Frame Game

What Did You Do in the War, Junior?

The draft issue is back. On July 4, the Los Angeles Times reported that George W. Bush avoided Vietnam by being admitted to the Texas Air National Guard with unusual speed. That same day, the Dallas Morning News presented Bush’s side of the story. Did Bush use his connections to dodge the draft? That depends on the standards by which his conduct should be measured, which in turn are the subject of a vigorous spin war.

1. Morality vs. legality. The moral argument against sons of the elite who joined the Guard to avoid Vietnam is that they jumped the line–that they used their connections to leapfrog ordinary Guard applicants, leaving those applicants to be drafted into Vietnam to die in their place. The Times focused its story on the alleged unfairness of Bush’s “quick” admission but concedes that “there is no evidence of illegality or regulations broken to accommodate Bush’s entry and rise in the service.”

Since the moral question is tricky but the legal question is open and shut, Bush’s supporters want to focus on the latter. So far, the media are obliging them. “If [Bush] didn’t do anything illegal or didn’t break any regulations, how important or serious is this allegation?” asked Tim Russert on NBC’s Meet the Press. Richard Serrano, the author of the Times piece, replied that “it’s serious in the sense that others probably had to go into the regular service because of the favoritism that he got.” But that answer didn’t cut it. Fox News’ Brit Hume concluded that “no rules or laws were broken,” and even Bush’s fiercest rival, Steve Forbes, confined the issue to whether “anything illegal was done.”

2. Preference vs. qualification. The Times constantly compares Bush’s experience to that of other Guard applicants. “Although getting into the state units was difficult for most others, Bush was soon in the Guard,” says the Times. Bush got a “special commission making him an instant second lieutenant” and “was able to jump into the officer ranks without the exceptional credentials many other officer candidates possessed.” The News adds that in the pilot aptitude section of the written test for pilot trainees, Bush scored “in the 25th percentile, the lowest allowed for would-be fliers.” In short, when Bush’s merits and treatment are examined relative to other applicants’, his story looks fishy.

Bush’s response is to shift the analysis from a relative to an absolute standard, from whether others were more qualified or more slowly admitted to whether he met the Guard’s minimum “qualifications.” “I met all the criteria, I met all the qualifications,” he told reporters who asked about the Times story July 4. His spokeswoman used the same term: “The military found him absolutely qualified to be commissioned.”

3. Treatment vs. string-pulling. Bush’s enemies want the story to be about how he was treated. Bush wants the story to be about whether he pulled strings. That’s because if your dad is the local congressman, you can get special treatment just by introducing yourself. You don’t have to pull strings. The Times says Bush “received favorable treatment,” and “doors were opened” for him. Note the passive voice. The Times found “no sign that political influence helped Bush along,” and the News adds, “Officers who supervised Mr. Bush and approved his admission to the Guard said they were never contacted by anyone on Mr. Bush’s behalf.” For the pundits, that ends the discussion. “The favoritism was all on the side of the military reaching out to him rather than anything he or his father did,” observed Hume. ABC News’ Sam Donaldson agreed: “I am sure he got preferential treatment. But what is he supposed to do? [Say] ‘My name is Gonzalez, not Bush?’ ” No strings, no story.

The question pundits are too coarse to contemplate is whether there’s a zone between passive innocence and active manipulation. The Guard official to whom Bush applied for admission told the Times that Bush mentioned his father right away: “He said he wanted to fly just like his daddy.” Bush’s spokesman pointed out that Bush, “because of his circumstances, made an ideal subject for National Guard publicity.” In short, Bush knew the deck was stacked in his favor. All he did was play the cards.

4. Location vs. job title. Bush flew fighter jets in Texas. Al Gore served as an Army reporter in Vietnam. Gore’s location sounds more manly, but Bush’s job title looks better. The Times focuses on Bush’s location, warning that he “will be asked to explain how he did not come to serve in America’s least popular war.” To underscore the Texas-Vietnam comparison, the Times notes that one of Bush’s rivals, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., “has joked that as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam he slept more soundly knowing that Bush was defending the shores of Texas from invasion.” On Meet the Press, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post, a Gore sympathizer, suggested that the difference between Gore and Bush is that one “went to Vietnam” and one “did not.”

Bush has several weapons with which to combat this characterization. Since pundits are journalists, they find Gore’s portrayal of his journalism as military service somewhat preposterous. Gore served “as a reporter, not as a combatant,” observed Fortune’s Jeffrey Birnbaum on Fox News Sunday. Gore “went to Vietnam, but as journalist, not as an infantryman,” agreed USA Today’s Susan Page on CNN’s Late Edition. Bush also points out that he tried to volunteer for a Guard program that sent several pilots to Southeast Asia. (The News indicates that he was rejected because he was clearly unqualified. Whether Bush deserves admiration for volunteering or deserves suspicion because he knew he would be rejected can be debated.) But Bush’s most effective point is that he was, as he told reporters July 4, “a fighter pilot.” Bush never had to fight, but he did fly fighter jets, and “fighter pilot” sounds a lot better than “reporter.”

5. How you served vs. whether you served. Investigative journalists and critics of Bush assume that his Guard service should be compared to an alternative scenario in which he served in Vietnam. Bush wants to highlight a different alternative–dodging the draft and ducking military service altogether–against which the course he chose looks better. In Vietnam, he told the Houston Chronicle this year, “[y]our options either were to avoid the draft or sign up, and I signed up.” After the Times story broke this weekend, Bush told reporters, “I asked to become a pilot,” “I served my country,” and “I’m very proud of my service.”

Bush has several decisive advantages on this question. Most people of his generation know someone who avoided the draft in a less respectable way than Bush did. Meanwhile, voters younger than Bush know little of the military and therefore tend to be impressed that he served at all rather than concerned with how he served. Moreover, Gore’s patron, Bill Clinton, overshadows the campaign as a constant reminder of the contrast between serving and not serving. Clinton used the Reserve Officers Training Corps to escape the draft, then backed out and never served in the ROTC. Against this background, Bush’s Guard service looks noble. “A lot of other people did not do nearly as much as he did,” argued Steve Roberts on Late Edition. “He did something honorable. At least he actually joined the military.” Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a Bush rival, agreed: “Here is a fellow that went and flew airplanes and learned to be a pilot and was prepared to go, if he had to go. That is a lot.”

Who’s winning the war over the draft? Since the talking heads agree with Bush’s competitors that it’s a “non-story,” Round 1 goes to Bush. But the contest between the pro- and anti-Bush spins is less interesting than the reality that lies between them. A pilot who flew with Bush in Texas told the News that their service was “a non-threatening way to do your military, get paid well for some long shifts, and feel good about your own involvement. … It was a cushy way to be a patriot.” Perhaps the story worth telling about Bush’s military service is not whether it was cushy or patriotic, but how it was both.