For the first time in this campaign, I’m disappointed in my candidate. He’s made some mistakes before, but this is the first time he’s done something actually wrong.
Clark, asked about it later, said:
“I’ve heard those charges. I don’t know if they are true or not. He was never prosecuted for it,” and “I am not going to go into the issues of what George W. Bush did or didn’t do in the past,” and that holding Bush “accountable for his performance of duty as commander in chief” is “the issue is in this election.”
All of that is good enough, as far as it goes. Clark has, after all, heard those charges, they are legitimate matters of discussion, but Bush’s record as Commander-in-Chief is the more important issue. Exactly right.
But it doesn’t go far enough. Moore was simply wrong to use the word “deserter.” Clark, who surely knows that better than I do, should have corrected Moore’s very bad mistake when asked about it. Having failed to do so, he should do so now.
A soldier who fails to show up for duty is “Absent Without Official Leave”: AWOL. It could lead to some brig time, reduction and rank, and a Dishonorable Discharge.
Desertion is a much more serious matter. It means running away and intending not to come back. It’s a matter for a court-martial. Desertion in wartime used to be a capital offense. (Though I think that was only “desertion in the face of the enemy”: i.e., running away in battle.)
Bush’s military record is a legitimate issue, and his refusal to release his discharge papers is something the media should have been all over four years ago. His defenders continue to say that the issue has somehow been shown to be phony, without ever producing any evidence of Bush’s ever having shown up for Alabama ANG drills during the period when the Texas ANG gave him leave to work on the Senate campaign of a friend of his father’s.
But nothing Bush is described as having done even remotely approaches the military-legal definition of “desertion.” So it was completely inadequate for Clark to say that he had heard that Bush was a “deserter” but wasn’t sure whether it was true. He knows that Bush wasn’t a “deserter,” just as he has good reason to believe Bush was AWOL.
Now of course I’m not sure what Clark actually said, as opposed to what the reporter said he said, or why:
Maybe he did make the distinction, and Broder didn’t bother to report it because it would have complicated the story.
Or maybe Clark was reluctant to embarrass Michael Moore publicly for making that mistake, Moore just having done him a big favor.
Or maybe he thought, given the intolerance of political reporters for nuance, that if he said Bush’s service record wasn’t the issue, and then pointed out that the facts supported the very serious charge of having been AWOL but not the much more serious charge of having been a deserter, he would seem to be emphasizing Bush’s service record having just said that it wasn’t the issue, and (once again) unfairly be made to look inconsistent as a result of trying to make a reporter grasp a distinction.
But the bottom line is that Clark is now on record as being unsure about whether George W. Bush is guilty of a crime of which he is certainly innocent. That’s Bush-like behavior, not Clark-like behavior.
Clark needs to straighten this out.
Update This LA Times story indicates the thickness of Bush’s Teflon coating on this issue. It says that Bush had “a relatively safe posting” in the Texas ANG while Clark was getting shot up in Vietnam, but never mentions the well-documented charges that Bush was AWOL from his National Guard service, leaving the reader with the impression that Moore had just pulled the “deserter” charge out of thin air.
Second update A reader with Navy JAG experience writes to correct an error (now fixed above): a “general” court-martial is reserved for capital cases, which this couldn’t have been because the Vietnam period wasn’t technically “wartime.” Non-capital desertion is tried by a “special” court-martial.
He also reports that being AWOL for more than 30 days is often treated as showing intent to desert, so Michael Moore’s comment wasn’t completely off the wall. Still, in this case it’s obvious there was never actual intent to desert, so GWB wasn’t guilty of desertion.
Third update All the email, and the one link so far, says, more or less, “So what? Bush is a bad guy, and if he’s called a deserter when he was only an AWOL that’s not Clark’s lookout.”