I think thereâs no question that Wes Clark didnât do a great job fielding that question about Michael Mooreâs calling the president a âdeserterâ in the debate a couple nights ago. But I was somewhat mystified by Peter Jennings rather prejudging the question by saying there was no factual support for the charge.
Jennings said, âMr. Moore said in front of you that President Bush, he was saying he'd like to see a debate between you, the General, and President Bush, who he called a deserter. Now, that's a reckless charge not supported by the facts.â
Now, desertion has a specific meaning. It refers to people in the military who take off with the intent never to come back or who abandon their post at some moment of danger or critical importance.
Given that, it seems pretty clear that a charge of desertion doesnât apply. But Jennings seemed to imply that the president's military record was beyond question.
Right after âdesertionâ in the Uniform Code of Military Justice (article #85) comes the lesser charge of âAbsence without Leave.â And Jennings must know that during the 2000 election there was quite a lot of reporting from in papers like The Boston Globe among others that the president was repeatedly AWOL during the time he served in the Texas Air National Guard in the early 1970s.
Nor was calling the president out on this seem as beyond the pale. Just before the 2000 election, referring to a six month period in which Bush failed to show up for required drills because he was off working on a campaign in Alabama, Senator Daniel Inouye said âAt the least, I would have been court-martialed. At the least, I would have been placed in prison.â Former Senator Bob Kerrey charged Bush (Boston Globe, Nov. 1, 200 âKERREY BLASTS BUSH ON SERVICE SAYS CANDIDATE 'AWOL' IN '70S.â) with repeatedly going AWOL.
Now, as I say, âdeserterâ seems to be the wrong charge. And itâs certainly provocative. But itâs also pretty clear what Moore was referring to. And being AWOL is a pretty serious offense too. Iâve already said that much in the debate struck me as laughably tilted toward criticism not so much of the particular candidates as criticism of simply being Democrats. But this question signaled a certain hypersensitivity about criticizing the president at all.