George W: The Unexamined Man

Pity historians of the future; they will puzzle over the cause of the year 2000 election crisis. Was it the "Nader Factor?" That voters trusted George Bush's leadership abilities? Scholars will hope to find answers by studying the media coverage, but they will find this: One of the vital topics discussed in the weeks before the election was whether Rolling Stone magazine had airbrushed Al Gore's crotch.

It's not been a proud year for the American media. Reporting was superficial; the candidates were allowed to completely define the agenda. Not only was Nader kept from the debates, but his questions about corporate influence were blacked out as well. And where do either Bush or Gore stand on the $1.3 billion aid package given to Colombia to fight the Drug War? We don't know -- that's just one of many issues that were never raised by the press.

With the election so close, any question of media bias is magnified -- and there is certainly evidence that there was a significant tilt towards George Walker Bush. A study released last week by the Committee of Concerned Journalists found that recent stories about Gore were almost twice as likely to be negative. During key weeks before the election, Gore's positive coverage was 13 percent compared to Bush's 24 percent -- and these dismal figures even came before giggling about the sexy Rolling Stone cover and Gore's "national endowment."

This study continues similar research conducted during the primaries, which also found that the American press treated Bush far better than Gore. The Texas Governor was cast as a moderate and "compassionate conservative" while the Vice-President was a liar tainted by scandal.

Put the two studies together and a troubling picture emerges. Besides continuing a year-long trend critical of Gore, they show the press avoids the issue key to the Bush candidacy -- his character. The new study found that 11 percent of stories in the big national papers mentioned Bush's character, but it was only a topic four percent of the time in regional papers. Television particularly avoided the issue.

But in George's closet are skeletons rattling. Their bones raise questions about his skill for making good decisions, and ask if he has skirted the law -- or even committed crimes.

Where Was George?

There are several odd gaps in Dubya's past, but there is no more fuzzy period than the year from May 1972 to May 1973. In April of '72 he began drifting away from military service, although there were still two years remaining in his hitch. Bush apparenly didn't report once for duty for over seven months, even skipping his mandatory annual physical. They call this AWOL, say critics.

The story goes that Junior transferred to the Alabama National Guard in mid-1972 after Jimmy Allison, a drinking buddy of his and a former advisor to Bush pere, recruited Junior to help in a political campaign in that state. Bush worked on the campaign, certainly, but there's no evidence of him at the Alabama air base. Retired base commander Brigadeer General William Turnipseed has stated that he's "dead-certain [Bush] didn't show up," and no one -- including Bush -- can say what he supposedly did there. A group of veterans are currently offering a $3,500 reward for anyone who can verify his presence at the base.

Once he apparently returned to the Texas National Guard in early 1973, he also kept a low profile -- so low, in fact, that his immediate superiors filed a report in late April stating that they thought he was still in Alabama.

There are two ways to look at this military record. Bush defenders say that he was honorably discharged from the Texas National Guard -- end of story. Others angrily see Bush as a slacker who ducked even the lightweight service that spared him from the Vietnam War.

Although these charges are far more serious than Clinton's "draft dodging," the press has shown only tepid interest. The Boston Globe first raised questions about his National Guard service five months ago, but little attention was given. Only the Globe mentioned the angry vets who have the bounty waiting for anyone who comes forward with proof of Junior's Alabama days.

Then with few days remaining before the election, the Gore camp made a feeble attempt at raising this issue. Democrat Senators Bob Kerry (Nebraska) and Daniel Inouye (Hawaii), both decorated vets, tried to press Bush. "Where were you, Governor Bush?" Inouye asked a small rally via phone. "What about your commitment? What would you do as commander in chief if someone in the Guard or service did the same thing?"

It appeared that the story was starting to gain traction. The Chicago Tribune picked up the Globe story, and new articles questioning his service record appeared in both the New York Times and Washington Post.

But then the DUI story hit the press.

1,000 Pints of Lite

The now famous drunken driving conviction came in 1976, when Dubya was 30 years into his four-decade "youth" (always one of the oddest Bush conceits, it suggests that he expects to outlive a redwood tree).

