Bush's missing year

In 1972, George W. Bush dropped out of his National Guard service and later lied about it. With the media finally paying attention, will he now come clean?

Published February 5, 2004 8:40PM (EST)

In 1972, George W. Bush simply walked away from his pilot duties in the Texas Air National Guard. He skipped required weekend drill sessions for many months, probably for more than a year, and did not take a mandatory annual physical exam, which resulted in his being grounded. Nonetheless, Bush, the son of a well-connected Texas congressman, received an honorable discharge.

If an Air National guardsman today vanished for a year, military attorneys say that guardsman would be transferred to active duty or, more likely, kicked out of the service, probably with a less-than-honorable discharge. They suggest the penalty would be especially swift if the absent-without-leave guardsman were a fully trained pilot, as Bush was.

Bush's National Guard record, long ignored by the media, has surfaced with a vengeance. If the topic continues to rage, and if the media presses him, Bush may finally be forced to release his full military records, which could reveal the truth. By refusing to make all those records public, Bush has until now broken with a long-standing tradition of U.S. presidential candidates.

Democrats have seized on the story of Bush's "missing year," which was first raised in a 2000 Boston Globe article. This week Democratic front-runner Sen. John Kerry called on Bush to give a fuller explanation of his service record. That brought an outraged response from Bush-Cheney '04 chairman Marc Racicot, who denounced Kerry's request as a "slanderous attack" and "character assassination." White House spokesman Scott McClellan also tried to slam the door on the subject, declaiming that Democratic questions about Bush's military service "have no place in politics and everyone should condemn them."

In a sign that the Bush team is taking the issue seriously, on Wednesday Bush's campaign spokesman questioned the integrity of the retired Guard commander who claims Bush failed to show for duty in 1972, citing the commander's recent donation to a Democratic candidate for president.

Republicans clearly want to quarantine the issue of Bush's service and have it labeled as outside the bounds of acceptable public discourse. With good reason: If the story takes root it could do real damage to Bush's reelection run, which is anchored on his image as a trusted leader in America's war on terrorism. Trying to make the subject go away could prove difficult, though. "It's a booby trap that's out there ticking for Bush," warns retired U.S. Army Col. David Hackworth. "His opponents are going to keep turning this screw until something gives."

Right now, the network news is covering the political jousting. It remains unclear, however, whether mainstream journalists will take the time to examine Bush's military record and ask the president why, after receiving pilot training that cost 1970s taxpayers nearly $1 million, he took it upon himself to decide he was finished with his military requirements nearly two years before his six-year obligation was up.

Bush's infrequent responses to questions on the issue have been by turns false, misleading and contradictory. His memory has also proved to be highly unreliable: During 2000, Bush variously could not remember which weekends he served during the year in question, where he served, under whose command, or what his duties were.

The story emerged in 2000 when the Boston Globe's Walter Robinson, after combing through 160 pages of military documents and interviewing Bush's former commanders, reported that Bush's flying career came to an abrupt and unexplained end in the spring of 1972 when he asked for, and was inexplicably granted, a transfer to a paper-pushing Guard unit in Alabama. During this time Bush worked on the Senate campaign of a friend of his father's. With his six-year Guard commitment, Bush was obligated to serve through 1973. But according to his own discharge papers, there is no record that he did any training after May 1972. Indeed, there is no record that Bush performed any Guard service in Alabama at all. In 2000, a group of veterans offered a $3,500 reward for anyone who could confirm Bush's Alabama Guard service. Of the estimated 600 to 700 Guardsmen who were in Bush's unit, not a single person came forward.

In 1973 Bush returned to his Houston Guard unit, but in May of that year his commanders could not complete his annual officer effectiveness rating report because, they wrote, "Lt. Bush has not been observed at this unit during the period of the report." Based on those records, as well as interviews with Texas Air National guardsmen, the Globe raised serious questions as to whether Bush ever reported for duty at all during 1973.

Throughout the 2000 campaign Bush aides never forcefully questioned the Globe's account. Instead, they searched for military documents that would support Bush's claim that he did indeed attend drill duties during the year in question. His aides eventually uncovered one piece of paper that seemed to bolster their case that he had attended a drill in late 1972, but the document was torn and did not have Bush's full name on it.

