The Vietnam syndrome

Al Gore mentioned his service in the war four times during Tuesday night's debate. Coincidence?

By Jake Tapper

Published October 19, 2000 7:06AM (EDT)

There was one attack made by Vice President Al Gore at the third and final presidential debate Tuesday night that Gov. George W. Bush and his spinners have yet to touch.

Bush's counterpunches may have been limp compared with Gore's sometimes overbearing force, but they were there. Gore's attack on Bush as a tool of HMO's and insurance companies was met with Bush slamming Gore as the more partisan of the two candidates. Thus Bush "can get it done" -- "it" being any HMO reform -- regardless of his Texas record. Gore's attack on the lagging rate of Texans with healthcare insurance was countered with Bush's genially expressed difference with Gore: "I remember what the administration tried to do in 1993," Bush said. "They tried to have a national healthcare plan. And fortunately it failed. I trust people, I don't trust the federal government."

Untouched during the debate, in the spin room, on TV and in the myriad responses e-mailed to reporters from the Bush campaign, however, was Gore's veiled snap at Bush's military service during the Vietnam War. Bush served in what was known as "the champagne brigade" of the Texas Air National Guard, where the sons of other powerful Texans as well as several Dallas Cowboys fulfilled their military duty.

"When I was a young man, my father was a senator opposed to the Vietnam War," Gore said Tuesday. "When I graduated from college, there were plenty of fancy ways of getting out and being a part of that. I volunteered and I went to Vietnam."

It was one of four mentions of Vietnam that Gore made during the 90-minute debate. By way of comparison, Gore mentioned his wife Tipper three times, his running mate Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., once, and President Clinton not at all.

He was trying to make a point, one might fairly surmise.

And what is the point? That he served in the military -- as an Army journalist in Vietnam -- and Bush didn't? Maybe, though Gore has denied this. But quite possibly, Gore was also trying to subtly (or as subtly as Gore is able) raise a point that some in his campaign have long argued is a potential point of vulnerability for the governor: his "missing" year.

About a month after he graduated from Yale, in June 1968, Bush -- whose father was then a congressman -- leapfrogged ahead of a waiting list of 500 to be accepted into the Texas Air National Guard. Finishing up basic training on Aug. 25, Bush was trained to fly planes like the T-31, T-37, T-39 and the F-102 fighter-interceptors. Despite a 25 percent score on a pilot aptitude test taken before he began flight school, 2nd Lt. Bush was eventually regarded as a good pilot. On Aug. 24, 1970, Bush was promoted to first lieutenant.

In 1972, however, as first reported in the Boston Globe, a whole bunch of weirdness began to take hold in Bush's military transcript.

Wednesday morning, after the third presidential debate, Bush got on his campaign plane's P.A. system and made an announcement.

"Attention please," he said. "This is your captain. Want to make sure all the journalists are on board. All journalists, please raise your hands ... Those of you missing, will you please raise your hands?"

Bush can raise his hand on that one, because there's a chunk of his military record that's completely missing, one he has yet to explain or contradict with first-person testimony.

In May 1972, Bush requested a three-month transfer to Alabama to work as the political director on the Senate campaign of a family friend, Winton "Red" Blount, a former postmaster general. Bush was to have transferred to the Alabama National Guard.

But for a reason that he's never bothered to explain, Bush didn't submit to his annual medical examination, so in August he was taken off active flight status. Since he was no longer flying, in September 1972 Bush was notified that "Lieutenant Bush should report to Lt. Col. William Turnipseed, DCO, to perform equivalent training" at the 187th Tactical Recon Group in Montgomery, Ala.

Turnipseed told the Globe that he had no memory of Bush ever reporting to duty. "Had he reported in, I would have had some recall, and I do not," Turnipseed said. "I had been in Texas, done my flight training there. If we had had a first lieutenant from Texas, I would have remembered." There are no records indicating that Bush ever reported for duty in Alabama. As the Globe concluded: "For a full year, there is no record that he showed up for the periodic drills required of part-time guardsmen."

Bush later disputed Turnipseed's account to the New York Times. "I was there," Bush said. "I know this guy was quoted as saying I wasn't, but I was there."

From the moment the Globe story broke, in May, Bush spokespeople have pledged to find fellow Guardsmen from the 187th Tactical Reconnaissance Group in late 1972, but so far they have provided none.

"I can't remember what I did, but I wasn't flying because they didn't have the same airplanes," Bush has said, though at least one other reason why he wasn't flying was because he didn't submit to the annual medical exam.

"I fulfilled my obligations," Bush has said. Which seems true, in retrospect. Records show that Bush had a very busy Guard schedule in Texas in May, June and July 1973, and some have speculated that he was making up for obligations that he missed while he was in Alabama. On Sept. 18, Bush was given permission to transfer to reserve status while attending Harvard Business School, and he was honorably discharged on Oct. 1, 1973.

Being that Bush was honorably discharged, and no evidence of any malfeasance exists, one might wonder why anybody cares.

Gore backers argue that it seems unlikely that -- given the media nit-picking of every statement Gore has ever made -- the vice president would be able to get away with an unaccounted-for year in his military service.

Still others see larger issues. "(T)he governor still hasn't satisfactorily explained one episode in his life that has raised serious questions about his own responsibility," wrote the New Republic in its Oct. 16 issue.

Last week in Birmingham, a group of veterans tried to make the same point, offering a reward of $1,000 for anyone who could prove that Bush served in the Alabama Guard. A Democratic group doubled the reward to $2,000.

And Gore, in mentioning Vietnam four times during the debate, seemed to be raising the stakes even further.

Jake Tapper

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

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George W. Bush