The way that this story was uncovered should dispel any doubts about the media's kid glove handling of Dubya. Here was a story that any cub reporter could have uncovered by walking into the courthouse at Kennibunkport, home to the famous Bush family compound -- but not one member of the press had bothered to ask a clerk.

The DUI story invited the press to raise a very significant issue: Is George W. Bush an alcoholic? Bush had always excused his drinking with the now famous "young and irresponsible" shrug and wink. When pressed, he would add just that he didn't believe he was "clinically alcoholic." But most Americans would be shocked to learn that the next president spent much of the 1970s on a barstool. Stories abound: of the missing year of May 1972 to May 1973 (see item above), one of the few ancedotes that survive shows Dubya doing a little recreational drunk driving with brother Marvin at Christmastime. Nor did the 1976 DUI change his behavior. He continued drinking heavily for another decade, and went on a two-month binge after losing his bid for Congress in 1978. Wife Laura took to scattering AA books around the house hoping that Junior would take the hint.

Press reaction to the DUI story was mixed. According to a Poynter Institute analysis that week, newspapers downplayed it. Many buried a smallish item inside the paper with other campaign news. Newspapers such as the Washington Post and SF Chronicle placed it on the front page, but not as a lead story. On TV it was a bigger story; the Poynter summary notes that "over and over Friday, television journalists called the DUI story a 'bombshell.'"

But the press made little effort to put the story into the context of his history of problem drinking. Instead, they accepted the spin from the Bush campaign -- that revelation of the DUI was a last-minute dirty trick by the Gore camp. Well-trained to stay on-message, Bush held a brief press conference that night. No fewer than five times in the quick Q&A he noted that it was "interesting" that his arrest was being exposed less than a week before the vote. He mentioned that even more than his daughters, although he insisted he concealed the incident to protect them.

Why now, four days before an election? [...] I do find it interesting that it's come out four or five days before the election... I find interesting that four or five days before the election is coming to the surface ... It was 24 years ago, and that's the interesting thing about this. Here we are with four days to go in the campaign and we're discussing something that happened 24 years ago... I think the interesting thing is that why five days before an election, all of a sudden it pops...

His misdirection worked. By the end of the day, two soundbites dominated the news: Bush admitting again that he had made "some mistakes" and Gore denying that his campaign had anything to do with the story. By the next day, both print and broadcast pundits were suggesting that the story would "backfire" on the Democrats, cementing the implication that Gore had a hand in the story.

Bush won, and not only by hiding his boozy past. The weekend excitement over the DUI arrest effectively killed interest in the holes in Junior's military record. Two days before the election Senator Kerry tried to raise the AWOL questions again on NBC's Meet the Press, but no one cared. Only one national newspaper, the Dallas Morning News, even mentioned the Senator was on the show.

Harkengate

Even if you wave off Bush's personal scandals and agree that he deserved a "Get Out of Jail Free" card for any possible crimes and misdemeanors committed before his 40th year, a troubling legal incident haunts: The Harken stock deal.

Eyebrows in the oil industry were raised in 1990 when a nearly unknown company named Harken Energy won exclusive offshore drilling rights for Bahrain. Although the company had never drilled offshore (much less in the Persian Gulf), it did have one advantage: director George W. Bush.

Junior has always insisted that Harken had no extra advantage because his pop happened to be President of the United States at the time, and he may be right; Bush had his own ties to the Arab nation through mutual friends at BCCI, the international bank that became famous for money laundering and fronting criminal activity worldwide.

The Bahrain contract was announced in January, 1990. In July, Bush sells over half his stock. Three months later, Iraq invaded Kuwait. The value of Harken stock plunged; stock advisers had warned that the company was heavy in debt and betting everything on the Bahrain deal. (The company eventually failed, after drilling dry wells the next year.)

Bush's stock deal netted him a profit of $848,560. Required by law to promptly report the sale to the Securities and Exchange Commission, he waited eight months to file. The SEC investigated and found that Bush knew that the company was expecting losses in the next quarter, but Junior's defense was that he didn't know the losses would be so bad. And besides, he was "selling into good news" -- the same company reports estimated profits in the very near future after this bumpy quarter.

