Iraqi war makes gap in record relevant

February 16, 2004|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

In the past few weeks, gaps in the record of President Bush's service in the Air National Guard have made front-page headlines.

An energized White House press corps has besieged Bush spokesman Scott McClellan in recent days with questions about months for which Bush's activities could not be confirmed. Despite Bush's defense, saying he fulfilled his obligations, reporters have fanned out through Alabama to find anyone who can attest to his presence there. Late-night comics have picked up the topic with glee.

It was nearly four years ago, however, that Walter V. Robinson of the Boston Globe first raised these questions in a detailed way. Drawing on documents and interviews, his front-page article raised doubts about whether then-governor Bush, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, had reported for duty at an Alabama base to which he was assigned for much of 1972 and 1973.

Robinson's story stirred little response then. So why is the subject getting such notice now?

In politics, as in comedy, timing is everything. And the biggest difference, political and media veterans say, is the Bush administration's pursuit of the invasion and occupation of Iraq, which has led to hundreds of American deaths.

"That certainly brings an issue like this back into the public's mind," says Tom Fiedler, executive editor of the Miami Herald. It would become a major concern for voters, he says, if they were to learn "that the president who has been sending young Americans into combat treated his own military service so cavalierly."

Former Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Democrat, says Bush avoided the question that year because the nation was effectively at peace. "Then, he had Walter Robinson and a couple of others nipping at his heels," says Kerrey, now president of New School University in New York City. "Now, it's wall to wall. It's everywhere."

"The paradox is that the president brought a lot of this on himself," says Kerrey. Because Bush has chosen to kick off his re-election drive with an emphasis on his role as a wartime president, the questions of his service become relevant, Kerrey argues. Democratic frontrunner John Kerry's own status as a decorated Vietnam veteran helps to throw the contrast into strong relief, Kerrey says.

Others say they are unconvinced Bush's service record will be an issue closer to the November elections. "My rule of thumb is if by now they haven't come up with something worse than this, it's not going to become an issue," says Bob Schieffer, the Washington bureau chief for CBS News.

The story has been advanced incrementally but remains essentially as Robinson outlined it in 2000.

This cycle of coverage started small, with a swipe from liberal filmmaker Michael Moore - he called Bush a "deserter." Despite GOP protests, Terry McAuliffe, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, openly began questioning whether Bush had been AWOL.

"McAuliffe kicked it into the game and gave it life," says Scott Reed, who ran Republican Bob Dole's presidential campaign in 1996. "It's caused some panic amongst Republicans."

In 2000, Gore chose not to make Bush's record in the Air National Guard an issue. He was seeking to replace his running mate, former President Bill Clinton, who had himself faced disclosures that he had sought to avoid military service.

"National security was not a prominent issue in that election - and it is now," says Robinson, a Globe assistant managing editor who heads the newspaper's investigative team.

On May 23, 2000, Robinson reported in the Globe that commanding officers and superiors at the Alabama base did not recall Bush's presence there and that records showed he went months at a time without appearing for duty. It generated some subsequent coverage. A week later, Bush charged that the Clinton-Gore administration had weakened the military, and media attention dissipated.

On July 17, 2000, Newsweek framed the issue as a "curve ball" on the hustings. Bush had been "blindsided by reporters asking picky questions about a little-known chapter in his past." The article concluded: "For the moment, at least, it seemed that Bush's damage control team had gotten matters under control again."

A 6,000 word USA Today profile of Bush on July 28, 2000, devoted a single paragraph to the issue. A similar piece in the Los Angeles Times two days later made only glancing allusions to questions about his service.

For the press corps traveling with candidates, "you have to cover the campaign that is presented to you," says Fiedler, for many years a distinguished political correspondent for the Herald. "The issue wasn't given wings because Al Gore didn't pick it up."

On Oct. 31, 2000, one week before Election Day, Robinson wrote another article comparing the two candidates on character issues, and exploring the documentary record of Bush's services. Democratic surrogates for Gore, including Kerrey, started picking up the cry, briefly prompting significant coverage. Within a few days, however, that story was drowned out by reports that Bush had been arrested in Maine for driving under the influence of alcohol a quarter-century earlier.

Reed, the Republican consultant, argues this year's election will be decided on quality-of-life issues. "The other Washington issues are political sideshows," Reed says. "They drive a lot of traffic on the cable shows. But at the end of the day they're pretty irrelevant."

For his part, Robinson doesn't know whether this story will have more endurance the second time around. "Who can say?" he asks. "This is February."

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