AWOL

Questions about Bush’s National Guard service won’t go away. Nor should they.


The story’s in a lull right now, what with the Democratic primaries and … whatever else is going on in the world. But the questions about Bush’s military service aren’t going away.

Nor should they. Bush is runnning as a “war president” — that’s the ground he’s chosen to fight on; so it’s natural that some observers (Motherjones.com included) have started to draw unfavorable comparisons between Bush’s “service” and John Kerry’s.

Kerry’s distinguished military service, his 18 years on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and his initial support for the use of force in Iraq make him no soft target on issues of peace and war. Whatever his faults, Kerry knows very well where he was during the Vietnam war, and you can’t blame him for saying that he knows “something about air-craft carriers for real.”

Bush moved to Alabama in Fall of 1972 to work on the failed senatorial campaign of Winton Blount, having received permission to fulfill the rest of his military service there. He got an early discharge from the guard in Fall of 1973 to attend Harvard Business School. The White House has argued that the fact that Bush received points and payment for
14 days of service between
October 28, 1972 and end of April 1973, proves that he had fulfilled his duties in Texas as well as in Alabama. However, the commanders under whom Bush was supposed to have served did not recall seeing him on base in either state during that time.
The Boston Globe reported that Mr. Bush never showed up for his mandatory May 1972 physical examination and on September 29,972, National Guard Bureau issued him a verbal suspension from flying, noting: “‘reason for suspension: failure to accomplish annual medical examination.'”

White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan’s insistence that the release of payroll records vindicates Bush convinced very few. As Reuters reported:

“The documents show long gaps in Bush’s Guard service, from May through late October 1972, and mid-January through early April 1973.”

Not even the release of Bush’s dental records did that and what McClellan referred to as “trolling for trash” is unlikely to cease any time soon.

The National Review provided the sort of favorable interpretation of the records that McClellan had hoped for, but largely did not receive:

“All in all, the documents show that Bush served intensively for four years and then let up in his fifth and sixth years, although he still did enough to meet Guard requirements. The records also suggest that Bush’s superiors were not only happy with his performance from 1968 to 1972, but also happy with his decision to go to Alabama. Indeed, Bush’s evaluating officer wrote in May 1972 that ‘Lt. Bush is very active in civic affairs in the community and manifests a deep interest in the operation of our government. He has recently accepted the position as campaign manager for a candidate for United States Senate. He is a good representative of the military and Air National Guard in the business world.’ ”

Bush enrolled, as many young men of his time did (or tried to do) to avoid serving a Vietnam, which he called, disapprovingly, a “political war” (as opposed, one presumes, to an apolitical war, whatever that might be) in his recent Meet the Press interview. As a son of a senator, he surely had the privilege of choosing not to go to Vietnam instead flying with the Guard’s “Champagne Unit.” It is also difficult to believe that he got into Harvard Law School based on his stellar C’s at Yale. What makes this episode most troubling is Bush’s hypocrisy. As Washington Post columnist
Richard Cohen
points out:

“The National Guard and the Reserves were something of a joke. Everyone knew it…I have no shame about my service, but I know it for what it was — hardly the Charge of the Light Brigade. When Bush attempts to drape the flag of today’s Guard over the one he was in so long ago, when he warns his critics to remember that “there are a lot of really fine people who have served in the National Guard and who are serving in the National Guard today in Iraq,” then he is doing now what he was doing then: hiding behind the ones who were really doing the fighting. It’s about time he grew up.”

Daniel Schorr, NPR’s senior news analyst, makes a similar point:

The issue is not how many of his assigned duties George Bush actually performed in the Air National Guard. Nor is the issue why Bush refused his periodic physical examination and stopped flying in 1972 shortly after drug testing was introduced – a coincidence, the White House says.

The real issue, painful in a society that prides itself on being egalitarian, is privilege – who got to serve in the Guard’s “champagne unit” as his unit was called, and who went to Vietnam, perhaps to die. …

There is some irony in the fact that the Bush National Guard controversy has come bubbling to the surface just as the president announces that he is “a war president.”