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Howard Kurtz Media Notes

Excavating Bush's Past

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 9, 2004; 8:51 AM

The stuff is really hitting the fan now.

You can work all day and all night and not keep up with it.

After a month of media digging and regurgitation of who did what to whom on the Bay Hap River in 1969, we are now deep into what George Bush did or didn't do as a younger man.

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On one front: Taking a page from the swifties, a group called Texans for Truth is airing a spot questioning Bush's National Guard service. But in a conference call, the former Alabama guardsman who appears in the ad, Bob Mintz, was less than convincing about how he could be sure that W. had not shown up over the course of a year. Mintz said he reported for duty only 60 to 80 days a year and did not have the exact dates. The buy is tiny -- $110,000 in five states -- but then the original swift boat ad cost less than half a million to air in three states.

Nick Kristof nevertheless gives Mintz a nice ride in his NYT column, concluding that the prez's spotty guard service "should disqualify the Bush campaign from sliming the military service of a rival who still carries shrapnel from Vietnam in his thigh."

The Dems are thrilled. "We know that John Kerry was in Vietnam," party chairman Terry McAuliffe told reporters. "My question, Mr. President, is where were you, sir?"

On a second front: "60 Minutes" last night interviewed Ben Barnes, a former Texas lieutenant governor, who says he got young Bush into the Guard and deeply regrets it. Barnes said he acted at the request of a now-dead oilman who was a friend of Bush's congressman dad.

Dan Rather's team got some 1972 memos said to be from the squadron commander, Col. Jerry Killian, who wrote that Lt. Bush had asked "how he can get out of coming to drill from now through November." Bush was "working on a campaign in Alabama and may not have time to take his physical," and Killian thinks Bush has been "talking to someone upstairs."

In an interesting twist, White House communications chief Dan Bartlett was defending the president on Fox at the same moment he was shown defending the president on CBS. Ralph Nader then came on O'Reilly and called Bush a "chicken hawk." Harsh stuff.

This comes on the heels of the Boston Globe and AP stories questioning Bush's Guard service, which I cited in yesterday's column. Jim Jordan of the Media Fund, Kerry's former campaign manager, e-blasted the Globe story around with the headline "Proven: Bush DID Go AWOL."

Kerry, says a campaign e-mail, will address the National Guard Association in Las Vegas next week. "We look forward to hosting Senator Kerry and a speech certain to put current National Guard issues under the spotlight of the presidential campaign," said retired Brig. Gen. Stephen M. Koper, NGAUS president. Hmmm.

Front three: Bob Dole has called a D.C. news conference for today, with producer Carlton Sherwood and former prisoners of war about the documentary, "Stolen Honor: Wounds That Never Heal," dealing with Kerry's anti-Vietnam War statements, followed by a screening.

Front four: Kitty Kelley. Her forthcoming book deals not so much with the National Guard as with drug allegations involving the president's past. Sharon Bush's lawyer called me yesterday and said she flatly denies making such allegations to Kelley and has no information on the subject. You can read my report here.

Do voters care about all this? I cling to the belief that most are far more interested in the next four years than digging up long-ago dirt. But Bush partisans who reveled in every twist and turn of the swift boat controversy are hardly in a position to argue that the president's past life should be strictly off limits.

If the media spend too long wallowing in all this, though, they risk trivializing the election.

The Guard business is big news everywhere, including the New York Times:

"Vietnam-era service in the National Guard came under renewed scrutiny on Wednesday as newfound documents emerged from his squadron commander's file that suggested favorable treatment.

"At the same time, a once powerful Texas Democrat came forward to say that he had 'abused my position of power' by helping Mr. Bush and others join the Guard.

"Democrats also worked to stoke the issue with a new advertisement by a Texas group that featured a former lieutenant colonel, Bob Mintz, who said he never saw Mr. Bush in the period he transferred from the Texas Air National Guard to the Alabama Air National Guard."

The Boston Globe focuses on other wording in the colonel's files:

"In August 1973, President Bush's superior officer in the Texas Air National Guard wrote a memorandum complaining that the commanding general wanted him to 'sugar coat' an annual officer evaluation for First Lieutenant Bush, even though Bush had not been at the base for the year in question, according to new documents obtained and broadcast last night by CBS News.

"The commander, the late Lieutenant Colonel Jerry B. Killian, wrote that he turned aside the suggestion from Brigadier General Walter B. Staudt, Bush's political mentor in the Guard. But he and another officer agreed to 'backdate' a report -- evidently the evaluation -- in which they did not rate him at all. There is such a report in Bush's file, dated May 2, 1973."

