WASHINGTON - Any hopes that the press would give President Bush a fair shake in the coming election were dashed this week when the White House press corps reacted to the release of the president's National Guard records like raw meat thrown into a tank of barracudas.
The controversy surrounding the president's service in the Air National Guard from 1968 to 1973 surfaced briefly during the 2000 election but quickly disappeared. It became a hot topic again during this year's campaign when leftist filmmaker Michael Moore endorsed Gen. Wesley K. Clark for the Democratic nomination (Mr. Clark quit the race yesterday), saying the election would come down to a face-off between the general and "a deserter."
Not content to let Mr. Moore's libelous accusation sink into the cesspool of oblivion where it belongs, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe then revived it - this time on behalf of another Democratic candidate. On ABC's This Week on Feb. 1, Mr. McAuliffe said: "I look forward to that debate when John Kerry, a war hero with a chest full of medals, is standing next to George Bush, a man who was AWOL in the Alabama National Guard. George Bush never served in our military in our country" - a claim that is patently untrue.
And Senator Kerry didn't do much better two days later when he responded to criticisms about the McAuliffe canard by saying on Fox News Channel's Hannity and Colmes: "I've never made any judgments about any choice somebody made about avoiding the draft, about going to Canada, going to jail, being a conscientious objector, going into the National Guard. Those are choices people make."
On Tuesday, the White House released records that show Mr. Bush put in the requisite number of hours in the period in question when he was assigned to the Alabama National Guard, while he worked on a political campaign, in 1972 and 1973.
What's more, Mr. Bush didn't sit around "with nothing to do ... [taking] turns delivering anti-war lectures," as columnist Richard Cohen described his own time in the Guard during the Vietnam War. "The National Guard and the Reserves were something of a joke. Everyone knew it. Books have been written about it," claims Mr. Cohen.
Mr. Bush, on the other hand, learned to fly one of the most difficult fighter jets of the era, an F-102 - an exercise fraught with danger. Two men from Mr. Bush's unit crashed during the period he was flying these aircraft, according to William Campenni, a retired Guard pilot who served with Mr. Bush. Nor did enlisting in the National Guard guarantee that a soldier would not be sent to Vietnam. National Guard units were sent to Vietnam.
But the White House press corps wasn't interested in these details. No, they were hungry for blood. In one of the more acrimonious press conferences in recent memory, reporters lashed out at press secretary Scott McLellan, repeatedly questioning the president's veracity and the factual record presented at the press conference.
"You keep saying he served - he fulfilled his duty, he met his requirements. You're not saying he drilled, he showed up, he attended. Is that intentional?" one reporter asked accusingly.
To which, Mr. McLellan responded. "No, he recalls performing his duties, both in Alabama and Texas. I said that in response to [another] question."
"Define that," pushed the reporter. And so it went - for 15 pages of official transcript.
This tempest in a teapot is all about undermining the president's credibility. It is being waged not only by Democrats, whose tactics are questionable but also whose motive - regaining the White House - is legitimate, but by the press as well. And that is not acceptable. When those in the press corps behave like partisan attack dogs, the public suffers.
The Boston Globe, which raised questions during the 2000 election about the president's service in the National Guard, now admits that its source of information was Bob Fertik, a founder of Democrats.com. This vitriolic Web site accuses the president of everything from drug use while in the National Guard to current insanity - for which it recommends invoking the 25th Amendment to remove him from office and actually offers a petition that visitors can sign to that effect.
No wonder Americans increasingly do not trust the media.
Linda Chavez's syndicated column appears Thursdays in The Sun.