Editors Note: Speaking from the Oval Office with
NBC's Tim Russert in a segment broadcast Sunday,
George W. Bush attempted to defuse a growing controversy
over unexplained absences during his military
service. In doing so he failed to provide any
new details that would refute the charges. Bush
simply said: "They're just wrong," he did add,
"I served in the National Guard . . . I flew F-102
aircraft. I got an honorable discharge." Bush
placed on the table the same promise he made during
the 2000 campaign when the question of his military
service arose, saying he would, "absolutely" release
additional records that would prove he served
when assigned to do so. Four years later, it's
a pledge still waiting to be fulfilled. -- ma.)
1972, George W. Bush dropped out of his National
Guard service and later lied about it. With the
media finally paying attention, will he now come
1972, George W. Bush simply walked away from his
pilot duties in the Texas Air National Guard.
He skipped required weekend drill sessions for
many months, probably for more than a year, and
did not take a mandatory annual physical exam,
which resulted in his being grounded. Nonetheless,
Bush, the son of a well-connected Texas congressman,
received an honorable discharge.
an Air National guardsman today vanished for a
year, military attorneys say that guardsman would
be transferred to active duty or, more likely,
kicked out of the service, probably with a less-than-honorable
discharge. They suggest the penalty would be especially
swift if the absent-without-leave guardsman were
a fully trained pilot, as Bush was.
National Guard record, long ignored by the media,
has surfaced with a vengeance. If the topic continues
to rage, and if the media presses him, Bush may
finally be forced to release his full military
records, which could reveal the truth. By refusing
to make all those records public, Bush has until
now broken with a long-standing tradition of U.S.
have seized on the story of Bush's "missing year,"
which was first raised in a 2000 Boston Globe
article. This week Democratic front-runner Sen.
John Kerry called on Bush to give a fuller explanation
of his service record. That brought an outraged
response from Bush-Cheney '04 chairman Marc Racicot,
who denounced Kerry's request as a "slanderous
attack" and "character assassination." White House
spokesman Scott McClellan also tried to slam the
door on the subject, declaiming that Democratic
questions about Bush's military service "have
no place in politics and everyone should condemn
a sign that the Bush team is taking the issue
seriously, on Wednesday Bush's campaign spokesman
questioned the integrity of the retired Guard
commander who claims Bush failed to show for duty
in 1972, citing the commander's recent donation
to a Democratic candidate for president.
clearly want to quarantine the issue of Bush's
service and have it labeled as outside the bounds
of acceptable public discourse. With good reason:
If the story takes root it could do real damage
to Bush's reelection run, which is anchored on
his image as a trusted leader in America's war
on terrorism. Trying to make the subject go away
could prove difficult, though. "It's a booby trap
that's out there ticking for Bush," warns retired
U.S. Army Col. David Hackworth. "His opponents
are going to keep turning this screw until something
now, the network news is covering the political
jousting. It remains unclear, however, whether
mainstream journalists will take the time to examine
Bush's military record and ask the president why,
after receiving pilot training that cost 1970s
taxpayers nearly $1 million, he took it upon himself
to decide he was finished with his military requirements
nearly two years before his six-year obligation
infrequent responses to questions on the issue
have been by turns false, misleading and contradictory.
His memory has also proved to be highly unreliable:
During 2000, Bush variously could not remember
which weekends he served during the year in question,
where he served, under whose command, or what
his duties were.
story emerged in 2000 when the Boston Globe's
Walter Robinsoná after combing through 160 pages
of military documents and interviewing Bush's
former commanders, reported that Bush's flying
career came to an abrupt and unexplained end in
the spring of 1972 when he asked for, and was
inexplicably granted, a transfer to a paper-pushing
Guard unit in Alabama. During this time Bush worked
on the Senate campaign of a friend of his father's.
