Seeing the Forest: Bush’s National Guard service

Today’s media discussion of the possible forgery of the Killian documents casting doubt on Bush’s National Guard service vividly demonstrates the Mighty Wurlitzer’s power to reframe a debate. 24 hours ago new evidence came out which made Bush look pretty bad, and everyone talked about it for a few hours. But the attack machine sprang instantly into action, and now we’re talking about forgery, electronic typewriters, and proportional spacing. Within 24 hours of the time the story broke, half a dozen major outlets are playing it as a forgery story.

Contrast the Swift Boat case. After the accusations had been out there for a good while, refutations started to dribble in slowly until by now the only thing still standing is the exact date of Kerry’s visit to Cambodia. But many more people heard the original smears than the refutations, and the Republican goon squads kept pumping out the misinformation anyway, so Kerry was hurt.

Furthermore, once the SBV’s started looking bad, the new Bush spin was that 527 groups are a bad thing, soft money is a bad thing, negative campaigning is a bad thing, that everyone’s Vietnam-era military service should be taken off the table completely, and that the international financier George Soros is shadowy. The main point, that a group with many links to George W. Bush got caught lying about Kerry, was lost in the fog of confusion produced by the Republican flaks. (For the record, by the way, I think that dirty politics and negative campaigning are here to stay, and that the Democrats, without making it a central issue of the campaign, should keep hammering at Bush’s Guard record, which really was pretty dubious).

The case against Bush’s Guard service was already pretty solid before the Killian documents surfaced, and if they are discredited, the case remains strong. But if the media make forgery the main story, the real issue will die. (The main story can be found in the Boston Globe, here and here in Salon, and especially at Paul Lukasiak’s site.)

I really don’t know how much the media itself is the problem, and how much it’s the campaigns. Maybe the media are so biased that the best efforts of the Democrats would come to naught, regardless. But as of right now, my belief is that the Republican’s media work (which includes bribery, intimidation and frequent threats) is just more effective than the Democrats’. Another example is the preponderance of Republicans over Democrats on the talk shows, with feeble apolitical centrists often presented as the Democratic representatives.

Even if the Democrats can’t get good coverage out of the media, at least they have to figure out a way to make some effective noise about it. For example, they should have well-drilled, effective spokesmen lined up and ready to go for every talk show, and raise a big stink if their guy is left out in favor of some lame or some conservative.

As of the morning of Sept. 10 at 8:00 PST. the forgery question is still open. Most of the triumphant blog-troll claims of last night have been shot down by now, but the killer point hasn’t been scored yet one way or another. (I have seen it argued that that the Killian documents have traits characteristic only of typewriters as opposed to word-processors, which if true would destroy the whole Microsoft Word premise of the forgery claim, but the jury’s still out on that). But this issue isn’t really very important, except for the credibility of CBS News. Because everything we know about Bush’s Guard service tells us that it was minimally acceptable at best. (As for the honorable discharge Bush continually brags about: almost everyone gets those. John Allen Muhammed, the beltway sniper, got an honorable discharge despite several serious violations of military regulations).

P.S. One thing that has happened here is very characteristic of troll argumentation: obfuscation by technical detail. When you’re arguing about gun control, for example (about which I’m basically neutral, though I take the pro-control side when forced to), you start off talking about teenagers bringing guns to school, and you end up in long arguments about how many rounds the magazines of Czech assault rifles hold. In this case, it was a lot of stuff about “proportional spacing”, etc., but there was one difference this time. As the story developed, it turned out that the trolls weren’t expert about that stuff at all, and were pulling most of their facts out of their butts. (I wonder if they were bluffing about the Czech assault rifles too.)

Update: Kos and Salon have summaries of the story. The jury’s still out.