FLASHBACK: When the NY Times ignored gaping holes in candidate Bush's war record

Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

One of the striking talking points that came out of The New York Times in the wake of its controversial article last week about whether Connecticut Democrat Richard Blumenthal had, over the years, exaggerated his military service during the Vietnam War era, was the insistence from the Times that the story was a deeply important one and one that needed to be covered. The Times, faced with stiff criticism for its handling of the Blumenthal story, seemed to suggest it had a moral obligation, not to mention a newsroom duty, to look closely at the military service rhetoric from a New England politician running in a statewide election.

A Times flack even appeared to lecture Blumenthal about how he needed to be straight with Nutmeg State voters.

But I'm having a tough time buying the Times' sudden devotion to the topic, considering that during the 2000 presidential campaign, the same Times staff went out of its way not to report on the web of detailed allegations that Republican George Bush had failed to fulfill his military obligation while defending Texas air space as an Air National Guard pilot and that the presidential candidate had routinely lied about that fact. For that story, the Times team shrugged. But it's decided this spring to go all-in over Blumenthal? Seems strange.

Now, I realize that it's been an entire decade since the 2000 campaign played out and that most people don't recall what the coverage was like -- and specifically have virtually no memory of how Bush's Air National Guard story was covered. But I'm not overstating things when I say the Times' stubborn failure to cover the controversy really did mark one of the true cases of journalistic malpractice of that crucial campaign season.

The full scope of Bush's lack of Guard service was revealed on May 23, 2000, when The Boston Globe's Walter Robinson reported a Page One piece detailing all the holes in Bush's military service: "1-Year Gap in Bush's Guard Duty; No Record of Airman at Drills in 1972-73."

After combing through 160 pages of military documents and interviewing Bush's former commanders, Robinson reported how Bush's flying career came to an abrupt and unexplained end in the spring of 1972 when Bush asked to be transferred so that he could work on a family friend's Senate campaign in Alabama. But Bush's Alabama commander, Lt. Col. William Turnipseed, told the Globe that Bush never showed up for duty. (A trained pilot, Bush asked to be reassigned to an Alabama base that had no airplanes.) In 2000, a group of veterans offered a $3,500 reward for anyone who could confirm Bush's Alabama service -- and nobody from Bush's unit stepped forward.

What did the Times do with the Globe's startling A1 campaign scoop, suggesting Bush may have gone AWOL during his mandatory Guard service? The Times ignored it, with a passion. (And yes, this was the same Times news team that spent the 2000 campaign routinely casting aspersions on Al Gore's character and trustworthiness.)

Consider this: The Times' Frank Bruni tailed Bush obsessively on the campaign trail that year, filing more than 200 dispatches. But he never once referenced in print the Globe allegations. (Just try to imagine the Times' reaction if, during the 2000 campaign, the same Boston Globe had reported on Page One that Gore's discharge papers from Vietnam showed he rigged his wartime duty and orchestrated an early exit by simply refusing to report for duty during the final two years of his commitment.)

During 2000, the Guard story never landed on Page One of the agenda-setting New York Times. In fact, the Guard story barely even made it inside the daily, while key facets were boycotted. Here's how many times in 2000 the Times, supposedly busy scouring the backgrounds of the candidates, reported the fact that Bush was grounded by his Guard superiors in 1972 for failing a mandatory physical: zero.

Just more than a week after The Boston Globe had raised serious questions about Bush's Guard service, the Times ran a May 31, 2000, story headlined "Bush Questions Gore's Fitness for Commander in Chief." The article noted that some were "questioning the nature of Mr. Bush's military service in the Vietnam War," but did not provide any further detail about the substance of the criticism. Instead, the Times simply reported that "Mr. Bush did not serve overseas but instead served in Houston in the Texas Air National Guard." The article made no mention whatsoever of the thorny allegations swirling about Bush's lack of military service.