With his six-year Guard commitment, Bush was obligated
to serve through 1973. But according to his own
discharge papers, there is no record that he did
any training after May 1972. Indeed, there is
no record that Bush performed any Guard service
in Alabama at all. In 2000, a group of veterans
offered a $3,500 reward for anyone who could confirm
Bush's Alabama Guard service. Of the estimated
600 to 700 Guardsmen who were in Bush's unit,
not a single person came forward.
1973 Bush returned to his Houston Guard unit,
but in May of that year his commanders could not
complete his annual officer effectiveness rating
report because, they wrote, "Lt. Bush has not
been observed at this unit during the period of
the report." Based on those records, as well as
interviews with Texas Air National guardsmen,
the Globe raised serious questions as to whether
Bush ever reported for duty at all during 1973.
the 2000 campaign Bush aides never forcefully
questioned the Globe's account. Instead, they
searched for military documents that would support
Bush's claim that he did indeed attend drill duties
during the year in question. His aides eventually
uncovered one piece of paper that seemed to bolster
their case that he had attended a drill in late
1972, but the document was torn and did not have
Bush's full name on it.
the White House says that although Bush did miss
some weekend drills, he eventually made them up,
and more importantly he received an honorable
discharge. Bush supporters routinely cite the
president's honorable discharge as the ultimate
proof that there was nothing unbecoming about
his military service.
experts say that citation does not wipe away the
questions. "An honorable discharge does not indicate
a flawless record," says Grant Lattin, a military
law attorney in Washington and a retired Marine
Corps lieutenant colonel who served as a judge
advocate, or JAG officer. "Somebody could have
missed a year's worth of Guard drills and still
end up with an honorable discharge." That's because
of the extraordinary leeway local commanders within
the Guard are given over these types of issues.
Lattin notes that the Guard "is obviously very
political, even more so than other military institutions,
and is subject to political influence."
failing to attend required monthly drill sessions
and refusing to take a physical, 1st Lt. Bush
just as easily could have been moved to active
duty, given a less-than-honorable discharge, or
had his flying rights permanently revoked, says
Eugene Fidell, a leading Washington expert on
military law. "For a fully trained pilot, he was
assigned to a nothing job [in Alabama], and the
available records indicate he never performed
the Guard today, as a general rule, "if someone
doesn't show up for drill duty, doesn't show up,
and doesn't show up, they'll be separated from
their unit and given an other-than-honorable discharge"
most likely noting "unsatisfactory participation,"
says D.C. military lawyer David Sheldon, who served
in the Navy and represented officers before the
Court of Military Appeals.
recent questions have surfaced not only about
Bush's military service, but his official records.
"I think some documents were taken out" of his
military file, the Boston Globe's Robinson tells
Salon. "And there's at least one document that
appears to have been inserted into his record
in early 2000." That document -- the aforementioned
torn page that did not have Bush's full name on
it -- plays a central role in the story.
records have clearly been cleaned up," says author
James Moore, whose upcoming book, "Bush's War
for Re-election," will examine the issue of Bush's
military service in great detail. Moore says as
far back as 1994, when Bush first ran for governor
of Texas, his political aides "began contacting
commanders and roommates and people who would
spin and cover up his Guard record. And when my
book comes out, people will be on the record testifying
to that fact: witnesses who helped clean up Bush's
Bush wanted to resolve the questions about his
National Guard service, he could do so very easily.
If he simply agreed to release the contents of
his military personnel records jacket, the Guard
could make public all his discharge papers, including
pay records and total retirement points, which
experts say would shed the best light on where
Bush was, or was not, during the time in question
between 1972 and 1973. (Many of Bush's documents
are available through Freedom of Information requests,
but certain items deemed personal or private cannot
be released without Bush's permission.)
military records has become a time-honored tradition
of presidential campaigns. During the 1992 presidential
election, Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, called
on his Democratic opponent, Bill Clinton, to make
public all personal documents relating his draft
status during the Vietnam War, including any correspondences
with "Clinton's draft board, the Selective Service
System, the Reserve Officer Training Corps, the
Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Marines, the
Coast Guard, the United States departments of
State and Justice, any U.S. foreign embassy or
consulate." That, according to a Bush-Quayle Oct.
