Peter Jennings vs. Wesley Clark vs. Michael Moore vs. George W. Bush

By Thomas Lang

Campaign Desk has received a slew of emails requesting our voice in the Gen. Wes Clark—Michael Moore—George Bush—Peter Jennings catfight. Reluctant as we are to step into this crossfire of murky charges and counter-charges, we’re here to please — so we’ll take a shot at trying to bring clarity to what has become an emotional issue.

First, a brief recap of events:

After graduating from Yale in 1968, George W. Bush enlisted in the Texas Air National Guard. By November 1969, Bush had completed both basic training and flight school. He then moved on to Ellington Field in Houston, Texas where he regularly flew F-102s. At some point in May 1972 Bush moved to Alabama to work on a U.S. Senate campaign. Bush requested a transfer to a specific National Guard unit in Alabama, but that transfer was denied. On a second attempt, a transfer to an alternate National Guard unit in Alabama was approved. However, military records, or more precisely the lack thereof, call into question how often, if at all, Bush reported to his temporary commander in Alabama. In May 1973, Bush returned to Houston and reported back to active duty until July 30, 1973, when he moved to Cambridge, Mass. His official release from active duty was dated October 1, eight months before his original six-year commitment was scheduled to end. (For more on Bush’s National Guard tour and links to various military documents check out this report from

Walter V. Robinson first broke this story nearly four years ago with an article that ran in The Boston Globe on May 23, 2000. Robinson wrote, “In his final 18 months of military service in 1972 and 1973, Bush did not fly at all. And for much of that time, Bush was all but unaccounted for: For a full year, there is no record that he showed up for the periodic drills required of part-time guardsmen.” Under Air National Guard rules at the time, The Globe reported, guardsmen who missed duty could be reported to their Selective Service Board and inducted into the Army as draftees.

At that time, Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett told The Globe that Bush “recalls coming back to Houston and doing [Guard] duty, though he does not recall if it was on a consistent basis.”

Fast-forward to last month in New Hampshire. Michael Moore, the fire-breathing liberal documentary filmmaker, endorsed Gen. Wes Clark. In his endorsement speech Moore, with Clark at his side, said, “I want to see that debate: the general versus the deserter.”

An indignant Peter Jennings of ABC brought this comment to the national spotlight last week during the final New Hampshire Democratic debate. He labeled Moore’s comments as reckless and asked the General why he did not choose to correct Moore at the time of the endorsement. In response, Clark stated he did not know the full facts of the situation, but defended Moore’s constitutional right to free speech.

At no point in the original Globe piece did reporter Robinson or anyone else categorize Bush as “a deserter.” So did Bush’s alleged absence from the National Guard constitute desertion? Only if you buy into the interpretation offered by various liberal websites across the World Wide Web, such as, which present the following unsourced definition of desertion: “absent for more than 30 days with evidence of no intent to return to duty.”

However, provision 432.130 of the Texas Code of Military Justice says otherwise. “A member of the state military forces is guilty of desertion if the member: (1) without authority goes or remains absent from his unit, organization, or place of duty with intent to remain away permanently.” Nowhere does the TCMJ specify 30 days, nor does the desertion provision (885. ART. 85.) of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Bush may or may not have reported to National Guard meetings in Alabama between May 1972 and May 1973. But there is no dispute that he reported back to duty for 36 days in May 1973, and thus, he cannot be accused of “intent to remain away permanently.” Based on that, the desertion charges are unfounded.

So, we circle back to this question: Was Clark’s failure to distance himself from Moore’s technically false charge fair game for Jennings and, later, for Tim Russert on “Meet the Press”? At first glance, we’d say it’s a stretch for reporters to expect any candidate to be responsible for every off-the-wall view espoused by various endorsers.

But in this case, Moore made his statement with Clark at his side, and Gen. Clark, who knows what desertion is and what it isn’t, stood silent. Does that justify Jennings’ and Russertís pursuit of clarification from Clark? In the end, that is an issue that has split even nonpartisan critics of the press.

Correction 1/28/04, 4:31 PM: The above post has been changed to reflect the correct title of Bush’s National Guard unit.

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Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.