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If you want to discover just how dumb your readership is, try running a parody.

In its August issue, GQ published a piece titled “Bush: The Missing Year.” A dead-serious-sounding subhead suggested that this men’s style mag was wading into Seymour Hersh journalism:

“The Whereabouts of George W. Bush During a Twelve-Month Period in 1972 and 1973 While He Was Supposedly Serving in the Air National Guard Have Become a Controversial and Seemingly Unanswerable Question. Until Now. A GQ Investigation Reveals the Unbelievable Story of What the Future Commander in Chief Was Doing Then—And for Whom.”

The “eight-month investigation” by staffer Jason Gay produced this whopper on Bush’s activities: He was serving in the “Special Undercover Missions Service (SUMS), an elite air-force agency specializing in national security and acts of espionage.” SUMS personnel, reports GQ, are bound by “lifelong confidentiality agreements,” which may account for the official silence on Bush’s whereabouts during the disputed period.

Now, if that’s not too much of a stretch, the GQ piece thereafter veers full-course into the outlandish, leaving little question about its parodic content. It claims that Bush:

trained bodyguards of Monaco’s crown prince “how to fire assault rifles while waterskiing in tuxedos”;

disguised himself as a roadie named “Bo Bannister” to infiltrate the Rolling Stones, whom the federal government suspected of un-American activities;

employed “fraternity-style gags” to disrupt the Viet Cong, including stuffing a banana into the tailpipe of the car of Viet Cong negotiator Le Duc Tho; and

could be Deep Throat.

GQ received “hundreds” of letters on its fantasy scoop, according to Gay. Some came from Bush partisans who interpreted the piece as a slam on the commander in chief. Liberal detractors, says Gay, chided the magazine for “doing Karl Rove’s job for him.”

Yet the juiciest stuff comes from all the folks—up to a third of all responders, says Gay—who failed to sniff out the parody in the story. As the unpublished and unedited examples below demonstrate, Americans never let common sense stop them from signing on to the latest conspiracy theory.

The following are summaries of actual letters received by GQ:

Applauding the “terrific expose” on Bush, one reader noted that perhaps now the public would understand why the president cannot “expose all the details of his service while in S. U. M. S. U. M.” The reader said the SUMS revelations cast a new light on the president: “George W. Bush, and anyone serving in Vietnam are heroes. Where was Bill Clinton?” asked the reader.

A particularly outraged reader asked for a congressional inquiry into the leakers of the SUMS scoop. “This is a bomb shell—a nuclear bomb shell—much bigger than Novak’s exposure of a CIA wife’s identity,” wrote the reader.

A media-savvy reader asked the logical question: Why hadn’t the mainstream press jumped on this bad boy? “Has the magazine…gotten to Bill O’rielly and some of the CNN and FOX people on this, or will this information be the best kept secret in town,” demanded the reader, who urged GQ to push the story to the “next level.”

A reader steeped in classic-rock history congratulated the magazine on its “wonderful scoop on the prez.” But the reader noted that its “Stones-related facts are a little askew,” and on the basis of this, questioned whether one of GQ’s FBI sources was giving the magazine the straight story.

A “political writer” for a publication whose name was withheld by GQ wrote in to ask for more information about the Bush-as-undercover-agent story. The writer claimed to have searched for more information online and found “nothing.” “What a startling counterpoint to Michael Moore’s perspective!” wrote the political reporter.

One earnest and well-informed reader thanked GQ for its conventional wisdom-debunking piece on Bush. However, the reader expressed concerns about the banana-in-the-tailpipe claim. “I saw Myth Busters on The Discovery channel, and they replicated putting a banana, even a potato, in the tailpipe of a car. It did not stall, but it shot it out like a blow gun,” wrote the reader.

Target Audience

KidsPost, a feature that runs on the back of the Post Style section, commonly uses fun graphics and formatting gimmicks to attract the eyes of young readers. A new advertising campaign from Target Corp. also uses fun graphics and formatting gimmicks to attract the eyes of young readers.

What happens when there are fun graphics and gimmicks everywhere? A lot of confusion. Last Friday, the KidsPost shared space with a half-page color Target ad that featured a giant crossword puzzle and the actress Jamie Lee Curtis sitting in a cartoon chair reading her latest children’s book. The jaunty ad looked so much like routine KidsPost stuff—which often includes crosswords, cartoon illustrations, and children’s-author profiles—that it all but announced a new partnership between the Post and the red big-box outlet.

Kid sleuths were left with only a few clues that the ad was actually an ad, including fine print about a literacy campaign directed at parents and what looked to be five subliminal Target symbols buried in the busy “Where’s Waldo?”–type illustration. Visual competition from the editorial part of the page included pics of Joe Gibbs, Hurricane Ivan, and a dog with really long ears. Style editor Eugene Robinson was taken aback by the ad’s appearance and asked the advertising department for an explanation. “There should be some sort of line at the top of the ad that says advertisement that labels it as an ad. I did think that that needed to be done,” says Robinson.

Post spokesperson Eric Grant calls the Target promotion a “great ad” but acknowledges the need for an “Advertisement” label to “avoid any possible confusion.”

Voter’s Guide to Post Endorsements

In its coddling of the Bush administration regarding the disastrous decision to invade Iraq, the Post’s editorial page has shown a breathtaking deference to the country’s elected leaders. On Saturday, the paper’s opinion-mongers acted locally on their global perspective with their endorsements in the Sept. 14 D.C. primaries.

The plaudits for the status quo, however, are carefully couched, so Dept. of Media’s provides a set of plain-language interpretations:

What the Post says: “The District still faces many challenges, but progress is undeniable, thanks in good measure to steady, competent and mature leadership in the city. It is in this context—and with that need in mind—that we consider Tuesday’s primaries.”

What it means: Let’s hear it for the establishment!

What the Post says: “[D.C. Congressional Delegate] Eleanor Holmes Norton is unopposed—as she should be.”

What it means: We don’t believe in electoral competition.

What the Post says: “[Ward 7 Councilmember Kevin P.] Chavous has been taking knocks for the quality of his constituent service. We have no opinion about that.”

What it means: Hell, none of us live in Ward 7!

What the Post says: “Mr. Chavous is a major legislative force on the council and was highly instrumental in helping the mayor win congressional support for a three-sector school reform initiative that will bring millions in federal funds to increase choice in public education, including charter schools, regular public schools and opportunity scholarships or vouchers.”

What it means: Imagine that—he got funding for vouchers from the Republican Congress!

What the Post says [in endorsing veteran At-Large Councilmember Harold Brazil]: “The council could certainly use another engaged legislator. But it also needs one who knows how the government works, is familiar with the city other than through a political door-to-door campaign and who doesn’t need on-the-job training in the basics.”

What it means: We’d like to see councilmembers appointed to lifetime terms.

Voters defied the Post at the polls, ousting incumbents in the three contested races.

“They got it wrong on every endorsement this year,” said Vincent Gray in his victory speech after knocking off Chavous. —Erik Wemple