15, 1992, press release.
to the White House seeking comment on if and when
the president's full military records will be
released were not returned.
spark that reignited this issue came when ABC
News anchor Peter Jennings, co-moderating a Democratic
debate on Jan. 22, asked retired Gen. Wesley Clark
why he did not repudiate comments made by his
supporter, filmmaker Michael Moore, who publicly
labeled Bush a "deserter." Jennings editorialized,
"Now that's a reckless charge not supported by
pundits agreed. Bill Bennett, a director of Empower
America, told Fox News that Clark's "failure to
distance himself, repudiate, absolutely condemn
Michael Moore's description of the president as
a deserter was a terrible thing."
informed observers agree that Moore's choice of
words was sloppy and inaccurate. "Deserter" is
a criminal term: It refers to a military personnel
who abandons his post with no intention of ever
returning. But Democrats have taken hold of the
broader issue of whether Bush was AWOL. Their
willingness to bring up a previously off-limits
subject reflects their sense that Bush's aura
of invincibility has worn off and the confidence
imparted by Kerry's resurgent campaign. Democrats
feel Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, has the
personal history to question Bush's service.
the issue is also ripe because of Bush's own reelection
strategy. By donning a fighter flight suit and
landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln fora photo-op
in May 2003, he has tried to paint himself as
a seasoned military leader in the United States'
war on terrorism. With newfound aggressiveness,
Democrats are trying to puncture that aura by
hammering away on the fact that Bush's own military
record fails to back it up.
what Democratic National Committee chairman Terry
McAuliffe did this Sunday on ABC News' "This Week,"
when he referred to Bush as "a man who was AWOL
in the Alabama National Guard." That brought a
quick rebuttal from South Carolina's Republican
Gov. Mark Sanford, who told CNN it was wrong for
Democrats to be "taking shots at [Bush] for being
similar fashion, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.,
claimed Tuesday night that by bringing up Bush's
National Guard service, the Democrats are impugning
the patriotism of guardsmen, implying that their
contributions are less worthy than those who serve
in the military. As those disingenuous comments
suggest, Republicans are trying to change the
subject, falsely framing the debate as a repeat
of the National Guard controversy that dogged
Vice President Dan Quayle during the 1988 presidential
easy to see why they're pursuing this strategy.
If the story were simply about how Bush used his
family connections to land a slot in the Texas
Air National Guard (and all indications are he
did just that ), it wouldn't matter much. But
the real story is not how Bush got into the Guard.
It's how he got out.
the last two days the mainstream media has routinely
ignored or downplayed the issue. Slate columnist
Michael Kinsley took euphemism to new heights
when he wrote in a Dec. 5 column that Bush was
"lackadaisical" about fulfilling his Guard requirement.
On Jan. 17, the Associated Press, recapping the
"deserter" controversy, did Bush a favor, erroneously
reporting that his absent-without-leave time lasted
just three months in 1972, instead of the 12-18
months actually in question. And on Feb. 1, ABC
News, suggesting Democrats might turn off voters
by attacking Bush's military service, reported
Bush simply "missed some weekends of training."
None of those descriptions come anywhere near
describing the established facts at the center
of the controversy.
that's not surprising. The press, apparently deeming
the National Guard story unworthy, paid more attention
to the debate over Moore's "deserter" comment
than they did to the actual story of Bush's unexplained
absence when it came out during the 2000 campaign.
co-moderating the Democratic debate, ABC News'
Jennings was sure he knew the facts about Bush's
military record. But as the Daily Howler noted,
a search of the LexisNexis electronic database
indicates that ABC's "World News Tonight," hosted
by Jennings, never once during the 2000 campaign
ran a report about the questions surrounding Bush's
military record. Asked if ignoring the story was
a mistake, and whether ABC News planned to pursue
it in 2004, a network spokeswoman told Salon,
"We continue to examine the records of all the
candidates running for president, including President
Bush. If and when we have a story about one of
the candidates, we'll report it to our audience."
