Paul From Minneapolis

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

You Need My Opinion on Rathergate

(Written in the wake of the CBS report of January 10 2005)

This whole topic drives anti-Bush aficionados insane, or helps maintain them in that condition, because they can’t believe how The Larger Point About Bush is being missed.

So the blogger known as Wonkette says her admiration for fellow bloggers who debunked the memos is tempered by her sadness that the episode actually harmed politics, in that it helped hide from the public the fact that Bush ducked out on his Air National Guard service and got away with it.

In short the memos were fake but accurate. Profane yet sacred. Runny but chewy.

Here’s the deal. First of all, I’ve never met anyone from whom the theory of Bush’s craven desertion has been successfully hidden.

Beyond that, speaking of facts being hidden from benighted Americans: I don’t know about Wonkette, but when it comes to deciding whether I should accept the fake but accurate enigma I have to reflect that many, many Bush-haters (in my circle of acquaintance anyway) don’t understand the accurate facts very well at all.

Very commonly, too commonly for one like me requesting nothing more (or less) than debate with our head short of the clouds and our feet on the solid ground, I have met and befriended people who are all rageful that George W. Bush signed up the Air National Guard and just hardly ever showed up.

So I’ll say to just such an appalled, puppet-carrying acquaintance:

“You do know this is all about just his last year of service, right? That he signed up for a five-year commitment, spent four years fulfilling his training and flying requirements well and stoutly, and then the last year he slacked off, as the war was winding down?” (I don’t always put it that succinctly and sometimes I’m spluttering a little.)

A blank look, followed by “It doesn’t matter!” I always expect my discussion partner to start ranting then about the ignorance of the Bush electorate, but so far none have taken our shared embarrassment that far.

Now granted, maybe you know that and you're still enraged. Tremendous. The problem, for a Bush-hater, is that to a Bush non-hater that series of events doesn’t amount to much.

You want a quick summary of my understanding? (Insert good-hearted cheering from crowd.)

Bush did train and fly a lot for four years. He was far from alone in sidling away from the Guard toward the end. The war was essentially over and he had no real role to fulfill anymore, partly because of his transfer to Alabama (where they flew different jets), a transfer that was requested and approved and not weird or corrupt. Other people didn’t have to fly more because he flew less. He does seem to have made some attempt to meet the requirements that last year, and even if he didn’t I simply don’t care that much: we know that one of his souls is the soul of a privileged slacker. This is not news. In fact, you know what? The idea that he did fly energetically for four years, that actually makes me say well hey – I wouldn’t have expected that out of the guy.


Was he eased into the Guard to avoid Viet Nam? Probably. Maybe not exactly. Of course the counter-punch to this charge is that John Kerry himself only signed up for the Swift Boats when they were limited to a safer coastal mission, a mission that was then changed ("F**k!") to inland waterways. Investigate his service career in general and it’s fairly obvious the guy wanted to be “in Viet Nam” but safe. Fine, wonderful, I would have done the same thing. But you can’t serve as Yossarian and come back to run as General Dreedle.

Back to the question at hand.

The upshot of all that is where the Rathergate memos fit in. They were an attempt to prove that even within the context of privilege and slacker-hood, Bush’s behavior was unusually repellent. They were an attempt to tweak the story in a way that might matter to a certain sort of voter. Disgust among W's seen-it-all facilitators in Texas? That might mean something to a guy like me. That’s what the memos were meant to accomplish.

Assuming Bill Burkett simply came up with these ridiculous documents himself, which I think is the safest conclusion although we will never know I’d guess, you have to hand it to him on one level, a level preceding the level of skillful forgery: At least he knew what was needed, what might move the story. Of course any obsessive would know that, I suppose.

Update January 23: Reader Steve attacked this piece viciously and although I pretty well dodged him like a matador dealing with a nearly-defeated bull at its most desperate and dangerous, I have adjusted it from the original to reflect the facts of a six-year rather than five-year original commitment, and the early discharge. In addition, I have read things from Eric Boehlert at Salon (I've had an unsatisfactory exchange with him, he's a careful fact-selector, I believe) that nonetheless make me suspect W may not have acquired his transfer to Alabama in as squeaky-clean a manner as I describe. Again, though - privileged slacker, fine. And transfers and early discharges were not automatically indicative of disgusting favoritism. The Guard was sloughing pilots at that point, and nothing takes away May 1968-April 1972 in young W's career.)