NBC, consisted mostly of Bush's denials
that he had been given special consideration to
get into the Guard. The question of whether he
went AWOL was not mentioned.
we come to 2004, and among the Democratic candidates
are two Vietnam veterans, each carrying medals
for the bravery he showed and the blood he shed.
The contrast with President Bush is a stark one,
and we'll no doubt be hearing more about it should
Clark or John Kerry become the Democratic nominee.
But if the way they've handled the issue since
Michael Moore's comments is any indication, reporters
will work hard to make sure Bush doesn't have
to answer any difficult questions about what he
did -- or didn't -- do when his country called
on him to serve.
Waldman is the executive editor of The Gadflyer,
a new progressive Internet magazine. His latest
book is Fraud: The Strategy Behind the Bush Lies
and Why the Media Didn't Tell You.
Use Notice: This site contains copyrighted material
the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright
owner. We are making such material available in our efforts to advance understanding
of environmental, political, economic, democratic, domestic and international
issues, etc. We believe this constitutes a 'fair use' of any such copyrighted
material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance
with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without
profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included
information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to:
If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own
that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.