Ex-Clinton official slams Bush and Cheney war records

Former Secretary of Veterans Affairs Jesse Brown asks why "neither one went to Vietnam, when they were clearly of Vietnam age."

By Jake Tapper
Published August 2, 2000 3:23AM (EDT)

As the GOP Convention devoted itself Tuesday to national security issues, a former Clinton administration secretary of veterans affairs launched a scathing attack against the enemy camp.

Jesse Brown, who served in the Clinton Cabinet from 1993 until 1997, slammed both members of the GOP ticket -- both of whom took steps to avoid being drafted into military service during the Vietnam War -- for what Brown deemed inadequate explanations as to why neither served.

"We want to know the circumstance of why neither one went to Vietnam when they were clearly of Vietnam age," Brown, 56, said in a phone interview Tuesday afternoon. "Too many people died during that period of time ... for us not to ask those hard questions."

Brown, who enlisted in the Marines and was disabled by a gunshot to his right arm in combat near Danang, served as executive director of the Washington headquarters of the Disabled American Veterans before President Clinton named him to his Cabinet in 1993. He stepped down in 1997, and is a consultant in Washington as well as a co-director of veterans for Gore.

"It appears that there's widespread panic in the Gore campaign," responded Bush campaign spokesman Dan Bartlett. "It shows you the lengths the Democratic Party will go to, to attack a ticket that is obviously resonating with the American people."

Bartlett added that it was "highly hypocritical to attack Secretary Cheney and Governor Bush when he served for a president who didn't serve in Vietnam and, by most accounts, avoided the draft himself."

But Brown was careful in his criticism of the GOP ticket. "Both of them are honorable people," Brown said of Bush, who served in the Texas Air National Guard, and Cheney, who despite having served as Bush's father's secretary of defense, five times sought and received three different types of deferments from military duty throughout the 1960s.

"However," Brown said, "I think it is very, very important that the American people have a better understanding of their lack of military service during the Vietnam period."

Clinton, Brown acknowledged, also avoided service the way that many wealthy, well-connected or industrious white men did at that time. "Absolutely," Brown said. "And he paid a price for it."

But unlike Cheney and Bush, Brown argued, Clinton's draft-dodging was thoroughly and comprehensively covered by the media during the 1992 campaign, when his various obfuscations and manipulations were hashed out during the primaries.

"Scrutiny of his avoiding the draft became a matter of public record," Brown said. "Every piece of information became available to the American people ... And then the American people were able to judge based on all of the facts. We have a right to know what was in their minds when they were called upon to serve their nation."

Specifically, Brown asked about a report that first appeared in the Boston Globe that a one-year gap -- from May 1972 until May 1973 -- exists in Bush's National Guard service. Having transferred to Alabama to work on a Senate campaign, he was to have reported for duty at the Alabama Air National Guard. But no records exist in Alabama of his having reported for duty as ordered. He was to have reported to Lt. Col. William Turnipseed, but Turnipseed told the Globe that "To my knowledge, he never showed up ... He was never a part of my unit."

Bush disputes Turnipseed's account, though he has said that he can't recall specifics about what he was doing during that time.

"I fulfilled my duty, and I was honorably discharged and I'm proud of my service," he said in June.

"No one knew where he was," Brown said Tuesday. "How can you be a commander-in-chief if you are not keeping your commitment to the Houston Air National Guard at a time when people are still dying in Vietnam? The American people need a full accounting of his circumstances. It's time for him to come clean."

Bush spokesman Bartlett replied, "One thing that Secretary Brown needs to do is to get all his facts straight. Governor Bush met all of his requirements, and for him to say otherwise is a complete distortion of fact."

Brown then tore into Cheney for saying to a reporter, in 1989, "I had other priorities in the '60s than military service."

Cheney received four 2-S draft deferments -- granted to students -- from 1963 through 1965 while he was a student at the University of Wyoming. He married Lynne in 1964, and was thus banned from the draft.

But in October 1965, the Selective Service announced that married men without children could then be drafted. Exactly nine months and two days later -- on July 28, 1966 -- his first child was born. Cheney hadn't waited until her birth before he sought a 3-A deferment classification -- given to those with dependents. He did so when Lynne was only 10 weeks pregnant.

Cheney's "other priorities" didn't seem much of an excuse to Brown. "As a former Marine who was wounded and nearly lost his life, I personally resent that comment," Brown said. "I resent that he had 'other priorities,' when 58,000 people died and over 300,000 returned wounded and disabled. In my mind there is no doubt that because he had 'other priorities' someone died or was injured in his place."

Bush spokesman Bartlett responded to Brown's attack by saying that "Secretary Cheney had received deferments just like many Americans did. He has said that if he was called, he would have served."

Bartlett called Brown's comments a "desperate attack on the Bush-Cheney ticket." He pointed out that Brown didn't speak out against Clinton during the 1992 campaign -- though Brown's silence then, it can be observed, is not unlike the hush heard now from those Republicans who were once offended by Clinton's activities during that era.

Jake Tapper

Jake Tapper is the senior White House correspondent for ABC News.

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