The SEC decided not to pursue the case against Bush (he wasn't even questioned by investigators), but noted that he had also not been exonerated. Dubya had again escaped criminal charges.

Questions of illegal insider trading aside, the importance of the Harken case is that it shows how much Junior traded on the family name and connections.

Immediately before Harken, Bush was CEO of another ailing oil drilling firm that was co-owned by a family friend. That company merged with Harken, which was mostly funded by top GOP contributors. Junior was investigated by the SEC (headed by another Bush appointee) whose general counsel had helped Dubya buy the Texas Rangers baseball team only a few years earlier. And then there was the big question about inside knowledge: Did the son of the President of the United States know that Saddam was about to invade Kuwait -- which would inevitably lead the Harken deal to collapse?

There was a flurry of media interest in the Harken case starting in early September, when the Dallas Morning News and Associated Press obtained new SEC documents showing Bush knew that the company was in deep trouble when he dumped most of his stock. Except for the Dallas paper, the story never escaped the business pages or campaign- in- brief columns in the few lone papers where it was mentioned. But at least the story wasn't censored outright -- as apparently happened with a story in late October.

CNN Standards and Practices

Someday there will be a dictionary with an entry for "loose cannon" that contains a picture of a grinning man. That fellow will be Larry Flynt.

It's easy to see why the producers of CNN's Crossfire invited Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt to the October 20 show: The topic that night was Internet pornography. But at the end of the live TV show, host Robert Novak turned to Flynt and said, "Mr. Flynt, never let it be said that we censor any of our guests here on Crossfire, and you said you wanted to talk about the election. Tell me what you wanted to say."

Flynt shocked them by declaring that anti-abortion Bush played a part in a girlfriend's abortion back in the 70s. "I just think that it's sad that the mainstream media, who's aware of this story, won't ask him that question when they were able to ask him the drug question without any proof at all, and we've got all kinds of proof on this issue," Flynt allegedly told the nation. Wait -- Flynt "allegedly" said? Can't this be verified by the transcripts and video that CNN always posts to the Internet? Unfortunately, no; the network first expunged just the comments from Flynt, then yanked the entire program from the archive within 48 hours (bushwatch.com says it has the missing transcript and other material purged by CNN).

The merits of Flynt's claim aside, it was an extraordinary act of censorship by CNN. The bushwatch.com watchdogs first noticed it, followed a few days later by liberal San Francisco talk radio host Bernie Ward. Columnists for both the SF Examiner and Chronicle ran items. The Chronicle quoted a CNN rep that the program disappeared because Flynt's allegations were "unsubstantiated and harmful."

Flynt also complained to the Chronicle that no one wants to listen to him: "I'm not dropping names, but one of the mainstream media giants said they don't want to be accused of sabotaging an election in the home stretch. I never heard such a wimpy answer in my life."

CNN afraid of unsubstantiated allegations? Newspapers timid of sabotaging the election? My, what a difference eight years makes. In the final 3-week stretch of the 1992 campaign, hundreds of newspaper, magazine, and wire service stories routinely dropped the name of Gennifer Flowers, the supposed ex-mistress of candidate Bill Clinton. (CBS even worked a soundbite from her into an "Eye on America" segment on children's election views.) In those weeks all the major CNN news programs -- Evans & Novak, Capitol Gang, and particularly, Crossfire -- were eagerly gossiping about the highly controversial taped conversations between Gennifer Flowers and candidate Bill Clinton. And let's not forget that it was CNN that started it all by infamously broadcasting live Flowers' January 27, 1992 press conference to promote her "I loved Bill" confession in the Star supermarket tabloid.

Does Flynt have any evidence to back up his charges? He claims to have four affadavits from girlfriends of the woman, and says he knows the name of the doctor who performed the procedure -- but won't publish them unless she's willing to go public. It sounds like a dodge, but remember that last year Flynt also exposed sexual peccadillos of House impeachment manager Bob Barr and Almost-Speaker Bob Livingston. Give this to Larry Flynt: Once the man starts waving his affadavits, he ain't been wrong yet.

Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal
{{ post.roar_specific_data.api_data.analytics }}
@2022 - AlterNet Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. - "Poynter" fonts provided by fontsempire.com.