Williams Affair: Reagan and Bush Lied about Military Records but Get a Pass

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

NBC nightly news anchor Brian Williams is under fire for repeatedly having told an embellished story of being in a Chinook helicopter that took RPG and small arms fire at the beginning of the Iraq War and was forced down. His critics, and military personnel present on the four helicopters then flying in a convoy or nearby, largely dispute his account, saying Williams arrived an hour after the Chinook that had been forced down. One eyewitness did confirm to CNN that the helicopter he and Williams were on took AK 47 fire (he is contradicted by his colleagues). Williams has in any case withdrawn the anecdote, though he played down how often he had told it.

Williams’ critics accuse him of just making stuff up, and for all I know he did. But we all know that stories grow in the telling, and it isn’t impossible that over time Williams’ memory played tricks on him. If his helicopter did in fact take some light arms fire, as a soldier present on it alleges, that is a kernel of experience for Williams’s later faulty memory. It is also suggested that the story of what happened to the lead Chinook was broadcast inside Williams’s own helicopter and that he may have lived it vicariously and then over time inserted himself into the story.

In any case, those who haven’t risked their lives in a war zone (which is what Williams did) maybe shouldn’t be so glib in condemning someone who did. His story is false; the danger was real. The anger and feeling of betrayal of the military personnel on the helicopter that was hit, on the other hand, is understandable, though at least one of them says he is ready to move on.

Many of Williams’s fiercest critics are conservatives, for whom network television news is a liberal conspiracy– a charge that is wholly unfair and untrue (otherwise we on the left wouldn’t risk a stroke every time we watch it). Worse, many of them think that Fox Cable News really is fair and balanced.

The same conservatives, however, go on idolizing Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, both of whom much more egregiously made stuff up about their military service than Williams (who never claimed to be more than a hapless civilian). The same voices that allege that Williams has been deprived of credibility by the incidents would never dream of impugning the credibility of the lying GOP presidents.

Ronald Reagan told visiting Israeli premier Yitzhak Shamir in fall of 1983 that he had helped liberate the Auschwitz concentration camp as a soldier in the European theater and had taken footage of the horrors of the camp. Later, he said, when family members questioned him as to whether those horrors had really occurred, he showed them the footage he had captured. He also told a version of this story to Simon Wiesenthal. Dan Meridor confirmed to journalist Lou Cannon that Reagan had made these assertions, and said that Shamir relayed them to the Israeli cabinet to demonstrate Reagan’s sympathy for the Jewish people.

Reagan was in uniform during WW II, but was detailed to Hollywood. He never left the United States. He sometimes maintained that he had access to classified US Army footage of the concentration camps because of his film work during the war. But Cannon shows that Gen. Eisenhower had ordered these reels shown in movie theaters in the US in 1945 and that they weren’t secret or classified at all. Reagan later denied to Cannon that he had told Shamir and Wiesenthal that story, but there isn’t much doubt that he did.

Reagan had an over-active imagination and seems sometimes to have remembered himself right into movies or newsreels he had seen. Whether he was already showing Alzheimer symptoms in 1983 (which would be scary) isn’t clear, but the problem anyway doesn’t seem to have been one of forgetting things but rather of remembering other people’s experiences as his own. Cannon, in his biography of Reagan, made allowances in a footnote, saying that “Reagan became so emotionally engrossed in the story that he told it from the point of view of the photographer witnessing the scene.”

Surely one could, if one wanted to, charitably suggest the same thing of Brian Williams. But those who most admire Reagan are the least likely to be even-handed here.

The great Joe Conason sleuthed out George W. Bush’s lies about his military service. Bush avoided Vietnam by using family connections to get assigned to the Texas Air National Guard. Many of the soldiers who died in the jungles were too poor to afford college or had no family connections (Dick Cheney took five college deferrals). The wealthy power elite could avoid service if they wanted to. Conason writes,

“In his 2000 campaign autobiography, ghosted by Karen Hughes, Bush claimed that after completing his training in the F-102 fighter plane, “I continued flying with my unit for the next several years.” That simple sentence was entirely untrue . . .”

