Michael Moore, the documentary filmmaker, started it, labeling President Bush a military "deserter" during an appearance last month with Democratic presidential candidate Wesley K. Clark.
Less incendiary was Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe, who charged Sunday that Bush had been AWOL, absent without leave, while a fighter pilot in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War.
False, outrageous, and baseless, said the White House. Terry Holt, the spokesman for Bush's reelection campaign, insisted in an interview yesterday that Democrats are recklessly trying to "impugn the character of the commander-in-chief."
As with much of the partisan back and forth in presidential politics, the truth lies elsewhere -- in this case in Bush's military records. Those records contain evidence that a lackadaisical Bush did not report for required Guard duty for a full year during his six-year National Guard enlistment.
A detailed Globe examination of the records in 2000 unearthed official reports by Bush's Guard commanders that they had not seen him for a year. There was also no evidence that Bush had done part of his Guard service in Alabama, as he has claimed. Bush's Guard appointment, made possible by family connections, was cut short when Bush was allowed to leave his Houston Guard unit eight months early to attend Harvard Business School.
Bush received an honorable discharge in 1973. The records contain no indication that Bush's commanding officers, one of them a friend, ever accused him of shirking his duty.
In an interview yesterday, Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, asserted that Bush "fulfilled his military requirements." Bartlett acknowledged that Bush's "irregular civilian work schedule could have put strains on when he served, when he performed his duty."
Before the Globe report in May 2000, Bush's official biography reported erroneously that he flew fighter-interceptor jets for the Houston Guard unit from 1968 to 1973. In a 1999 interview with a military publication, Bush said that among the values he learned as a pilot included "the responsibility to show up and do your job."
Most Democrats consider Moore's accusation of desertion unsupportable.
Still, according to the records and interviews in 2000, Bush's attendance record in the Guard was highly unusual:
- Although he was trained as a fighter pilot, Bush ceased flying in April 1972, little more than two years after he finished flight school and two years before his six-year enlistment was to end, when he was allowed to transfer to an Alabama Air Guard unit. The records contain no evidence that Bush performed any military duty in Alabama. His Alabama unit commander, in an interview, said Bush never appeared for duty.
- In August 1972, Bush was suspended from flight status for failing to take his annual flight physical.
- In May 1973, Bush's two superior officers in Houston wrote that they could not perform his annual evaluation, because he had "not been observed at this unit" during the preceding 12 months. The two officers, one of them a friend of Bush and both now dead, wrote that they believed Bush had been fulfilling his commitment at the Alabama unit.
Two other officers, in interviews, offered a similar account of Bush's absence, saying they had assumed Bush completed his service in Alabama.
- Bush's official record of service, which is supposed to contain an account of his duty attendance for each year of service, shows no such attendance after May 1972. In unit records, however, there are documents showing that Bush was ordered to a flurry of drills -- over 36 days -- in the late spring and summer of 1973. He was discharged Oct. 1, 1973, eight months before his six-year commitment ended.
Through Bartlett, Bush insisted in 2000 that he had indeed attended military drills while he was in Alabama during 1972 and in 1973 after returning to his Houston base. At the time, Bartlett said Bush did not recall what duties he performed during that period.
Albert Lloyd Jr., a retired colonel who was the personnel officer for the Texas Air National Guard at the time, said in an interview four years ago that the records suggested to him that Bush "had a bad year. He might have lost interest, since he knew he was getting out."
Lloyd said he believed that after Bush's long attendance drought, the drills that were crammed into the months before Bush's early release gave him enough "points" to satisfy the minimal requirements to earn his discharge. At the time, Lloyd speculated that after the evaluation of Bush could not be done, his superiors told him, `George, you're in a pickle. Get your ass down here and perform some duty.' And he did."
In the last election, Vice President Al Gore declined to make an issue of Bush's military service, perhaps because Gore's credibility could have been an issue. That includes a claim by Gore that turned out not to be true, that he had been "under fire" during his service in Vietnam.
In the current presidential campaign, echoes of the Vietnam War remain. Senator John F. Kerry, who was decorated for gallantry in action and wounded in Vietnam, is now the favorite to become the Democratic nominee.
Kerry has left direct criticisms of Bush's military record to surrogates, such as former US senator Max Cleland of Georgia. Cleland said in an interview yesterday that Bush as president "has been wrapping himself falsely in the flag."
But Kerry, at least implicitly, has sought to turn attention to Bush's military record. In an interview Tuesday night on Fox News, Kerry said: "I've never made any judgments about any choice somebody made about avoiding the draft, about going to Canada, being a conscientious objector, going into the National Guard."
On that issue, Holt, the Bush spokesman, cried foul. Holt pointed to Kerry's statements in 1992 defending Bill Clinton against criticism that Clinton actively avoided the military draft in the late 1960s. Cleland, who is a triple amputee as a result of the wounds he suffered in Vietnam, said of Clinton: "Bill Clinton evaded and avoided the draft. We know that."
Whether the distinction between the decisions that Kerry and Bush made a generation ago will matter with the electorate remains to be seen. Clinton, despite criticism of how he sidestepped military service, defeated Bush's father, who was a Navy torpedo bomber pilot during World War II.
The percentage of voters who are military veterans has been dwindling for a generation, due to the end to the military draft and the deaths of veterans of World War II and Korea. US government statistics show that even service in the National Guard, like Bush's, was hardly the norm. Of 27 million men who were potentially eligible for military service between 1964 and 1975, about 9 million served on active duty. Another 2 million were in the Reserves or National Guard.
In mid-1966, there were more fathers of draft age, 3.5 million, deferred from service than the total number of men and women, 2.6 million, who served in Vietnam during the entire conflict.
Todd Gitlin, a sociologist at Columbia University and a 1960s historian who authored the book, "The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage," said yesterday that Bush was one of a type -- young men like former vice president Dan Quayle who supported the war but sought refuge in National Guard units that were not used in Vietnam.
Gitlin, who was once president of the antiwar group Students for a Democratic Society, said former Vermont governor Howard Dean is more typical of the generation, those who opposed the war and found a way out of service. Dean received a medical deferment in 1971 for a bad back. His condition did not prevent him from skiing in Colorado in the months following.
Kathleen Hall Jamieson, the dean of the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania and a specialist in political campaigns, said that she believes the White House reaction to the issue is evidence that Bush's advisers fear that Kerry might be able to turn it into a vulnerability for the president.
Cleland agreed. If Kerry is the Democrats' nominee, he said, the combination of Kerry's service and Bush's spotty attendance in a Guard unit will make it difficult for the GOP to hold the high ground on national security issues, in an election where such issues will probably be paramount to many voters.
Jamieson said that if Democrats want to, they may use Bush's military records to raise further doubts about his credibility when voters have concerns about whether the administration was truthful in making its case for the invasion of Iraq.
Gitlin agreed with Jamieson. In 2000, he noted, Gore would have been hampered in his ability to raise the issue of Bush's military service. This time, he said, the Democratic nominee may focus on it as one more way to prove the case to voters that Bush has deceived them.
Holt, the GOP spokesman, said he doubts the Democrats can turn Bush's military service into a campaign issue. The attacks by Kerry and surrogates like Cleland, he said, are reprehensible. Given Kerry's past defense of Clinton on the issue, he added, "Senator Kerry is being, at the very least, hypocritical."
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