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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

On Guard

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 10, 2004; 8:03 AM

There are two media camps in America today: one that is digging into Col. Jerry Killian's memos and examining what typewriter fonts were in use in 1972 and parsing Ben Barnes's statements about National Guard admissions, and one that is not.

George Bush received an honorable discharge from the Guard--that much is not in dispute. Everything else--including whether the documents "60 Minutes" obtained are authentic--seems to be in play.

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Excavating Bush's Past (washingtonpost.com, Sep 9, 2004)
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In the real world, where people worry about taxes and health insurance and overcrowded classrooms, none of this may matter. But the story, along with Kitty Kelley's forthcoming work, seems to be hijacking the media with swift-boat-like intensity.

I wonder whether there's an unconscious desire in the press to give the guard flap plenty of coverage because so much of August was devoted to the back-and-forth about whether Kerry deserved his medals.

The Democrats are trying to have it both ways, just as the Republicans did when they disclaimed any connection to the swifties but Bush refused to denounce the ads.

I just saw tape of Kerry brushing off a reporter who asked, "Did President Bush fulfill his National Guard obligations?" But then I saw Tom Harkin accuse Bush of "lying to the American people" about the Guard.

The Bush camp is accusing the Kerry camp of orchestrating unfair attacks about ancient events. Sound familiar?

Is this a legitimate issue? Sure. But will the press carpet-bomb the story? Will it drag on for a couple of weeks? Not clear at this point.

But you can feel the journalistic pulse quicken in a way it never does when we have to debate which candidate has the better health care plan.

As a reality check, I watched the network newscasts. They all led with Hurricane Ivan. When they got around to it, both NBC and ABC questioned whether the documents obtained by CBS are real. On Fox, Fred Barnes said they're fake.

This is what the campaign has come to--investigating whether typewriters had "proportionally spaced fonts" and the superscript to type a small "th" 30 years ago.

"A day after reports that President Bush received preferential treatment during his time in the Texas Air National Guard," says the Los Angeles Times, "the controversy raged on in the presidential race Thursday as Bush's critics suggested he lied about his Vietnam-era record and defenders accused Democrats of fueling baseless attacks.

"As both sides fought over the nature of Bush's military service more than 30 years ago, experts raised questions about the authenticity of documents that a day earlier had cast a shadow over Bush's performance as a pilot and first lieutenant in the Texas Guard.

"Forensic authorities said that critical memos that CBS News said were written by Bush's squadron commander in the early 1970s might not be legitimate -- the product of a modern-day word processor and not a Vietnam-era typewriter that Bush's commander would have used."

If it's a scam, I'd sure like to know who did it.

The New York Times cites the colonel's son:

"A day after memos emerged suggesting that George W. Bush received favorable treatment when he was in the National Guard during the Vietnam War, the son of Mr. Bush's squadron commander said he doubted the authenticity of some of the memos his father was said to have written.

"The White House, meanwhile, for the second day in a row dismissed renewed questions about Mr. Bush's service as 'recycled' and said they were part of a 'coordinated attack' by Senator John Kerry, Mr. Bush's Democratic opponent in the presidential campaign, and his associates.

"The new fracas over Mr. Bush's service began after CBS News and its program '60 Minutes'' reported on four memos they said were from the personal file of Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, who died 20 years ago. The memos said that Mr. Bush had disobeyed a direct order to go for a physical in 1972 and that Colonel Killian had felt pressure to 'sugarcoat'' Mr. Bush's record.

"In an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, the officer's son, Gary Killian, said he doubted that his father had written some of the memos. 'I am upset because I think it is a mixture of truth and fiction here,' Mr. Killian said. CBS said in a statement that it stood by its story and the memos' authenticity."

Here's the Washington Post version.

One overlooked fact: CBS talked to Killian's former superior, who says the late colonel told him some of the same things about Bush that are in the memos.

By the way, the questions about the memos were raised early yesterday by Power Line, a blog put out by three attorneys.

The Boston Globe deconstructs Kerry's strategy:

"Democrats launched a new round of criticism yesterday aimed at President Bush's character, accusing the incumbent of skirting his National Guard service requirements during the Vietnam War and charging that such behavior was similar to Bush's ''dishonesty" in justifying the invasion of Iraq

"Campaign advisers to Democratic presidential contender John F. Kerry said he will remain publicly above the fray, sticking to criticism of Bush's leadership -- as he did in a speech in New Orleans yesterday in which he compared Bush's policies to racist 'Jim Crow' laws.

"The Democratic National Committee and military veterans will take the lead in questioning the president's Guard service in the late 1960s and early '70s, Kerry's aides added.