was not alone in turning away from the story in
2000. CBS News did the same thing, and so did
NBC News. But it was the New York Times, and the
way the paper of record avoided the issue of Bush's
no-show military service, that stands out as the
most unusual. To this day, the Times has never
reported that in 1972 the Texas Air National Guard
grounded Bush for failing to take a required physical
exam. Nor has the paper ever reported that neither
Bush nor his aides can point to a single person
who saw Bush, the hard-to-miss son of a congressman
and U.S. ambassador, perform any active duty requirements
during the final 18 months of his service. Instead,
the Times served up stories that failed to delve
deep into the issue.
Boston Globe story broke on May 23, 2000. The
next day Bush answered reporters' questions on
the campaign trail, defending his military record.
His comments were covered by the Times Union (of
Albany, N.Y.), the Columbus Dispatch, the Cleveland
Plain Dealer, and the Houston Chronicle, among
others, which all considered the story newsworthy.
Not the Times: The paper ignored the fact Bush
was forced to respond to allegations that he'd
been AWOL during his Guard service.
the 2000 campaign, the Times' Nicholas Kristof
wrote a series of biographical dispatches about
Bush's personal history. On July 11, he wrote
about Bush's post-college years, including his
National Guard service, but no mention was made
of the controversy surrounding Bush's missing
Times finally addressed the issue on July 22,
two months after the Globe exposÚ was published.
The Times article, written by Jo Thomas, focused
on Bush's post-Yale years in the late '60s and
early '70s. In a section on the National Guard
controversy, the Times reported that Bush's commanding
officer had told the Boston Globe that Bush had
never showed up, quoted Bush as insisting that
he had, and noted that "Emily Marks, who worked
in the Blount campaign and dated Mr. Bush, said
she recalls that he returned to Montgomery after
the election to serve with the Air National Guard."
But then the Times went on to write, "National
Guard records provided by the Guard and by the
Bush campaign indicate he did serve on Nov. 29,
1972, after the election. These records also show
a gap in service from that time to the previous
May. Mr. Bush says he made up for the lost time
in subsequent months, and guard records show he
received credit for having performed all the required
Oct. 31, the Boston Globe published another damning
story, suggesting Bush failed to serve -- in fact,
did not even show up for duty-- during the final
18 months of his commitment. The Times' Thomas
quickly wrote, "A review of records by The New
York Times indicated that some of those concerns
[about Bush's absence] may be unfounded." Contradicting
the Globe's account of Bush war service, the paper
reported that Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett "pointed
to a document in Mr. Bush's military records that
showed credit for four days of duty ending Nov.
29 and for eight days ending Dec. 14, 1972, and,
after he moved back to Houston, on dates in January,
April and May."
document cited by the Times is apparently the
mysterious torn paper that appeared in Bush's
records in 2000. That document, a "Statement of
Points Earned," tracks when guardsmen have served,
and whether they have fulfilled their annual duty.
It contains references to "29" and "14" and other
numbers whose meaning is not clear. The Times
did not inform its readers that the document is
badly torn, undated, and unsigned; does not have
Bush's name on it (just a wayward "W"); and has
a redacted Social Security number.
Times got spun by Dan Bartlett," Robinson at the
Globe told Salon. He and others note that if the
documents provided by the Bush campaign proved
he did Guard duty upon returning to Houston in
January and April of 1973, then why, on Bush's
annual effectiveness report signed by two superiors,
did it say, "Lt. Bush has not been observed at
this unit during the period of the report," which
covered the dates between May 1, 1972, and April
had a lot of arguments with Dan Bartlett and never
got spun by him," says Thomas, now an assistant
chancellor for public affairs at the University
of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. "But if he gave
me some documents that proved his point, I'm not
going to ignore them." She added, "The Times carried
no brief for or against Bush."
the author James Moore says it was those two Times
stories, which seemed to back up Bush's sketchy
account of his Guard service, that effectively
stopped other reporters from pursuing the story.
