Last week I criticized Wesley Clark for standing by and not protesting while Michael Moore called George W. Bush a “deserter.” As I read the law, Bush was not guilty of the extremely serious crime of “desertion,” but only of the less serious, though hardly trivial, offense of being Absent Without Leave (AWOL).
But I don’t know where Peter Jennings got the idea that the use of the term “deserter” was “a reckless charge, unsupported by the facts.” The facts amply support the AWOL charge, and a sufficiently nasty prosecutor could have tried to make out a case for desertion. (Whether the facts satisfy the elements fo that crime would depend on what it means to “intend” to remain permanently absent.)
Administratively, a servicemember AWOL for more than 30 days is posted as a “deserter,” though no one seems to know how that rule applies in the case of Guardsmen not on active duty. (Is that 30 calendar days from the first missed drill, or 30 cumulative days of missed drill?) So there might be a technical sense in which Bush was in fact a “deserter,” even if he wasn’t guilty of the crime of desertion.
I conclude that Moore was guilty of overstatement on a technical point of military law. His accusation was, however, far better supported by the facts than the silence of the mass media about Bush’s service record, or than Jennings’s dismissal of it as “reckless.”
As to Clark, his answer tonight seemed to me quite sensible: Moore is at liberty to say what he likes, and Clark doesn’t have to agree with him or disagree with him. Clark hasn’t looked into the facts and law of the case, and doesn’t intend to look into them, because he’s not running against George W. Bush’s service record but against his record as President.
Here’s how Clark put it:
I think Michael Moore has the right to say whatever he feels about this. I don’t know whether this is supported by the facts or not. I’ve never looked at it. I’ve seen this charge bandied about a lot. But to me it wasn’t material. This election is going to be about the future.
Clark has chosen, reasonably, to leave the investigation of Bush’s service record to the journalists who are paid to do the job. That we have instead journalists who assert that charges are baseless without investigating their basis really isn’t Clark’s fault, now is it?