Is Bernie Goldberg Right? Had Bush "In Fact Volunteered to Go to Vietnam?"

Former CBS News journalist Bernard Goldberg is making a major claim on his website and in his appearance as a Fox News consultant on The O'Reilly Factor this week. He claims to have found "A 'Lost' Fact in the Rathergate Mess."

According to Goldberg: "Until now, the controversy over the Rather/Mapes story has centered almost entirely on one issue: the legitimacy of the documents -- a very important issue, indeed. But it turns out that there was another very important issue, one that goes to the very heart of what the story was about -- and one that has gone virtually unnoticed. This is it: "Mary Mapes knew before she put the story on the air that George W. Bush, the alleged slacker, had in fact volunteered to go to Vietnam." [emphasis as in the original]

Much of the Rathergate controversy depends upon questions about the factual basis for Dan Rather and Mary Mapes' assertions about George Bush, which were largely based upon bad forgeries that quickly fell apart as the provenance of the source material was questioned. Numerous investigators' work, including my own in the Chicago Sun-Times [Sept 10, 2004 "Critical Bush Memos on Guard Service Faked?"], concluded that the "Texas National Guard" papers being used could not have been produced on typewriters available in the 1970s. So much for any "facts" they may have contained.

But what of Goldberg's "'Lost' Fact?" What is its factual basis, and why does it deserve our attention now?

According to Goldberg: "Mapes had information prior to the airing of the September 8 [2004] Segment that President Bush, while in the TexANG [Texas Air National Guard] did volunteer for service in Vietnam but was turned down in favor of more experienced pilots. For example, a flight instructor who served in the TexANG with Lieutenant Bush advised Mapes in 1999 that Lieutenant Bush "did want to go to Vietnam but others went first." Similarly, several others advised Mapes in 1999, and again in 2004 before September 8, that Lieutenant Bush had in volunteered to go to Vietnam but did not have enough flight hours to qualify.

This information, despite the fact that it has been available since the CBS report came out four years ago, has remained a secret to almost everybody both in and out of the media ... ."

That is certainly potentially important "information," as Goldberg correctly terms it. But is it fact?

Complaining to your buddies in the service about where you would RATHER be serving is perfectly normal. I did it myself as a young lieutenant. But that is not the same as actually filling out the paperwork for a transfer. Both the report Goldberg refers to and Goldberg's own statements seem to me to go farther than the existing evidence. From Goldberg's account it all appears to be oral testimony. That is a pretty thin basis for the flat statement Goldberg is making: "Bush... had in fact volunteered to go Viet Nam." Mapes shouldn't have ignored the oral statements, clearly. But neither do they have the force of documented fact.

A transfer of duty assignment was the key plot device in two popular World War II era movies. In Mr. Roberts, Henry Fonda did a lot of complaining about his assignment too, and finally got a transfer from a transport to a warship, but he kept formally filling out the paperwork and applying until he got it. A unit commander has to pass on any application for transfer. In Twelve O'Clock High, commander Gregory Peck had to delay his pilots' filled out transfer applications procedurally long enough to build up the morale in his unit. My point is the popular culture already "knows" what a "request for transfer is," and it isn't bitching to military buddies about what one would prefer. Why doesn't an experienced journalist like Bernard Goldberg?

Bush's, or anyone else's commanding officer can state his disapproval, but he has to eventually pass the paperwork on. So there would be a formal record in Bush's file which he already produced prior to the 2004 election.

Remember, pilot training is cued to the "needs of the service." One only gets a limited choice of aircraft, if there is any choice at all, as a new pilot. And it costs a lot of money to train a pilot. The military doesn't want to retrain one on another aircraft, unless his retention in service makes it cost effective and the pilot stays on active duty long enough to amortize the additional cost.

The training for an "interceptor" role Bush flew is vastly different than the "fighter bomber" missions Bush might have been trained for in Viet Nam, since presumably he wouldn't be interested in logistics flying of transports or refueling. His F 102 type aircraft was only used very briefly in Viet Nam in an operation called "Palace Alert" and was found inappropriate to the missions there as it could not drop bombs. Bush's assigned unit, the 111th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, had as its primary mission attacking slow Soviet bombers inbound on nuke missions to the US. The F-102 was a "widowmaker" with lots of crashes. The formal reports on his performance show Bush was an excellent pilot on a difficult plane.

But that does not mean he was an ideal candidate for retention and retraining to become a hot jock over Vietnam as the war was winding down and there was already an excess of pilots. And nothing I have seen shows any interest on Bush's part to stay in the service longer than his service obligation at the time. The controversy over his taking the medical exams raised by Mapes and others was caused precisely because Bush didn't bother to take them, not because he was "AWOL" (Terry McCauliffe), but because he wanted to get out of the service and go to B school and could have cared less about losing his flight status. None of which the press (with zero military experience these days) understood anymore than they understood the holes in Kerry's "record" any veteran could see plain as day.

Much of the problem with reporting this kind of thing these days is the lack of military experience of journalists. Bernie Goldberg overreacted to a valid discovery of some sourced opinion Mary Mapes should not have ignored, a journalistic irony if there ever was one.

If Fox and Goldberg want to play this strong an angle they should directly ask Bush for a copy of any formal application he made to be transferred to Viet Nam (there is a DOD form for it... it is a normal enough occurrence in the service so that there is one pre-prepared for a request for transfer). If nothing is produced, the news story is quite a bit different than what they are running as I am sure they will agree.

I am not for giving either Dan Rather or George Bush a free ride on anything based upon rumor and verbal scuttlebutt. Bernie knows the rules of hard reporting as well as anyone. Let him apply them to himself as well as others.

He has the same challenge to meet Mapes and Rather failed. Show us valid paperwork. And in the case of any request for transfer to duty in Viet Nam by young George Bush, it should be easy to find, if in fact it exists.

As of now it is still only a supposition.