are the known facts of that story: Following his
graduation from Yale University in 1968, with
the Vietnam War raging, Bush vaulted to the top
of a 500-person waiting list to land a coveted
spot in the Texas Air National Guard. Then, despite
having no aviation or ROTC experience, he was
approved for an automatic commission as a second
lieutenant and assignment to flight school.
every indication, Bush's service between 1970
and 1972 as a fully trained pilot in the 111th
Fighter-Interceptor Squadron near Houston was
commendable. But then came the spring of 1972
-- and Bush simply vanished.
to the official campaign biography that appeared
on the Bush Web site during 2000, which stated
he flew fighter planes until his discharge in
late 1973, Bush flew for the last time ever in
April 1972. In May, he moved to Alabama to help
out in the Senate campaign of Winton Blount, a
friend of Bush's father. Bush asked to be transferred
to an Alabama Air National Guard unit where he
could do "equivalent training." Bush asked to
be transferred to a postal unit for paper-pushing
duties -- and remarkably, his Houston commanders
signed off on the request. But officials at the
Air Reserve Personnel Center in Denver eventually
overruled the request, pointing out the obvious:
Doing paperwork in a postal unit did not qualify
as "equivalent training" for a fully trained pilot.
situation remained unresolved for months. During
that time, Bush was still obligated to attend
drill sessions with his regular unit near Houston.
Guard records indicate he did not.
September 1972, Bush won approval to do temporary
training at the 187th Squadron in Montgomery.
But the unit's commander, retired Brig. Gen. William
Turnipseed, told the Boston Globe he was "dead
certain" Bush never showed. "Had he reported in,
I would have had some recall, and I do not. I
had been in Texas, done my flight training there.
If we had had a first lieutenant from Texas, I
would have remembered."
Wednesday, Bush-Cheney '04 spokesman Terry Holt
told Salon that Turnipseed recently donated $500
to Sen. John Edwards' campaign. Holt questioned
whether the motives behind Turnipseed's comments
regarding Bush's service were "pure," or whether
he's part of a "political attack." Turnipseed
could not be reached for comment.
any case, as already noted, there is no official
National Guard record of Bush's ever serving in
Alabama, and not a single guardsman who served
at that time has ever come forward and corroborated
that Bush was there.
in July of that summer, Bush's "failure to accomplish"
his mandatory annual physical (that is, to take
it) forced the Guard to ground him.
Blount's election loss in November, Bush returned
to Houston. But he did not return to his Guard
duties, at least according to his commanding officers.
In May 1973, his two superior officers at Ellington
Air Force Base noted on Bush's evaluation that
he had not been seen during the previous year.
In the comments section, Lt. Col. William Harris
Jr. wrote that Bush "cleared this base on 15 May
1972, and has been performing equivalent training
in a non flying role with the 187th Tac Recon
Gp at Dannelly ANG Base, Alabama." The problem
is, Bush never reported for duty there, or anywhere
else in Alabama. According to his discharge papers,
Bush took the whole year off instead.
was finally recorded as having crammed in 36 active-duty
credits during May, June and July 1973, thereby
meeting his minimal requirement. But as the Boston
Globe pointed out, nobody connected with the Texas
unit recalls seeing Bush during his cram sessions,
leading to suspicions that Bush was given credits
for active duty he did not perform.
suspicion stems in part from the incorrect, and
inconsistent, answers that Bush and his spokesmen
have given to the question of why, after going
through extraordinarily rigorous flight training,
he simply walked away from flying. The day the
Globe story appeared on May 23, 2000, Bush explained
to reporters that when he returned to Houston
in 1973, his old fighter plane was being phased
out. "There was a conscious decision not to retrain
me in an airplane," he said, suggesting it was
the Texas Air National Guard's decision to end
his flying career. That's not true. The plane
to which Bush was referring, the F-102, was phased
out during the 1970s, but it was still being used
in 1973. Bush did not tell reporters about his
failed physical exam and how that resulted in
his being grounded.
misleading answer about Bush's Guard service was
just one of many the candidate and his aides gave
during the campaign. For instance, a campaign
official told Cox News reporters in July 1999
that Bush's transfer to the Alabama Guard unit
was for the same flying job he held in Texas.