In fact, George went AWOL and in a fair world would have been disciplined and sent off to Nam and disqualified from high public office. He was supposed to have a physical in 1972. He did not show up for it, and then just went off to work on the Alabama senate campaign of Winton “Red” Blount (where he was remembered as lazy, drunk and a boastful of his serial sexual conquests). He was in the military! Didn’t his commanding officer care where he was?

According to the Salon piece, Bush told a newspaper in the ’90s, “I don’t want to play like I was somebody out there marching [to war] when I wasn’t. It was either Canada or the service and I was headed into the service.”

Conason points out that in the Hughes-ghosted book, Bush instead asserted that “he tried to volunteer for service in Vietnam ‘to relieve active duty pilots’ fighting the war.” He of course had done no such thing, but rather had used the Texas Air National Guard to relieve himself of any “service.” And he had already admitted as much publicly, but lied in the book, which was intended to pave the way to the presidency.

So Bush lied about trying to volunteer for Vietnam (!) and then lied again when he said he “continued flying with my unit” when in reality he was sloughing off on a civilian local GOP campaign in another state and carousing about all hours instead of getting up for reveille.

So I’ll take conservative caviling at Williams seriously (however much it might be deserved on the facts of the matter) seriously only when they also denounce Reagan and Bush for their much more egregious war service lies and agree that those figures lack credibility and should stop being looked up to.

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Related video:

Washington Post: “Brian Williams: What he got wrong”

31 Responses

  1. Your title doesn’t make it clear that you’re referring to George W Bush and not his father. The elder Bush flew 58 combat missions in WWII for which he received the Distinguished Flying Cross, three Air Medals, and the Presidential Unit Citation.

    As Casey Stengel would say, you could look it up…

    • I guess you would have to read the story. The title also doesn’t make it clear that the article is not about Michael Reagan.

    • Thank you hquain! The Brits liberated Bergen-Belsen and the Americans liberated Dachau.

  2. brian williams might also have owned up to his lie. admitted he lied. explained he lied to pretend to an unearned heroism. let us also include hillary in this lying fest. remember her running for cover when being under fire at an airport.

  3. What’s the equivalent term to “affluenza” for VIP whites who lie? If Brian Williams were black, would NPR do a buff piece with “phycologist” Liz Loftus who tell us it’s “absolutely” possible Brian’s visualized things into a “genuine memory.” She even threw in Hillary’s Bosnia sniper fire as being explained by this. So it seems both male and female VIP white people has this totally understandable memories that “develop things.”

    link to hereandnow.wbur.org

    • lol…After Hillary finally decides to make it official, Brian Williams will interview “Phycologist” Liz on NBC nightly news so she can explain how her “genuine memory” “developed things” in Bosnia like Brian’s did in Iraq.

      Hillary is covering all the bases this go round.

  4. What do you think Williams should do? Is an apology enough? Should he be given a pass because he, and the rest of the American media establishment, gave one to Reagan and Bush? Or, should he resign because what little credibility he (like most American journalists and news celebrities) did have has now been “shot down?”

  5. Williams lies about being in harms way pale when compared to the lies he reported to the American public prior to the invasion of Iraq. He, Couric and Diane Sawyer all dutifully reported the Bush/ Cheney neocon lies about yellow cake, metal tubes, Saddam’s association with 9-11 the list goes on, without allowing opposing views to counter the bogus intelligence. Much like the environment that exist today concerning Iran.

    He is a $10,000,000 a year news reader who resides on the upper east side and who lives in the shadow of Robert Dryfuss, Seymour Hersh, Glenn Greenwald and other journalist who do the heavy lifting when it comes to reporting.

