The Washington Post published a lengthy article in which the premise appears to be that Republican presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a recently retired Colonel in the Air Force Reserve, is a military lightweight who never did much real service, didn’t deserve his promotions, received favor for his congressional position and traded politically on a dishonestly exaggerated service record in which he purposefully misled.
There are countless ways to write a given story. The questions here are: 1. Are the Post’s facts correct? and 2. Are the story’s implications true and accurate?
For reference, here’s a list of Col. Graham’s tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan as an Air Force Reservist and while a member of Congress:
Sen. Lindsey Graham’s Tours of Duty in Iraq & Afghanistan as Air Force Reservist and Member of Congress
May 24-25, 2015
Dec 27, 2014 – Jan 3, 2015
June 28 – July 3, 2014
Dec 28, 2013 – Jan 2, 2014
Jul 4-9, 2013
Jan 18-24, 2013
Aug 17-23, 2012
Mar 31 – Apr 6, 2012
Aug 25-30, 2011
May 30 – June 5, 2011
Jan 17-25, 2011
Aug 7-18, 2010
Apr 2-10, 2010
Aug 19-27, 2009
Dec 7-12, 2008
Feb 11-20, 2008
Aug 13-24, 2007
Apr 2-9, 2007
Aug 13-17, 2006
One might think that any story about a current presidential candidate’s alleged exaggeration or dishonesty of battle-like experience would warrant at least a mention of perhaps the oddest and most blatant case of all: that of Hillary Clinton, the Democrats’ frontrunner. While running for office in 2008, Clinton incorrectly and repeatedly claimed she faced “sniper fire” on a trip to Bosnia in 1996. She stuck by the false story even after we aired CBS News video showing that no such thing had happened.
However, the Post did not deem the Clinton case relevant to its dissection of Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham’s military service.
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As to the first question, it appears the facts of the Washington Post story are correct.
As to the second question, one could take issue with some of the Post’s characterizations of the facts. The same facts could have been presented to the opposite effect, depending on the author’s chosen take.
Six examples follow:
1. The Post article’s thesis statement was: “…a detailed examination of Graham’s military record — much of it obtained under the Freedom of Information Act — shows that the Air Force afforded him special treatment as a lawmaker, granting him the privileges of rank with few expectations in return.”
The implication seems to be that something ominous and perhaps untoward happened.
Instead, one could have written: “…a detailed examination of Graham’s military record shows that Graham was well-regarded by superiors who gave him glowing evaluations, ranked him in the ‘top 1 percent of his peer group,’ said that Graham’s ‘mastery of criminal law evidence is proven in trial after trial,’ and once stated that Graham’s cross-examination of a murder suspect ‘made Perry Mason look like a beginner’.”
2. The Post article stated: “In the Republican presidential contest, Graham is trading on his reputation as a foreign-policy expert.”
The implication appears to be that Graham may be improperly exploiting his foreign policy expertise for political gain.
Instead, one could have written: “In the presidential contest, Graham has the most extensive resume among Democrats and Republicans when it comes to foreign policy experience, military service as an officer and attorney, and assignments in hostile territory while a sitting member of Congress.”
3. The Post article stated: “In 2003, the Air Force assigned Graham to a new job: as a judge on its Court of Criminal Appeals. His workload would be unexpectedly light.”
The implication seems to be that Graham was assigned a sham job, with no real duties, as some sort of favor or privilege. However, that does not appear to be the case.
Instead, one could have written: “In 2003, the Air Force assigned Graham to a new job: as a judge on its Court of Criminal Appeals. But an airman convicted of drug use successfully challenged Graham’s unique status as both a judge and a sitting member of the Congress, forcing Graham off the Court. Graham pushed for, and received, a new assignment.”
4. The Post article stated: “Next, Graham was reassigned as a senior instructor at the Judge Advocate General’s School in Alabama. His personnel file states that his duties for the next three years were to provide ‘basic and advanced instruction in military legal practice to attorneys and paralegals.’ But there is no evidence that he ever did.”
The implication appears to be that Graham shirked his duty and misled when he listed the job title on his biography. However, it turns out Graham had opted, voluntarily, for a much riskier assignment that would take him to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Therefore, one could have written: “Next, Graham was assigned a stateside job as a senior instructor at the Judge Advocate General’s School in Alabama. But he forewent the teaching position to push for a more dangerous assignment in the Mideast: helping a task force oversee policy on detention of military prisoners.”
5. The Post article stated: “Graham buttonholed senior commanders and persuaded the Pentagon to grant him waivers to its policy” of prohibiting legislator-reservists from war zone assignments.
The use of the term “buttonhole” connotes a confrontational and possibly improper approach Graham used to garner an improper favor of some sort.
Instead, one could have written: “Normally, policy prohibits legislator-reservists from serving in ‘imminent danger areas,’ but Graham felt the contribution he could make in the riskier overseas assignment was so valuable, he successfully used his power of persuasion to convince the Pentagon to allow it.”
6. The Post article stated: “The Air Force agreed to let him deploy for unusually brief tours — between two days and two weeks — when it suited his schedule. He would travel to Iraq or Afghanistan with a congressional delegation, then stay to perform his military service.”
The implication seems to be that Graham shirked his duty, was granted inappropriate favors, and acted at his own convenience rather than in the interest of the military or the public.
Instead, one could have written: “Sen. Graham successfully balanced his demanding senate schedule and his military tours by deploying for up to two weeks at a time, often during congressional breaks and vacations. He frequently saved time and taxpayer dollars by traveling to Iraq or Afghanistan with a congressional delegation, then staying on to perform his military service.”
There’s nothing wrong with examining a public official’s service record or searching for mischief among his service files. The mistake can come if the investigation doesn’t deliver on the starting theory and the reporter fails to either drop the story or change the premise to reflect the actual revelations.
In this instance, the Post obtained Graham’s records through a Freedom of Information Act request and, instead of unearthing a scandal, found glowing evaluations. The matter from his files that they portrayed as the most damaging—that Graham held a stateside teaching title but did not teach—was not quite the blemish that the Post implied. A careful reading reveals that the reason Graham did not teach is because he opted for a more dangerous assignment: overseas duty in Iraq and Afghanistan working on detainee policy in the wake of the Abu Gharib detainee scandal. Instead of a case of a politician allegedly avoiding danger and taking the easy way out, this appears to be the reverse: Graham voluntarily putting himself closer to harm’s way as part of his military service.
So, while the Post’s facts appear to be accurate, for what many would view as unfair characterization of the facts, the article receives One Little Devil (ratings scale below). Admittedly, this is a matter of how you see it; readers can make up their own minds.