"For the second day in a row, the Democratic National Committee held a conference call with reporters on newly disclosed documents about Bush's service, with Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa and Richard Klass, a retired US Air Force colonel, repeatedly questioning the incumbent's 'character' and 'honesty.'"

Josh Marshall gets physical with Bush:

"Dan Bartlett . . . is sticking to the claim that there was no reason for President Bush to show up for the flight physical in question because it was no longer relevant to the duties he was performing (or not performing). But the records published by CBS . . . show Bush received a direct order to submit to that physical by a given date and refused or failed to do so.

"Bartlett seems to be saying that it doesn't matter that Bush didn't follow the order because the order didn't make any sense.

"Now, I'm no military man. But aside from orders that contravene the laws of war, the Geneva Conventions or the US constitution, I don't think an officer or an enlisted man is allowed to disobey an order just because he comes up with some logic by which he decides the order doesn't really make sense. An order is an order, right?. . . .

"And here we get down to a specific and perhaps touchy point. Why wouldn't Bush show up for that physical? An Air Force pilot's physical is a bigger deal than the one civilians get on a routine basis. But still, it's not that big a deal. Even if he didn't think it was necessary, why disobey a direct order to get around it?"

Andrew Sullivan, while noting the blog traffic that says CBS's Killian documents may be forgeries, says:

"This isn't getting any prettier, is it? But it's always been obvious that, during Vietnam, George W. Bush benefited from the soft affirmative action of pedigreed privilege. The CBS-recovered forms are pretty devastating in this respect, I'd say. . . .

"You've got that and the guy who pulled the strings to get Bush in the Guard saying he's now ashamed of what he did. Now: I hate this kind of sleaze. But the Bush campaign's attack on Kerry's military service makes it all sadly legit. Is there a real, substantive response to this (and I don't mean sliming Barnes as a Democrat)? Are the forms forgeries? Is Barnes lying? I'd be more than happy to read (or run) a cogent, factual rebuttal."

The New Republic's Ryan Lizza also zeroes in on the late colonel Killian:

"To me, the most overlooked and most important new detail in these memos comes next. Killian writes, 'I advised him of our investment in him and his commitment.' It's often forgotten that even if Bush had gone off to Alabama and served honorably by showing up for all his drills, he was still walking out on a sworn commitment he made to the Guard. The government spent a vast sum of money training Bush to become a Texas Air National Guard pilot, a highly coveted position in 1968 that saved Bush from Vietnam, and in return Bush promised he would fly for the Guard for as long as possible. Don't believe it? Here's the sworn statement Bush signed when he started his service:

"I, George Walker Bush, upon successful completion of pilot training plan to return to my unit and fulfill my obligation to the utmost of my ability. I have applied for pilot training with the goal of making flying a lifetime pursuit and I believe I can best accomplish this to my own satisfaction by serving as a member of the Air National Guard for as long as possible.

"That's what Killian meant when he advised Bush of 'our investment and his commitment.' But Killian, the memos show, starts to realize that his moral suasion is useless. Bush has already started maneuvering around him and Killian knows he's getting rolled."

Rush Limbaugh tees off on Ben Barnes (the former Texas lieutenant governor who's now sorry he let Bush into the Guard) and the media:

"He's a leading Kerry fund-raiser, a huge Democrat lobbyist. He's changed his story many times under oath. He's following the footsteps of John Kerry in terms of not being able to keep the story straight. He's a Kerry fund-raiser. And remember when the Swift Boat Vets came up there was this developer in Texas. He was a Bush fund-raiser. That disqualified anything the Swift Boat Vets said, according to the media. But tonight, we're going to get, in fact, 60 Minutes alone [Wednesday] will air its fourth anti-Bush hit job so far this year, if you count all the books, the Richard Clarkes and the Bob Woodwards and the Bill Clintons, and 60 Minutes has yet to touch the Swift Boat Vets for Truth."

How exactly did the Woodward book (which the White House touted on its Web site after the president's interviews with the author) and the Clinton book (where Dan Rather quizzed the ex-prez about Monica) qualify as anti-Bush hatchet jobs?

"The CBS Evening News has condemned and smeared the members of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, but they have not done a story on them on 60 Minutes, and yet this is going to be the fourth hit on that program this year. And, of course, it's Bush National Guard day. The press is just all excited. We can talk about Vietnam again, because this time it's how Bush was supposedly AWOL."

Some new polls, beginning with The Washington Post:

"President Bush emerged from his New York convention with a solid lead over Democratic challenger John F. Kerry, strengthening his position on virtually every important issue in the campaign and opening up a clear advantage on many of the personal characteristics that influence voters in presidential elections, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

"For the first time in a Post-ABC News poll this year, a majority of probable voters say they plan to vote for Bush. Among those most likely to vote in November, Bush holds a lead of 52 percent to 43 percent over Kerry, with independent Ralph Nader receiving 2 percent of the hypothetical vote."

