Has Basic Reporting Gone AWOL?

Just as it can’t seem to provide a coherent account of how early President Bush was discharged from his National Guard service, neither does the media seem able to figure out the story of Bush’s transfer from his Texas unit to an Alabama unit in 1972.

Here’s the real story. In May of 1972, Bush moved from Texas to Alabama to work as campaign manager for Republican Winton “Red” Blount’s senate campaign. He requested a transfer from his unit, the 111th Interceptor Squadron, to a “postal unit” in Alabama that required no active duty. While Bush’s commanders in Houston approved the request, it was rejected by Air National Guard officials at the organization’s headquarters in Denver, Colorado, and Bush technically remained assigned to the Houston unit that summer. Bush moved to Alabama to work on the campaign anyway, and in September 1972, requested transfer to a different Alabama unit. This time he won approval all the way up the bureaucratic chain, and was given a three-month temporary assignment with the 187th Tactical Recon Group in Montgomery, Alabama.

Some reporters have simply misstated the facts completely. As Bob Somerby has pointed out on his weblog “The Daily Howler,” Scott Lindlaw of the Associated Press stated on February 3 that “In May 1972 [Bush] requested and received a three-month assignment with the Alabama National Guard … ” Terry Moran of ABC News made a similar mistake that day, claiming that “In May 1972, Lieutenant Bush asked for and received permission to be transferred to a reserve unit in Alabama, to work on a Republican Senate campaign.”

Others have misled by implication. In today’s Washington Post Lois Romano and Mike Allen suggest that Bush had been reassigned to the Alabama unit in May 1972, writing that “At issue is a 12-month period, commencing in May 1972, when Bush moved to Alabama to work on a senatorial campaign. He received permission to transfer to an Alabama unit and was instructed to report for duty there.” (Romano made a nearly identical mistake in her Tuesday article).

Likewise, Tom Squitieri of USA Today implied Bush had been reassigned to the Alabama unit beginning in May, writing Sunday that “Bush was in Alabama from May to November 1972 working in the U.S. Senate campaign of Republican Winton Blunt. [sic] He was required to attend drills at an Air National Guard unit in Montgomery.”

Even Walter Robinson of The Boston Globe, who broke the National Guard story in 2000 (and got the details of Bush’s transfer requests correct) compressed the facts in a misleading way yesterday. Robinson wrote that “from June 1970 until April 1972, [Bush] flew frequently,” continuing immediately in the next paragraph, “But the following month, he won permission to move to Alabama for several months to work on the US Senate campaign of Winton Blount, a Republican. In Montgomery, Bush was supposed to do periodic drills with another Guard unit.”

While it may seem like a relatively minor point, the effect of reporters failing to get it right is to confuse the public — and the record. Regardless of what emerges about Bush’s service, the facts are already going AWOL.

Bryan Keefer

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Bryan Keefer was CJR Daily’s deputy managing editor.