Bush's Military Deficit

Will the president's "lost year" of military service hurt him in the election?

Fri Feb. 6, 2004 4:00 AM EST

The fact that President Bush skipped out on the National Guard in 1972-73, his last year of duty, wasn’t much of an issue in the 2000 election, but of course Bush wasn't running on his national security credentials back then. This time around, he is, so expect to hear a lot from Democrats about the AWOL president. It's natural that John Kerry, who got shot up and decorated in Vietnam, will hammer on Bush's valor deficit (and so, until he drops out, will Wes Clark). What's not clear is whether the issue will be an effective weapon.

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The Boston Globe uncovered the discrepancy in Bush’s guard service in 2000, but little was made of it during the 2000 election, because defense wasn't as salient an issue as it is now, and Bush did, after all, receive an "honorable discharge" from the military.

But as Grant Lattin, a military law attorney in Washington notes, "honor" can be a matter of connections.

"The National Guard is extremely political in the sense of who you know. 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."

The facts, as revealed by the Globe, are these:

• Bush entered the Texas Air National Guard in 1968 for a six-year stint, which would require him to undergo flight training and show up for periodic drills through 1974.
• In 1972, Bush was offered a job working on a Senate campaign in Alabama, for which he asked to transfer to a squadron based in Montgomery. He was refused, but left Texas for Alabama anyway.
• In August of that year, he didn’t show up for his annual flight physical, meaning he lost flight status.
• A month later, he requested and received permission to perform his fall Guard duty in Montgomery. There is no record he ever showed up.
• By May 1973, Bush’s commanding offers noted that they couldn’t write his annual performance evaluation because of his absence.
• He logged 36 days of duty by July 1973, after receiving two "special orders" commanding him to return to active duty.
• He officially decided not to show up to duty on October 1, 1973, eight months shy of his obligation. (Here's a timeline of Bush’s military service.)

Bush’s response to the allegations has been to deny them. When the Globe story came out, Bush claimed that he "did the duty necessary" to merit an honorable discharge and remembered being at training in Alabama. A commander in Alabama, as well as the papers, say otherwise. Bush's then commander, William Turnipseed, said, "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." Bush's discharge papers agree, showing no record of service after May of ’72. Bush refuses to make his military records public.

More recently, the Bush administration has affected appalled outrage that such an issue should even be raised in a campaign. "These kinds of attacks have no place in politics and everyone should condemn them," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. Of course, that’s decidedly not what the former President Bush was saying when he attacked Clinton for dodging the draft.

The mainstream press has been cagey about the issue. For instance, when Michael Moore, liberal filmmaker and Clark-backer, labeled Bush as a "deserter, "Peter Jennings reprimanded Clark for staying silent and not correcting Moore for what Jennings considered a slanderous charge. Granted, the title "deserter" by military standards is reserved only for someone who has been court martialed and found guilty, but Moore’s accusation had some truth to it. The New Republic comments that Bush is gettingfree pass from the media:

"Despite the Globe's investigative work and a string of non-denial denials from the Bush campaign during the 2000 election, the press largely gave Bush a pass on his military service--a crucial test of character for Bill Clinton eight years earlier. If either Clark or John Kerry--both highly decorated Vietnam vets--won the Democratic nomination, he might be tempted to raise Bush's military service as a character issue in the general election. What Jennings taught Clark last week is that the media probably won't tolerate it."

The Democrats, regardless, will continue to play up the issue, especially if Kerry (as seems likely) or Clark wins the nomination. Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe said, "I look forward to that debate when John Kerry, a war hero with a chest full of medals, is standing next to George Bush, a man who was AWOL in the Alabama National Guard."

It may be difficult for Kerry to criticize Bush on this issue with good conscience. After all, he came to Bill Clinton’s rescue in 1992 when questions of draft dodging were raised. At the time, Kerry characterized Clinton’s critics as playing

"to the worst instincts of divisiveness and reaction that still haunt America. Are we now going to create a new scarlet letter in the context of Vietnam?" "The race for the White House should be about leadership and leadership requires that one help heal the wounds of Vietnam, not reopen them."

Will this turn out to be a decisive campaign issue? Maybe -- and maybe not. Walter Robinson, who first broke the Globe story, writes:

"Whether the distinction between the decisions 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 fighter pilot during World War II. The percentage of voters who are military veterans has been dwindling for a generation, thanks to the end to the military draft and the deaths of veterans of World War II and Korea."

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