Bush off balance

About the author
Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University and author of the new e-book Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street, also to be published in an expanded edition, in paperback, this August (HarperCollins).

America’s election campaign consists of two intertwined quests.

First, there is the Democrats’ ongoing quest for the nomination, which now has John Kerry climbing to near-insuperable heights. Having won all but two states at issue so far, the sonorous, lugubrious, war-hero candidate with the longest face since Abraham Lincoln finds himself in the enviable position to outslog all his rivals. The nomination is not only his to lose, but short of apocalypse, it’s hard to anticipate a scenario by which he would lose it.

Then there is George Bush’s quest to control the agenda – the press’s agenda and the public’s, these two being closely related (though rarely identical). Throughout his time in office, and never more than in an election year, a president exercises much of his flair, acumen, and power striving to control not only the questions that will be debated in public but the criteria by which they will be answered.

Since 11 September 2001, Bush has had a simple time managing the agenda: war. Most of the country, most of the time, has agreed. If war is the scenario, then Bush is the hero. He cast himself as the incarnation of martial virtue – steadfastness, resolution, and the scent of victory. If you support what he calls the war on terror, he says over and over, you should support him; and contrapositively, if you don’t support him, well, you must be soft on terror. As the Democrats ducked and ran, his logic spun his party to victory in 2002. Unsurprisingly, then, in his “Meet the Press” interview on 8 February Bush declared himself over and over as a war president.

So how did it happen that Bush began this week defending not only his war and his reasons for launching it – a defense largely unconvincing even to those who side with him – but his record in the Air National Guard more than thirty years ago?

The dynamics of a scandal

Several weeks ago, the best-selling comic-polemicist Michael Moore, who had urged General Wesley Clark to get into the race in the first place, appeared in New Hampshire to endorse him. There, as if announcing a wrestling bout, Moore growled out that he looked forward to a match-up of the general and “the deserter” – Bush, whose spotty Air National Guard record in 1972-73 (the best evidence is that he skipped out on his service for at least six months) came in for sporadic scrutiny during the 2000 campaign, but faded as an issue when the press dropped it in favor of cheaper, funnier hits at the maladroit Al Gore.

Moore’s mock accusation would have died the death of another half-serious sound bite in a hall in remotest New Hampshire had it not been for ABC’s anchorman Peter Jennings, who at a Democratic debate, challenged Wesley Clark to denounce Moore for having cast aspersions upon the now commander-in-chief. Clark clumsily sidestepped, refusing to take a position on the facts of the matter. Savvy pundits decreed that Clark had gaffed himself into a trap.

But the next week, Democratic National Chairman Terry McAuliffe kept the issue alive, roaring out that, in fact, Bush had skipped out on his National Guard service. And now the press smelled blood. Even Tim Russert, NBC News’ pussycat-with-the-reputation-of-an-attack dog, elicited some fumbles in his hour-long interview with Bush.

After all, now that the White House has been exposed for ample deception vis-à-vis Saddam Hussein’s hypothetical weapons, Bush’s tricky, evasive, sometimes flatly wrong statements about his dubious time in the elite Air National Guard in 1972-73 could be cast as prefigurations of a pattern of unreliability – or, if you like, a tissue of lies.

The White House stonewalled repetitively, as is its wont. You can get a flavor in this exchange from White House press secretary Scott McLellan’s briefing of 3 February, one of no fewer than six almost identical statements he made that day alone:

“Scott, you expressed some outrage this morning that Democrats are questioning whether President Bush shirked his military duty with the Texas Air National Guard. Is the White House trying to come up with any records or any eye-witnesses to demonstrate that he did show up for his last two years in Alabama?
“MR. McCLELLAN: Terry, I would just say that it was a shame that this issue was brought up four years ago during the campaign, and it is a shame that it is being brought up again. The President fulfilled his duties. The President was honorably discharged.”
It didn’t fly. It materializes that during the Vietnam years, Guardsmen could acquire honorable discharges for breathing. Two excellent journalists, Lois Romano of the Washington Post and Walter Robinson of the Boston Globe, filed extended reports casting doubts on the White House account. (Robinson quoted Bush’s ostensible commanding officer from 1972 to the effect that he doesn’t remember Bush showing up.) Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote a column describing his own successful adventures in achieving National Guard honors for minimal effort.

As the issue ascended toward white heat, much yeoman work was carried by bloggers, of whom I would single out the man who goes by the name of Calpundit, who reproduced copies of dubious documents. The Internet whizzes the best journalism around, makes it national – international, in fact. So a critical mass of the press corps, fed up with being stonewalled, is on the hunt.

By this week, the White House had to resort to a document dump. Judging from early reports, the press is still unconvinced that he’s telling the whole truth.

What a prime time for journalism! Reporters, report! Investigators, to your investigations!