    • Yes. If only everyone cared as much about Brian William’s lies about Saddam’s WMD or Putin shooting that Malaysian plane down over Ukraine (and the media’s WMD-in-Iraq-like lies about Putin).

  6. I dunno, I always like to give a pass to those who ditched service during the Vietnam war. It was obvious to anyone at the time that the war served no national or moral purpose, that you could die serving no purpose, and finding any excuse to get out of the war was arguably the most moral decision.

    So Bush lied about whether he continued flying over Texas with the National Guard. Did that endanger the nation? Do you think it emboldened the Russian bomber command to consider a surprise nuclear strike on Texas? Did that change YOUR mind about whether to vote for him? Do you really think knowledge of that lie would have changed the mind of any voter? Do you really think that going awol SHOULD have disqualified him for public service?

    Honestly, as it became obvious to any draftee of the the American regime’s predilection for aggressive wars of choice, it was only a smart thing to avoid service. And the powers that be in Washington, recognized that forcing people to fight their wars only INCREASED opposition. Hence the switch to the all-volunteer force. The US now has a motivated compliant military. In the days of forced service, the populace had more sympathy for those service people that became casualties. Now, they are more likely to think “they knew what they were getting into”.

    • The Iraq war originally included Guard and Reserve units. A lot of new recruits to the Guard units did so to get college benefits, thinking if they did get activated it would be local stateside deployment. The thing with Bush and Lloyd Benson’s son that belonged to the same “champagne unit” in Houston is that their fathers supported the Vietnam War. G.W. Bush’s and his buddy Bath’s refusal to show up for a flight physical has never been explained. When Bush became Texas Governor it appears records went missing. Bush wanted a contract for the Texas Lottery the Democrats controlled. He backed off investigating for some reason. In 1970 Benson beat Sen. Yarborough on a pro-Vietnam stance in the Democrat primary. Benson then beat George H.W. Bush in the general election. Much of the Vietnam war protest was about people of privilege not facing combat. In Vietnam reporters went where they wanted. In Iraq, reporters were embedded and usually kept away from the action, but some still managed to get killed or maimed.

    • It’s true. Good point. And it’s a good precedent should the draft ever be enforced.

      If there ever comes a war when too many citizens simply refuse to fight, there’s a pretty good likelihood that that war isn’t being waged for a good reason. (then again…are any of them???)

    • The issue is entirely W’s hypocrisy in being so pro-war and psychotically patriotic and bullying towards anti-war people the entire rest of his life. At least Clinton was against the war he avoided, and Kerry went and fought and then came home and blasted the war as stupid. What W did translates to: “Rich White men order the rest of you suckers to die while they take care of business.”

    • You apologists for the draft-dodging pukes make me sick! Do you realize that most of us who served in Vietnam were VOLUNTEERS. Not draftees? As for Chicken George Bush, his cowardice is especially disgustingn in light of the fact that he sent thousands of young American patriots to their deaths in his unnecessary war when he refused combat service himself. Yeah’ people like you would’ve voted for his sorry-ass regardless of his lies, cowardice, and AWOL status but you can bet that most patriots woukdn’t.

  7. James Fallows ties in the Williams story to his Chickenhawk complaint about our attitudes to military service generally. (allow me a self-serving hat tip, since he quotes my post approvingly at the end of his piece)

    link to theatlantic.com

  8. We called them deferments, not deferrals. It’s a charged word. Also, Bush was not just AWOL, he was a deserter, and that he met the criteria of desertion is fully documented. Some people called deserters cowards.

  9. They used to hang those going AWOL during a time of war. Our world would have been much better off had the US done so.

  10. Why are so many critics lambasting Williams after giving passes for years to other major anchors who have lied to their audiences if not by commission then by omission? Consider the candidates for greatest lies of this century, those that created the war on Iraq. Now we are getting one-sided stories in the mainstream media about Russia invading Ukraine with no mention of the neocons in the state department maneuvering to oust the democratically-elected president. Consider this: “MSNBC’s Chuck Todd Says It’s Not His Job To Challenge Republican Lies” by Jason Easley – link to politicususa.com. It’s enough to keep mediamatters.org fully occupied.