Fox has a much tighter race:

"Two months before Election Day, the poll finds Bush receives the backing of 47 percent of likely voters and Kerry 45 percent. When independent candidate Ralph Nader is included the results are essentially unchanged: Nader three percent, Bush 47 percent and Kerry 43 percent."

Is Kerry in trouble? The Philadelphia Inquirer examines the handwringing:

"Democratic lawmakers and state party leaders say Sen. John Kerry's presidential candidacy is now at a turning point similar to the one he faced last fall when his primary campaign was foundering.

"His sagging poll numbers, lukewarm appeal to independent voters, and a stance on Iraq that many Democrats find baffling are raising questions as to when Kerry will display his reputation as a top-notch closer.

"Most believe that with seven weeks before Election Day there is still plenty of time, but they say Kerry must appeal to voters as someone with more to offer than not being President Bush."

Could the White House assault be boosting one of its least favorite authors?

"A Republican attack on author Kitty Kelley's forthcoming biography, 'The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty,' is helping to build advance demand for the title scheduled to hit bookstores Tuesday," says the Wall Street Journal.

"At a time when political books are leading the ranks of nonfiction bestsellers, 'The Family' is expected to be one of the biggest titles in the critical fall season. Bookseller Borders Group Inc. yesterday ordered more copies of 'The Family' based on the media attention the book is receiving. 'We expected it to be a big seller, but now we want more,' said Mike Spinozzi, Borders chief marketing officer."

Copies now in print: 720,000. And No. 3 on Amazon this morning.

David Frum weighs in on Ms. Kitty:

"Things have gotten pretty bleak if the Dems are counting on Kitty Kelley to save this election for them. But yes, that does seem to be the plan. Kelley is to launch a new book next week featuring all manner of lurid stories about George W. Bush and his family. No matter that Kelley has proven herself one of the least reliable writers in America. No matter either that all of these stories have been circulating for years -- and have all collapsed of their own weightlessness. Nonetheless, Kelley is going to get the full benefit of the anti-Bush publicity machine, including three back-to-back interviews on the Today show.

"That reception should sell books and please Kelley's publisher. But will it turn the election? One very much doubts it. Unfit for Command damaged Kerry because it cast doubt on his central qualification for the presidency: his Vietnam record. But George W. Bush has repeatedly and emphatically confessed that he misspent much of his early life. Kelley's allegations -- even if credible, which they are not -- do not up-end the public's understanding of the kind of man George W. Bush is. It was shattering to be told that Kerry was not the hero he told us he was; it is far from shattering to hear that George W. Bush drank too much beer and chased too many girls before his mid-life moral crisis and religious conversion. Kelley's imaginary additional details may titillate some gullible readers, but they won't change many voters' minds."

In fairness, he hasn't seen the book yet, and neither have I.

Uh-oh: This is not going to be a great help to the Democratic nominee:

"LANCASTER, Pa. (AP) -- Teresa Heinz Kerry says 'only an idiot' would fail to support the health care plan proposed by her husband, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry."

Does he dare tell her to shove it?

Mickey Kaus compares and contrasts the NYT editorial page and Michael Kinsley's LAT editorial page on the subject of Cheney:

"The Los Angeles Times editorial page--under new management!--fails to go along with the current Democratic attempt to get all outraged at Dick Cheney's comment that 'if we make the wrong choice then the danger is that we'll get hit again.'

"The war on terrorism is the central issue in the campaign, and both parties' candidates have various points to make about it. But the issue boils down to one question: Which candidate would do the best job, as president, of making sure that we don't 'get hit again.' That is what people really care about. Sens. Kerry and John Edwards have been criticizing President Bush's performance on terrorism since 9/11 and promising to do a better job at it if given the chance. In doing so, they surely mean to suggest that the risk of another terrorist attack will be greater if Bush and Cheney win the election. A vote for George W. Bush, in other words, is a vote for more terrorism. Or if Kerry and Edwards don't mean that, it's hard to know what they do mean.

"Compare and contrast with the huffy fatuities of Gail Collins' New York Times ed page, which declares that Cheney had 'stepped across a line' by discussing 'the danger' of getting hit--but then feels free to charge that '[t]he danger might be a bit less if the current administration had chosen to spend less on tax cuts for the wealthy and more on protecting our ports.' Why can the Times say the administration has increased the danger but Cheney can't make his arguments that the administration has reduced the danger? Isn't that what a discussion of the actual major issue of the campaign looks like?"

Of course, Cheney's folks have been offering that's-not-what-he-really-meant guidance to reporters--while not backing away from the overall charge.


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