It's official: Kerry is now against the war, or at least Bush's War:

"Sen. John F. Kerry escalated his attacks Wednesday on President Bush's conduct of the war in Iraq, saying it cost $200 billion that America needs for schools, healthcare and other domestic needs," reports the

Los Angeles Times. "Speaking at the Cincinnati museum where Bush laid out his rationale for the war nearly two years ago, Kerry said the president's 'wrong choices' on Iraq had 'left America without the resources we need so desperately here at home. . . .'

"Kerry's speech Wednesday also seemed aimed at regaining the offensive on Iraq after facing scathing attacks from Bush and his allies over what they portrayed as the Democrat's shifting positions on the war. The charge of inconsistency on Iraq is at the core of Bush's broader argument that Kerry lacks strong principles, waffles on key issues and cannot be trusted to lead the country."

For you state-by-state poll addicts, here's USA Today:

"President Bush holds clear leads over Sen. John Kerry in the battlegrounds of Missouri and Ohio -- states the president probably needs to hold to win re-election -- according to USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Polls.

"Kerry is ahead in Washington state and tied with Bush in Pennsylvania, swing states that are similarly important to Democratic chances for victory."

Weekly Standard Editor Bill Kristol says Kerry has now taken an antiwar stance:

"It does seem that Kerry has finally come down, this week, on one side of a debate that really does have only two sides. He has decided he's against the war in Iraq. It was 'the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time.'

"Fine. Now we have a clear choice in the presidential election. Bush went to war to remove Saddam. Kerry, it now appears, would not have. This means the choice is between the world we have now, and a world with Saddam still in power. For the meaning of saying we fought the wrong war at the wrong time, is that we would have been better off leaving Saddam in power. If John Kerry were president, Saddam would still be in power.

"So Kerry has to answer this question: Would we be safer with Saddam still in power? Would the world? What would such a world look like? Surely we couldn't have left 150,000 troops in the nations bordering Iraq for two years. Surely, then, the inspectors would once again have been expelled. And the sanctions regime was collapsing. Does Kerry then believe Saddam would not have moved to reconstitute his weapons of mass destruction? Would that have been acceptable?

"Does Kerry believe pro-American, anti-terror forces in the Middle East, to say nothing of the forces of reform in that region, would be stronger or weaker if Saddam were still in power? What would have been the global effect on American credibility if we had authorized the president to use force, as Kerry voted to do, and then backed off? And what would a Kerry administration do now? How could a President Kerry ask any young American to be the last one to die for a mistake?"

For those not paying attention, that's a paraphrase of Kerry, circa 1971.

Andrew Sullivan says the media have missed a fundamental Democratic shift:

"One other thing has troubled me, after mulling the NYC convention for a few days. It struck me that John Kerry at his convention did something politically shrewd but also historically significant. He took a reluctant Democratic base and emphatically backed the war on terror. Yes, he did not relinquish criticism of the war in Iraq, nor of the way in which the Bush administration had made the case for war. But it was not a left-wing convention, and it signaled a welcome shift among Democrats to a more war-oriented approach.

"The Republicans essentially responded by throwing back this concession in John Kerry's face. They refused to take 'yes, but' for an answer, and dredged up the divisions of the Vietnam War as a means to further polarize the electorate. Again, this might be good politics, but it is surely bad for the country. I believe in this war, which is also why I believe it is important to get as many Democrats to support it.

"But the Republicans have all but declared that this is a Republican war - and can only be conducted by a Republican president. I think they will live to regret this almost as much as the country will. And I fear the animosity and division that are already part of the cultural fabric (by no means all fomented by the president) could get worse in the coming years - to the glee of our enemies."

National Review Editor Rich Lowry comes up with a novel tactic: hitting a candidate for what he hasn't said yet:

"'He wants to take away your Social Security.' John Kerry hasn't uttered these words about President Bush yet -- but he will as his campaign inevitably sinks to the lowest common denominator of Democratic demagoguery."

I guess that's the art of preemption.

"Bush has made himself more vulnerable to the charge than the average Republican by endorsing Social Security reform in his acceptance speech at the GOP convention. Bush thus demonstrated his willingness to confront the Democratic equivalent of the Brezhnev Doctrine when it comes to entitlements -- once established, entitlements never recede, but only grow larger. Bush dares to imagine something other than a 70-year-old New Deal model for dealing with retirement. If he can create a mandate for something new, his second term could be as consequential domestically as his first term was abroad.

