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Bush’s turn
Finally, the media turn their sights on the president. But Kerry supporters shouldn’t get too excited by the claims of gossip diva Kitty Kelley and a flawed CBS report.

THE MEDIA DO NOT cover a presidential campaign as though it were one long, seamless story. Through the eyes of the media, each campaign is more like a book, with distinct set pieces, improbable plot shifts, and cliffhangers aimed at whetting the audience’s interest in the chapters to come. In this race so far, we’ve already read "The Triumph of Howard Dean" (late 2003), "Kerry’s Amazing Comeback" (winter), "When Bushies Attack" (spring), "Reporting for Duty" (July), and "The Revenge of the Swifties" (August).

Sometime around Labor Day, the story line began to shift again. Maybe it was the boredom of having to cover the Republican National Convention, which could have been titled "When Bushies Attack II." Maybe it was a sense that Kerry’s torment had gone on long enough. Whatever the case, the battering to which the media had subjected the Democratic candidate for the previous five weeks eased ever so slightly, as new twists and turns arose that put Bush on the defensive.

It began with a sensational if dubious splash. On September 5, the Sunday edition of London’s Daily Mail offered a sneak preview of gossip diva Kitty Kelley’s forthcoming book, The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty. Kelley claims, among other things, that George W. Bush snorted cocaine at Camp David in 1989, while his father was president; that he may have helped a girlfriend get an abortion; and that his future wife, Laura Welch, both smoked and sold pot when she was a student at Southern Methodist University, in Texas. The mainstream media, for the most part, approached Kelley’s book with tweezers and rubber gloves, which probably was not a bad idea. But The Family had zoomed to number one on Amazon.com by this past Tuesday, the same day that Kelley began three mornings of interviews on NBC’s Today show.

Then, on September 7, at a campaign appearance in Des Moines, Vice-President Dick Cheney came within millimeters of asserting that Osama bin Laden wants Kerry to win. "It’s absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on November 2, we make the right choice, because if we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we’ll get hit again, and we’ll be hit in a way that will be devastating from the standpoint of the United States," Cheney said. No real surprise there. Scaring the hell out of the public has been the overriding theme of the entire Bush-Cheney campaign. This time, though, the media uproar was immediate and loud, forcing Cheney to say several days later that he didn’t really say what everyone knew he had said.

It got only worse on September 8, the day that the newspapers all ran headlines about American military deaths in Iraq topping 1000. That morning, the Boston Globe reported that Bush had failed to sign up with a Boston-area National Guard unit, as he was obligated to do, after he began attending Harvard Business School in 1973. Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett had to admit that he’d misspoken in 1999 when he’d told the Washington Post otherwise. Also, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote about a former military officer named Bob Mintz, who told a pretty convincing tale of having looked for Bush and having been unable to find him when Bush was supposedly serving in Alabama in 1972.

BUT NEXT CAME the inevitable plot twist. That night, CBS’s 60 Minutes weighed in with perhaps the most widely seen piece to date on Bush’s National Guard non-service. And the once-great news organization blew it. Dan Rather interviewed Kerry fundraiser Ben Barnes, a former Speaker of the Texas House and a former lieutenant governor, who said he — much to his sorrow — had helped Bush and other well-connected young Texans avoid combat service in Vietnam by securing them posts in the National Guard. The program also featured four newly discovered documents allegedly written by Bush’s then–commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Jerry Killian, that shed light on the future president’s failure to take a required physical while he was in the Guard, and on the special treatment he had received. Within 24 hours, though, it was clear that CBS had a fiasco on its hands. Driven largely by conservative weblogs, credible — if ultimately unprovable — allegations were made that the documents had been forged. Barnes’s own daughter accused her father of lying. And a key source backed away from his earlier claim that the documents were legitimate (see "Typecast" page 17).

Rather defended the story on his Friday-evening newscast in a performance that could have taken its name from one of Killian’s reputed memos: "CYA." By early this week, the furor over the documents had abated somewhat, as it became clear that definitive proof one way or the other would almost certainly not be forthcoming. Still, the plot that seemed to be emerging before the 60 Minutes report aired — a wide-ranging attack on Bush — may have been derailed, at least temporarily. The cover line on the current issue of Newsweek is THE SLIME MACHINE, with images of two small television sets, one featuring Kerry, one featuring Bush, each in their military uniforms. The article, by Howard Fineman and Michael Isikoff, contends that this is "the most vituperative presidential campaign since the divisive days of Richard Nixon."

Indeed it is, though Fineman and Isikoff’s construct is misguidedly evenhanded. If this campaign is destined to be fought over who did what in the 1960s and ’70s, the media need to tell the public the truth: that the claims raised against Kerry by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth have been almost entirely discredited by their own past statements, by the official record, and by what Kerry’s crew members say. In contrast, there is no question Bush knew that by serving in the Texas Air National Guard he would almost certainly avoid Vietnam. And there are reams of evidence to suggest that Bush blew off a significant part of his Guard obligation.

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Issue Date: September 17 - 23, 2004
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