Bush’s service record is still a mystery

By Jesse Zink

The recent release of the Thornburg-Boccardi report about the fraudulent memos used by CBS News in a report about President Bush’s National Guard service has sparked gloating on the behalf of many Republicans. Republican National Committee (RNC) chairman Ed Gillespie said, “The public has made their judgment: They know the President served and was honorably discharged.” The report did conclude that CBS made a series of mistakes as it sought to rush the report to air in the context of a hyper-competitive election-season atmosphere among the major news networks, but it should not be seen as the end of the debate over the President’s National Guard service.

Throughout the President’s national political career, questions about his Guard service have followed him. These questions can be separated into two categories. First, did the President receive preferential treatment in getting a spot in the Guard rather than in active duty because of his father’s connections? Second, once the President obtained the commission in the Guard, did he fulfill his duties and meet all the necessary training requirements? The CBS News report in question dealt only with the first of these questions, purporting to show documents that demonstrated the favorable treatment the president received and substantiating these documents with interviews with people who made sure he got the favorable treatment. Even if this report was entirely discredited, and I am not convinced that the Thornburg-Boccardi report does that, that would still leave the second question unresolved and outstanding. In his comments, Ed Gillespie cannily switched the discussion from the first of these questions, with which the CBS report directly dealt, to draw allegedly definitive conclusions about the second, and more explosive and damaging, question.

What is interesting about the second question is that on the day before the questionable CBS News report was aired (September 8, 2004), The Boston Globe reported on a completely different set of never-before-seen memos that showed that the President never showed up for his required terms of duty. For instance, “Bush fell well short of meeting his military obligation…Twice during his Guard service, first when he joined in May 1968, and again before he transferred out of his unit in mid-1973 to attend Harvard Business School, Bush signed documents pledging to meet training commitments or face a punitive call-up to active duty. He didn’t meet the commitments or face the punishment, the records show. The 1973 document has been overlooked in news media accounts.” Also, “Bush’s attendance at required training drills was so irregular that his superiors could have disciplined him or ordered him to active duty in 1972, 1973, or 1974. But they did neither.” What the article demonstrates is that legitimate questions remain about the President’s service.

However, since the two reports emerged at roughly the same time, they were folded into the same news accounts beginning, “New memos raise new questions about the President’s National Guard service.” When the CBS News report came under fire, it proved to be a far more interesting story for the solipsistic news media than the rigorous research and new proof offered by The Globe. And when the CBS News memos were shown to be frauds, the baby of truth was thrown out with the bathwater of scandal.

The conclusion to be drawn from all of this is that we cannot necessarily agree with Ed Gillespie that a definitive version of the President’s National Guard service has been reached. First, as near as I can tell, although the CBS News memos are fraudulent, the Thornburg-Boccardi report makes little comment on the overall validity of the story, including the interviews with people who substantiated the documents. Second, even if the entire CBS News report was in error, a possibility to which I am open, this does little to address the second question concerning the President’s service, namely whether he ever showed up for his National Guard commission once he received it.

This is a debate that has been dragging on interminably for more than four years. The American people may have reached a point where we no longer care about this topic. The further revelations will not damage the President’s future electoral prospects. Any news organization that seeks to pursue the issue will be accused by the Republican Party of harboring an anti-Bush bias and be ignored. So if we have reached a point where we no longer care to hear about this story, then that is fine. I, for one, am of the opinion that this is a horse that has been flogged one too many times. Factually, however, the story is not yet over. We can abandon this story out of exhaustion, but not because we have arrived at a definitive version of the truth. What the President actually did once he was in the National Guard is still an open question.