"The current Social Security system is on its way to becoming the WorldCom of entitlements. The Social Security Trustees estimate the program will begin running a deficit in 2018. The red ink will amount to $16 billion that year and will climb every subsequent year. Cato Institute analyst Michael Tanner estimates the program's shortfall from 2018 going forward at $26 trillion. Washington, we have a problem. Within the constraints of the status quo, there are only two solutions: cut benefits (which Kerry, of course, rules out) or hike taxes (which everyone rules out, right up until the point the taxes are hiked)."

Lowry's right about that -- and nobody much wants to talk about it.

JFK isn't finished yet, says the New Republic's Noam Scheiber, who offers some advice:

"The one thing the polls have consistently shown for months is that more Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction than think it's headed in the right direction. John Kerry still has a shot at winning the election if he can focus relentlessly on this theme. . . .

"Depending on the poll, a slight majority of voters may think invading Iraq was the right decision. But polling questions that get at the execution of the war, like the president's approval rating on Iraq, or whether the war made us safer, suggest at least a plurality thinks the execution was pretty seriously botched. (And note that the two polls I'm citing were conducted during the Republican convention, when the president's numbers should have been most inflated.)

"UPDATE: Just an example of what I mean by 'focus relentlessly' -- every question Kerry gets at the upcoming presidential debates should begin with the following construction: 'Look, it's pretty simple. If you're happy with what my opponent has done on [health care, the economy, Iraq, the environment, corporate accountability, etc., vote for him. If you're not happy about it, here's what I'm proposing. . . . ' The only way Kerry wins is if he conditions voters to think in these terms between now and the election."

That's the zillion-dollar question.

Slate's Mickey Kaus offers Kerry contrarian advice:

"I dissent from the latest campaign CW that Kerry must talk about the economy, health care, etc. for the next two months rather than Iraq and the War on Terror -- and that every day spent talking about Iraq and terror is somehow a bad day for him.

"1) The issues of Iraq and the WOT are intellectually unavoidable. They're the most important things at stake in the election; 2) Because they are intellectual unavoidable, trying to avoid them to focus on the economy calls Kerry's judgment into question; 3)They're going to come up anyway, as they did yesterday; 4) The economy's not in such bad shape -- by which I mean not that the statistics are OK, but that the ordinary lives of Americans aren't in such bad shape, despite the wishfully downbeat reporting of a cocooning anti-Bush press;

"5) Whatever shape the economy is in, it's something the voters know about. Kerry can't convince them the economy is better than they know it is or worse than they know it is. But the argument against Bush's terror strategy is one that they might not have heard. . . .

"P.S.: I agree Kerry should also talk about health care, stem cells, etc.. I just don't see where -- barring some Iraq disaster that makes the case for him -- he avoids a frontal assault on Bush's terror strategy. If you agree with Bush on terror, are you really going to vote for Kerry in order to reduce your Medicare bill?"

Finally, a fascinating New Yorker piece by David Remnick on Al Gore's life in Tennessee and what it's like to have come so close to winning the White House. Gore offers this criticism of Bush:

"I think his weakness is a moral weakness. I think he is a bully, and, like all bullies, he's a coward when confronted with a force that he's fearful of. His reaction to the extravagant and unbelievably selfish wish list of the wealthy interest groups that put him in the White House is obsequious. The degree of obsequiousness that is involved in saying 'yes, yes, yes, yes, yes' to whatever these people want, no matter the damage and harm done to the nation as a whole -- that can come only from genuine moral cowardice. I don't see any other explanation for it, because it's not a question of principle. The only common denominator is each of the groups has a lot of money that they're willing to put in service to his political fortunes and their ferocious and unyielding pursuit of public policies that benefit them at the expense of the nation."

Gore also talks about how Kerry considered challenging him in 2000.

I especially liked the moment when Gore, after having given a local speech, Googles himself and finds a small AP story and announces that he has "committed news."

Says Gore: "As a general rule, where news is concerned, if you are the president you have a traveling press corps, and if you are the Party's nominee you do, too. But with those two exceptions, outside of the Scott Peterson trial, nothing -- a speech, a proposal, something in the democratic discourse -- nothing will be national news unless it occurs within a ten-minute cab ride of downtown Manhattan or downtown Washington, D.C. Los Angeles, Chicago, St. Louis? They don't exist."


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