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Friday, February 27, 2004

Georgie missing

Over the past few weeks, President Bush has responded to recurring questions about his National Guard service by saying that the subject is old and tiresome. According to Mr. Bush, reporters conducted a thorough investigation of his time in the Texas National Guard when he ran against Ann Richards for governor in 1994, and again when he ran against Al Gore in 2000. The complete Guard records, the president told Tim Russert on "Meet the Press," were "scoured."

This came as news to me, as I lived in and reported from Texas during those times and feel that questions about the story � Mr. Bush's life story � linger 10 years after his first political victory. Why they linger is a more complicated question, one that has as much to do with the press as it does with the president.

Let's start at the beginning, with the 1994 governor's race between Ann Richards and Mr. Bush. Like many of George W. Bush's early opponents, the Richards team made the mistake of underestimating him. Ms. Richards's consultants and campaign strategists tried to portray Mr. Bush, initially at least, as a son of privilege who couldn't possibly be taken seriously. (Later they tried to spin him as a Machiavellian business mastermind; that didn't work either.) Mr. Bush's military record emerged as a weapon in the son-of-privilege arsenal, but the story had weak legs.

This was partly because the records that the consultants and reporters possessed were incomplete � they were torn, with Mr. Bush's name and other crucial pieces of information blacked out � but also because the Richards campaign backed off the issue. As many people in Texas and beyond now know, Mr. Bush's Guard unit included more than a few sons of the state's rich and powerful, including Lloyd Bentsen III, son of the state's august Democratic senator. As Patrick Woodson, one of Ms. Richards's campaign consultants, told me earlier this month, "We were unofficially told that because of Bentsen's kid the Guard thing was not on the table."

Then, too, the questions about Mr. Bush's military record were not focused on what he did in the Texas Guard but on how he managed to get in at a time when the waiting list for the National Guard, for instance, contained more than 100,000 names. Local reporters could coax one former Democratic state official into admitting, off the record, that he had interceded on Mr. Bush's behalf at the request of either a prominent Dallas businessman or George H. W. Bush, who was then a member of Congress. But the official's story � the source was later revealed to be former Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes � was subject to change and there were no documents to support his claims.

Late in the campaign, James Moore, then a reporter with KHOU-TV in Houston, put the question to Mr. Bush in a televised debate: had he received special treatment while other young men had fought and died in Vietnam? The candidate's less than illuminating answer: not that he knew of. But by then most Texans had made up their minds to vote for Mr. Bush � he trounced Ms. Richards, and the issue, not surprisingly, went away.

Until 2000, at least. Mr. Bush's military service was an issue in the campaign, but, again, for various reasons, the digging didn't go very deep. Why? First, George Bush was a very popular governor. Ann Richards had run a divisive, partisan Statehouse. Mr. Bush, in contrast, was a genial host, and an efficient one. He wasn't the lightweight reporters had expected; he unified the Legislature, and he kept his campaign promises. His door was always open to the press � yes, he gave reporters nicknames � and many journalists were surprised that he could discuss tort reform as easily as he could talk about the Texas Rangers pitching staff. Not surprisingly, the state's political reporters took the governor seriously as a presidential candidate long before the national press did.

But that loyalty created a new set of problems. Historically, journalists for the local daily don't do very well when the hometown pol makes a play for higher office. The Boston Globe, for example, has done a superb job investigating Mr. Bush's Guard record; it's my feeling, though, that the paper wasn't as impressive in its coverage of Michael Dukakis during his 1988 presidential run. (It was the local alternative weekly, The Boston Phoenix, that was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for its campaign coverage.) And in Mr. Bush's case, many representatives of the Texas press corps � consciously or unconsciously � fell prey to the seductive notion that they were on a nickname basis with a man who might become the leader of the free world.

(more at link)


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