On July 11, 2000, the Times' Nicholas Kristof wrote a biographical feature on Bush's life during the Vietnam War: " Close to Home; Bush's Choice in War: Devoid of Passion or Anxiety." The feature omitted any reference to questions about Bush's absenteeism, getting grounded, failing to take a physical, and walking away from the Guard for months at a time.

Kristof actually spent most of 2000 carefully -- even aggressively -- avoiding the issue of Bush's Guard service, which wasn't easy since, during that campaign season, Kristof wrote nearly 50,000 words on Bush, the equivalent of a 170-page book. Kristof functioned as the Times' in-house Bush biographer, and yet Kristof failed to report completely on the uncomfortable Guard issue, even after The Boston Globe pointed out all the holes in Bush's record.

But Kristof was hardly alone at the Times. It was a determined team effort to play dumb.

In late July, the Times got around to addressing Bush's wartime experience with an article headlined "Governor Bush's Journey; After Yale, Bush Ambled Amiably Into His Future." Certainly a piece focusing on Bush's post-Yale years in the late '60s and early '70s would center its attention on the troubling allegations raised by The Boston Globe, right? Wrong. It wasn't until 2,500 words into the article that the thorny issue was detailed. In total, the Times article dedicated about 300 words to the entire controversy, giving readers the sketchiest outlines of Bush's perplexing missing year from the Texas Air National Guard. And that fleeting, buried reference represented the bulk of the Times' coverage for most the entire campaign.

In a September 4 article on the campaign debate over military readiness, the Times referenced the fact that "Mr. Bush trained as a fighter pilot in the Texas National Guard during the Vietnam War." The Times politely omitted any mention of Bush's Guard controversy.

Twenty days later, the Times reported, "An array of veterans, including senior officers who served under Mr. Clinton and Mr. Gore, last week endorsed Mr. Bush, who served as a fighter pilot in the Texas National Guard during the Vietnam War and was, for the record, a lieutenant." Again, the article politely omitted any mention of Bush's Guard controversy.

It wasn't until the eve of the election that the Times set aside an entire news article to examine some of the crucial questions raised by the Globe. The Times' conclusion in November 2000? See for yourself [emphasis added]:

Two Democratic senators today called on Gov. George W. Bush to release his full military record to resolve doubts raised by a newspaper about whether he reported for required drills when he was in the Air National Guard in 1972 and 1973.

But a review of records by The New York Times indicated that some of those concerns may be unfounded. Documents reviewed by The Times showed that Mr. Bush served in at least 9 of the 17 months in question.

That's right, half a year after the Globe published its scoop, the Times finally addressed the issue, announcing in the second paragraph that some questions about Bush's Guard service were "unfounded." ("The Times got spun," was how the Globe's Walter Robinson later described the Times' Guard reporting.)

Indeed, by the time Election Day rolled around, the Times had failed to report that in 1972, the Texas Air National Guard grounded Bush for failing to take a required physical exam and that neither Bush nor his aides could point to a single person who saw Bush -- the hard-to-miss son of a congressman and U.S. ambassador -- perform his active duty requirements during the final 18 months of his service. (It would be 45 months after the first Boston Globe report -- February 2004 -- before the Times finally spelled out to readers with any kind of specificity the facts regarding Bush's skipped physical exam.)

Bottom line: In 2000, candidate Bush's military record during the Vietnam War was very much in doubt, as was Bush's repeated explanation as to why, after receiving $1 million worth of taxpayer-funded flight instruction, he had essentially vanished from the Guard and failed to fly, show up for monthly drills, or even take a mandatory physical. Yet back in 2000,The New York Times didn't seem to care much about that military-record story. And the Times newsroom seemed to make a decision not to cover the controversy -- a controversy that, given the historically close nature of the 2000 race, could have tipped the balance of the vote.

So, yes, given that stark background, it's tough to make sense of the Times' recent dedication to pursuing the Blumenthal story.

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