It’s often said that people won’t go into politics any more because of the intense media scrutiny one faces for even the smallest indiscretion in one’s past. In fact, the media are temperamental beasts; fierce one day, gentle as lambs the next. Certainly the media showed its soft side last week.
As U.S. President George W. Bush piously observed Veterans Day, media pundits somehow restrained themselves from pointing to the irony that the U.S. Commander-in-Chief, who’s sometimes referred to as a “former fighter pilot,” has an embarrassing military past. His records show that for months at a time during the Vietnam War, Bush could be classified as, at best, “absent without leave” (AWOL) or, at worst, as an army deserter.
This would be equivalent to the media withholding comment as former American President Bill Clinton publicly espoused the virtues of marital fidelity.
Indeed, one hardly needs to wait for Veterans’ Day to note the irony in Bush’s military fervour. The man can scarcely contain his enthusiasm for war — or at least for others going to war. As he inches closer each day to sending tens of thousands of American soldiers into Iraq (to be followed likely by hundreds of Canadian soldiers), any day would be appropriate for the media to satisfy its allegedly insatiable appetite for dirt on the rich and powerful by reporting the president’s own military past.
The legwork has already been done by the Boston Globe, which dug up Bush’s military records and interviewed his former military commanders.
While the paper published its dramatic findings during the presidential campaign of 2000, the rest of the media all but ignored the story and continue to do so, even as Bush has turned himself into arguably the most hawkish president in U.S. history.
It’s not that the media are not hard on military laggards. While there were only 49 media stories about Bush’s military past during his presidential campaign, there were a whopping 13,641 media reports on Clinton’s Vietnam-era draft dodging during his first presidential race, according to former Clinton aide Paul Begala.
Begala made the observation on a media panel at a labour conference shortly after Bush’s election. Other panelists, including journalists from major TV networks and Time magazine, agreed that Bush had had a much gentler ride, but attributed it to the media’s alleged exhaustion after all the Clinton-era scandals.
Of course, it’s possible Bush was so morally repelled by the U.S. slaughter in Vietnam that he just couldn’t bring himself to participate. But probably not. Here’s what we know.
Upon graduating from Yale, Bush applied for a position in the Texas National Guard, a coveted spot that required only part-time military duties at home, far from the battlefields of Vietnam. Bush was catapulted to the front of 500 other applicants after a friend of his father, then a wealthy Houston congressman, phoned the Speaker of the Texas House, according to The Boston Globe.
After completing training as a pilot, George W. Bush requested and immediately received a transfer to an Alabama National Guard unit in May, 1972. But Bush never showed up for duty there, according to the Alabama unit’s commander and the commander’s assistant, who were interviewed by the Globe.
Military records show that Bush’s two commanding officers back in Texas reported George W. did not show up for duty there either for a year, and that they believed he had been transferred to Alabama.
Meanwhile, when Bush failed to take his required annual medical exam in August, 1972, his pilot status was removed.
It should be noted that reporting for military duty is not something that’s optional, particularly during a war. Those caught shirking National Guard duties were usually punished by being drafted into the real army — the one that landed you in Vietnam, where some 350 American soldiers were killed each week. But, despite more than a year absent from duty, nothing happened to the well-connected George W. Bush.
Favouritism is a sore point among those who actually went to war, including U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. As Powell wrote in his autobiography: “I am angry that so many of the sons of the powerful and well-placed … managed to wangle slots in Reserve and National Guard units … Of the many tragedies of Vietnam, this raw class discrimination strikes me as the most damaging to the ideal that all Americans are created equal …”
You’ve got to marvel at Powell’s anger management skills.