That's false. There was no flying involved at
either Alabama unit (not that Bush ever reported
to them, according to Guard records), and without
passing a physical, Bush couldn't fly anyway.
in July 1999, Bush's then-spokeswoman Karen Hughes
told the Associated Press it was accurate for
Bush to suggest, as he'd done in a previous campaign,
that he served "in the U.S. Air Force," when in
fact he served in the Air National Guard.
in 2000 why Bush failed to take his physical in
July 1972, the campaign gave two different explanations.
The first was that Bush was (supposedly) serving
in Alabama and his personal physician was in Texas,
so he couldn't get a physical. That's false. By
military regulations, Bush could not have received
a military physical from his personal physician,
only from an Air Force flight surgeon, and there
were several assigned to nearby Maxwell Air Force
Base in Montgomery, Ala. The other explanation
was that because Bush was no longer flying, he
didn't need to take a physical. But that simply
highlights the extraordinary nature of Bush's
service and the peculiar notion that he took it
upon himself to decide that a) he was no longer
a pilot and b) he didn't have to take a physical.
in September 1973, Bush submitted a request to
effectively end any requirements to attend monthly
drills. Despite Bush's record, the request was
approved. He was given an honorable discharge,
and that fall he enrolled in Harvard Business
of the obvious questions raised by Bush's missing
year is why he was never brought up on any disciplinary
charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice
(UCMJ) and why he was given an honorable discharge.
(It's unlikely Bush could have run for president
if he'd been tainted with anything less than an
honorable discharge from the military.)
the issue is not that black and white. "An honorable
discharge usually means the person has not committed
any misconduct," says retired JAG officer Lattin.
"He may have failed to honor his obligation, but
he hasn't committed a criminal act. And that's
an important distinction."
important, because based on Lattin's interpretation
of the military law, a guardsman on non-active
duty who fails to show up for his monthly drill
sessions, as Bush did, is not subject to the UCMJ.
The UCMJ, Lattin says, applies only to active-duty
servicemen. And while guardsmen who report for
weekend duty are covered for those 48 hours by
the UCMJ's unique codes (regarding desertion,
being AWOL, etc.), a non-active guardsman who
refuses to report for duty in the first place
cannot be covered by the UCMJ. Instead, an absent-without-leave
guardsman is subject to the state's military codes
of justice, which mirror the UCMJ.
even then, says Lattin, cases of guardsmen who
fail to attend drill sessions are rarely dealt
with under the military's criminal code, but rather
administratively, which is less burdensome. Administrative
options include transferring the solider to active
duty, or separating him from his unit while beginning
dismissal procedures that would likely -- although
not always -- result in a less than, or other
than, honorable discharge. Also in Bush's case,
he could have been permanently stripped of his
why was no administrative action taken against
Bush during his missing year or more? "It could
have been mere inefficiency, or a reluctance to
create controversy with the son of an important
federal official," says Fidell, the military law
expert. "Observers of the Guard at that time have
said it did seem to be an entity in which connections
might be helpful."
is more blunt. "The National Guard is extremely
political in the sense of who you know," he says.
"And it's true to this very day. One person is
handled very strictly and the next person is not.
If George Bush Jr. is in your unit, you're going
to bend over backward not to offend that family.
It all comes down to who you know."
stresses that the Bush episode, and the Guard's
failure to take any administrative actions against
him, have to be viewed in context of the early
'70s. With the Vietnam War beginning to wind down
and the U.S. military battling endemic low morale,
the Pentagon showed little interest in chasing
after absent-without-leave guardsmen. "It was
too hard and there were too many of them," says
Lattin. "There was a 'who cares' attitude. Commanders
didn't want to deal with them. And they knew they'd
stir up a hornet's nest, especially if one of
the [missing guardsmen] was named George Bush."
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