    • Because it goes without saying that all lies that excuse America trying to dominate the world are patriotic, but if you personally are not officially part of the War Party (i.e., draft dodgers W and Cheney), you try to prove your manliness (/credibility) with individual acts of courage in war. As Kerry found out the hard way in ’04, this doesn’t work. Cowards become heroes by supporting war, heroes become traitors by criticizing war, no matter the truth. (If we actually needed large # of brave men to win a war now instead of killer robots, the truth about courage might actually matter.)

  11. Williams should resign. That is, if he was a journalist instead of a celebrity talking head. NBC should fire him, if they cared about their own journalistic integrity. But NBC benefitted from the greater stature given their talking head by tales of heroism so they would have to take some blame as well. It’s not news, it’s not journalism. It’s TV.

  12. Why would anyone offer up a story with a premise that other people’s lies were worse than this “News” anchor’s lies, so therefore his lies were not so bad? News anchors and journalists are under the highest standards for telling the truth or there is no point to them at all. Politicians on the other hand are assumed to always lie, and we know that.

    • News anchors and journalists are under the highest standards for telling the truth or there is no point to them at all.

      Do you really believe that? How many in the mainstream media are telling their listeners about about the expansion of NATO and the machinations of Victoria Nuland and the US ambassador to Ukraine to have the current prime minister, their “Yats,” replace the former? All the MSM talk about is Putin’s understandable reaction to threats to Russia that they label as aggression.

      There is good reason to suspect the US government has borrowed a page from US-Central America history (re: United Fruit) and is now applying it to Ukraine. “West’s agri-giants snap up Ukraine” by Frederic Mousseau – link to atimes.com

      Check the Sunday talk shows and note how there is a preponderance of right-wing and neoliberal guests and rarely anyone from the left.

      • I meant news anchors and journalists from good organizations, including “network news” and those who call themselves reporters. There is a code of ethics for journalists and rules they need to follow. Much of the mainstream media is just opinion but they don’t call themselves journalists either, or shouldn’t. Brian Williams calls himself a journalist and he clearly shouldn’t. Sunday talk shows have nothing to do with journalism. “Talk” is opinion. News broadcasts are supposedly facts. Brian Williams was supposedly giving us facts, but he also gave us a lot of entertainment and opinion, for which he should be fired. If he wants to be an entertainer he should join The Daily Show with his buddy Jon Stewart.
        Yes obviously American media is a bunch of propaganda. That is different than what Williams was doing, inserting himself into stories and lying about his grandiose participation in his stories.

  13. Put me down as not caring that much about politicians lying (since that’s pretty much part of the job description), but being much more concerned if a journalist does it, since we have to rely on them to tell us what’s going on in the world.

  14. At least now it’s official–the mainstream media lies, just like politicians. The difference is that the public expects reporters to be more honest than politicians, which is a curious expectation, given all the lies broadcast during the run-up to recent wars.

  15. The article states that “The great Joe Conason sleuthed out George W. Bush’s lies about his military service,” and links an article from 2010.

    Walter Robinson of the Boston Globe printed the facts in 2000, before the election. Of all the so-called “free press” in this country, only the Tucson Star and the Tulsa World joined him.

    Shame on Joe (who has done great reporting on, notably, Whitewater) for not mentioning Robinson. Let’s not join him in forgetting the Globe for being the only major newspaper to tell the truth before the 2000 election.

  16. Perhaps in the past Williams absorbed a lesson from Somerset Maugham who suggested it is permissible to ignore the facts if it improves the telling of the tale.

  17. All the talk about Williams seems to be focused on his fictional account of a helicopter ride. What about the reports he relayed from Iraq about the war? Were they truthful or did he retail the military’s version?

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