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13 July 1999

Our current howler (part II): Bush-whackin’

Synopsis: Throughout Serrano’s profile of Bush-in-war, irrelevant data fail to prove implied points.

Bush’s military record under scope
United Press International, 7/4/99

Commentary by Tom Hayden, Tom McInerney
Hardball, CNBC, 7/7/99

Bush received quick air guard commission
Richard A. Serrano, The Los Angeles Times, 7/4/99

Why shouldn't reporters use insinuative images of the type that litter the Serrano piece? The United Press quickly showed us. Here is a part of UPI's same-day report on the article:

UNITED PRESS: [T]he Times says a study of [Bush's] service records, along with interviews of Guard officials and other veterans, indicates he "received highly favorable treatment and uncommon attention" in the Guard. The Times also reports that 100,000 other young men's names were languishing on waiting lists when Bush walked into a National Guard recruiting office shortly before graduating from Yale University.

UPI quotes Serrano's absurdly vague claim that Bush received "favorable treatment." (But not without improving the claim. UPI makes the treatment "highly favorable.") Most strikingly, UPI repeats Serrano's image of the 100,000 men on those lists. Yesterday, we noted the irrelevance of this item; the 100,000 men were in other states, and Serrano never refutes Col. Walter Staudt's claim that there was no waiting list for pilot applicants in Texas. The image of the 100,000 men suggests Bush somehow jumped them in line, although Serrano offer no evidence that Bush was ever leap-frogged over anyone. And note-Serrano at least explicitly says that the 100,000 men were in other states. The UPI makes no such statement, again improving on Serrano's presentation.

Yep-a scribe should be careful what he puts into print. Here's Tom Hayden, picking up on Serrano:

HAYDEN: Politically this could remind people of the similar criticism of President Bush, that he was privileged, because George W. Bush presumably was for the war in Vietnam and when presented with a real opportunity in 1968 at Yale, same time as Bill Clinton, to go over and fight for his beliefs instead took a way out, jumped over 100,000 other fellows who were in line.

MCINERNEY: That's really not true-he did not jump over 100,000 people in line. There were not 100,000 pilot candidates. Tom, come on, get the numbers right.

HAYDEN: According to the Times [READING] there were 100,000 other men on waiting lists around the country

McInerney went on to stress the point that the men were not in Texas. But how many times will this misleading image be evoked in the course of other debates, where there is no well-informed person like McInerney on hand to correct false impressions?

But Serrano's willingness to use bogus data is found throughout his piece. All through the body of his article, Serrano uses misleading or irrelevant data to suggest that wrong-doing occurred. Did Bush receive preferential treatment? Was he moved ahead of others in line? About a third of the way through the piece, Serrano again suggests that he was:

SERRANO: (Paragraph 32) [F]or most, signing up did not mean getting accepted.

(33) The Texas Air Guard had about 900 slots for pilots, air and ground crew members, supervisors, technicians and support staff. Sgt. Donald Dean Barnhart, who still serves in the Guard, said that he kept a waiting list of about 150 applicants' names. He said it took up to a year and a half for one name to move to the top of the list.

(34) "Quite a few gentlemen were wanting to get in," he recalled.

(35) For Bush, there was no wait. He met with commander Staudt in his Houston office [in spring of 1968] and made his application-all before his graduation in June.

Again, we're offered a clear-cut image of Bush getting special, fast treatment. But fifteen paragraphs earlier, Serrano has already shown that these data are irrelevant to Bush. Col. Staudt says why Bush was accepted:

SERRANO: (20) Staudt, who retired in 1972 as a brigadier general, said Bush's expedited acceptance into the Guard was justified by a shortage of volunteers to be pilots.

(21) "Nobody did anything for him," Staudt said in an interview"There was no goddamn influence on his behalf. Neither his daddy nor anybody else got him into the Guard."

Obviously, if Bush was accepted due to a shortage of pilots, the 150-man list for other jobs would have no relevance to his Guard history. Again, an image suggests preferential treatment-but the data are wholly irrelevant.

Serrano does make one other effort to suggest Bush was bumped up in line. After quoting Staudt on the shortage of pilot applicants, he quotes an historian disputing Staudt's claim:

SERRANO: (23) Pilots were in demand in Vietnam. But Tom Hail, a historian for the Texas Air National Guard, said that records do not show a pilot shortage in the Guard squadron at the time.

(24) Hail, who reviewed the unity's personnel records for a special Guard museum display on Gov. Bush's service, said Bush's unit had 27 pilots at the time he began applying. While that number was two short of its authorized strength, the unit had two other pilots who were in training and another awaiting a transfer. There was no apparent need to fast-track applicants, he said.

(25) As for a direct commission for someone of Bush's limited qualifications, Hail said, "I've never heard of that. Generally they did that for doctors only, mostly because we needed extra flight surgeons."

This last paragraph may offer the strongest evidence that Bush received some sort of special treatment. Hail refers here to the "direct commission" Bush received when he finished basic training, which made him, in Serrano's words, "an instant second lieutenant." Hail says he has never heard of that being done, except in the case of doctors. But did Serrano report this to Staudt for reaction, or check Hail's impression against actual records? There is no sign within the piece that he did, and Serrano mishandles so much other data that one is reluctant to put faith in his judgment. For example, look at the data Serrano cites in paragraph 24. He says Bush's unit was authorized for 29 pilots; the unit had 27 on staff, with two in training; and one other pilot was awaiting transfer (we assume he means transfer in). To Serrano, these figures mean there was no reason to be training another pilot. But the fact that 27 pilots were on staff when Bush applied does not tell us when they were scheduled to leave the Guard; if half the pilots were about to leave, there would be a clear need to train pilots. Again, Serrano gives us data intended to suggest special treatment-which don't prove the point he implies.

Did Bush receive special treatment from Staudt? At THE HOWLER, we have no way of knowing. But all throughout Serrano's piece is material intended to suggest that he did-and all throughout Serrano's piece, the data don't back up the spin. Meanwhile, on the very same day Serrano's piece appeared, the Dallas Morning News wrote on the same subject, and it is interesting to compare the data they cite about Bush's Air Guard entry. The Morning News also spoke with Hail, and quoted Hail on unit staffing. Tomorrow, we'll look at how the Morning News quotes historian Hail on the subject. We don't know who got the right story. But it's almost as if the two different papers were talking to two different guys.


Tomorrow: Two papers interviewed historian Hail. It's as if they got two different stories.