72 Minus 64 Equals … 6?

Okay, we’ll grant the point: It isn’t always easy being a reporter these days. President Bush’s National Guard record is confusing, and the White House did not make things any easier yesterday when it released fuzzy microfiche images of President Bush’s 30-year-old pay stubs that looked like a wet bar napkin left to dry in the sun.

Still and all, doing a little basic arithmetic shouldn’t be tying the supposed cream of the nation’s press corps in knots. Unfortunately, it is. Thus, the consistent misreporting on the question of exactly how many months early President Bush received his discharge so he could attend Harvard Business School in Cambridge, Mass.

This morning’s New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Washington Post all ran stories stating that President Bush received permission to leave the National Guard six months early.

On the other hand, today’s Los Angeles Times reports that Bush was discharged eight months early. Moreover, when The Boston Globe originally broke the story in 2000 they reported eight months, and they have held to that number in more recent articles.

So … who’s got it right and who’s got it wrong? In brief, the key dates are:

May 27, 1968: Bush’s application to enlist in the Air National Guard is approved. His commitment is for six years.

July 14, 1968: Bush begins basic training in Texas.

September 18, 1973: Bush is placed on inactive duty after he receives permission to transfer to reserve status.

October 1, 1973: Bush is honorably discharged.

According to Lt. Col. John Stanford, public affairs officer for the Texas Air National Guard, the official Report of Separation and Nature of Discharge form (also know as a “NGB 22”) effective October 1, 1973, states that Bush served “five years, four months, and five days” prior to his “early out” honorable discharge. The math is pretty easy, here: Bush was discharged 7 months, 25 days early, or nearly eight months before his six-year commitment was set to end.

The verdict: The Boston Globe and Los Angeles Times are right, and The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Chicago Tribune are wrong.

We suspect that the “six month” virus spread after it was included in an Associated Press story on February 8, 2004. The incorrect number has since been included in a timeline that AP has distributed to its members.

Meantime, another question has gone unasked: Did the military also give Bush credit for seven weeks of time that he did not serve on the front end of his term of duty?

If the number of days Bush served on the NGB Form 22 is correct, then Bush’s six-year commitment was set to end on May 27, 1974. This in turn means that May 27, 1968, the day that his application for enlistment was approved, was counted as his first day of service. This struck Campaign Desk as odd; Lt. Col. Stanford told us that service for a typical enlisted man begins upon the first day of basic training (as opposed to the day his application is accepted). Bush did not begin his basic training until over a month later, on July 14, 1968.

As for his own six-year stint, Lt. Col. Stanford said, it began the day he started basic training and it ended “exactly six years” later. But, then, he isn’t running for re-election.

Thomas Lang

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.