What Is Bush Hiding?
By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, September 21, 2004; Page A21
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It is to be welcomed that President Bush wants to clear up questions
about his National Guard service. He wants more details out there, and
good for him. This story should be laid to rest, and the one person who
can do it is named George W. Bush.
Up to now, Bush has been interested in a rather narrow aspect of the
story. He wanted Dan Rather and CBS News to come clean about whether
they used fake documents in reporting on the president's Guard service
back in the 1970s.
"There are a lot of questions and they need to be answered," Bush told
the Union Leader in Manchester, N.H., last week. "I think what needs to
happen is people need to take a look at the documents, how they were
created, and let the truth come out."
I couldn't agree more. And apparently CBS came to the same view. CBS
messed up, and yesterday, Rather fessed up. He said the network could no
longer stand behind the documents. There will be much hand-wringing
about the media in the coming days, and properly so.
But what's good for Dan Rather, who is not running for president, ought
to be good for George Bush, who is. "There are a lot of questions and
they need to be answered." Surely that presidential sentiment applies as
much to Bush's Guard service as to Rather's journalistic methods.
The New York Times put the relevant questions on the table yesterday in
a lengthy review of Bush's life in 1972, "the year George W. Bush
dropped off the radar screen," as the Times called it. The issues about
Bush's National Guard service, the Times wrote, include "why he failed
to take his pilot's physical and whether he fulfilled his commitment to
Oh, I can hear the groaning: "But why are we still talking about
Vietnam?" A fair question that has several compelling answers.
First, except for John McCain, Republicans were conspicuously happy to
have a front group spread untruths about John Kerry's Vietnam service in
August and watch as the misleading claims were amplified by the
supposedly liberal media. The Vietnam era was relevant as long as it
could be used to raise character questions about Kerry. But as soon as
the questioning turned to Bush's character, we were supposed to call the
whole thing off. Why? Because the media were supposed to question
Kerry's character but not Bush's.
And, please, none of this nonsense about how Kerry "opened the door" to
the assault on his Vietnam years by highlighting his service at the
Democratic National Convention. Nothing any candidate does should ever
be seen as "opening the door" to lies about his past. Besides, Vietnam
veterans with Republican ties were going after Kerry's war record long
before the Democratic convention.
But, most important, there is only one reason the story about Bush's
choices during the Vietnam years persists. It's because the president
won't give detailed answers to the direct questions posed by the Times
story and other responsible media organizations, including the Boston
Globe. Their questions never depended on the discredited CBS documents.
Bush could end this story now so we could get to the real issues of
2004. It would require only that the president take an hour or so with
reporters to make clear what he did and did not do in the Guard. He may
have had good reasons for ducking that physical exam. Surely he can
explain the gaps in his service and tell us honestly whether any pull
was used to get him into the Guard.
But a guy who is supposed to be so frank and direct turns remarkably
Clintonian where the National Guard issue is concerned. "I met my
requirements and was honorably discharged" is Bush's stock answer, which
does old Bill proud. And am I the only person exasperated by a double
standard that treated everything Bill Clinton ever did in his life ("I
didn't inhale") as fair game but now insists that we shouldn't sully
ourselves with any inconvenient questions about Bush's past?
I'm as weary as you are that our politics veer away from what matters --
Iraq, terrorism, health care, jobs -- and get sidetracked into personal
issues manufactured by political consultants and ideological zealots.
But the Bush campaign has made clear it wants this election to focus on
character and leadership. If character is the issue, the president's
life, past and present, matters just as much as John Kerry's.
Dan Rather has answered his critics. Now it is Bush's turn.