Today, the White House says that although Bush did miss some weekend drills, he eventually made them up, and more importantly he received an honorable discharge. Bush supporters routinely cite the president's honorable discharge as the ultimate proof that there was nothing unbecoming about his military service.

But experts say that citation does not wipe away the questions. "An honorable discharge does not indicate a flawless record," says Grant Lattin, a military law attorney in Washington and a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel who served as a judge advocate, or JAG officer. "Somebody could have missed a year's worth of Guard drills and still end up with an honorable discharge." That's because of the extraordinary leeway local commanders within the Guard are given over these types of issues. Lattin notes that the Guard "is obviously very political, even more so than other military institutions, and is subject to political influence."

For failing to attend required monthly drill sessions and refusing to take a physical, 1st Lt. Bush just as easily could have been moved to active duty, given a less-than-honorable discharge, or had his flying rights permanently revoked, says Eugene Fidell, a leading Washington expert on military law. "For a fully trained pilot, he was assigned to a nothing job [in Alabama], and the available records indicate he never performed that job."

In the Guard today, as a general rule, "if someone doesn't show up for drill duty, doesn't show up, and doesn't show up, they'll be separated from their unit and given an other-than-honorable discharge" most likely noting "unsatisfactory participation," says D.C. military lawyer David Sheldon, who served in the Navy and represented officers before the Court of Military Appeals.

Meanwhile, recent questions have surfaced not only about Bush's military service, but his official records. "I think some documents were taken out" of his military file, the Boston Globe's Robinson tells Salon. "And there's at least one document that appears to have been inserted into his record in early 2000." That document -- the aforementioned torn page that did not have Bush's full name on it -- plays a central role in the story.

"His records have clearly been cleaned up," says author James Moore, whose upcoming book, "Bush's War for Re-election," will examine the issue of Bush's military service in great detail. Moore says as far back as 1994, when Bush first ran for governor of Texas, his political aides "began contacting commanders and roommates and people who would spin and cover up his Guard record. And when my book comes out, people will be on the record testifying to that fact: witnesses who helped clean up Bush's military file."

If Bush wanted to resolve the questions about his National Guard service, he could do so very easily. If he simply agreed to release the contents of his military personnel records jacket, the Guard could make public all his discharge papers, including pay records and total retirement points, which experts say would shed the best light on where Bush was, or was not, during the time in question between 1972 and 1973. (Many of Bush's documents are available through Freedom of Information requests, but certain items deemed personal or private cannot be released without Bush's permission.)

Releasing military records has become a time-honored tradition of presidential campaigns. During the 1992 presidential election, Bush's father, George H.W. Bush, called on his Democratic opponent, Bill Clinton, to make public all personal documents relating his draft status during the Vietnam War, including any correspondences with "Clinton's draft board, the Selective Service System, the Reserve Officer Training Corps, the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Marines, the Coast Guard, the United States departments of State and Justice, any U.S. foreign embassy or consulate." That, according to a Bush-Quayle Oct. 15, 1992, press release.

Calls to the White House seeking comment on if and when the president's full military records will be released were not returned.

The spark that reignited this issue came when ABC News anchor Peter Jennings, co-moderating a Democratic debate on Jan. 22, asked retired Gen. Wesley Clark why he did not repudiate comments made by his supporter, filmmaker Michael Moore, who publicly labeled Bush a "deserter." Jennings editorialized, "Now that's a reckless charge not supported by the facts."

Republican pundits agreed. Bill Bennett, a director of Empower America, told Fox News that Clark's "failure to distance himself, repudiate, absolutely condemn Michael Moore's description of the president as a deserter was a terrible thing."

Most informed observers agree that Moore's choice of words was sloppy and inaccurate. "Deserter" is a criminal term: It refers to a military personnel who abandons his post with no intention of ever returning. But Democrats have taken hold of the broader issue of whether Bush was AWOL. Their willingness to bring up a previously off-limits subject reflects their sense that Bush's aura of invincibility has worn off and the confidence imparted by Kerry's resurgent campaign. Democrats feel Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, has the personal history to question Bush's service.

But the issue is also ripe because of Bush's own reelection strategy. By donning a fighter flight suit and landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln for a photo-op in May 2003, he has tried to paint himself as a seasoned military leader in the United States' war on terrorism. With newfound aggressiveness, Democrats are trying to puncture that aura by hammering away on the fact that Bush's own military record fails to back it up.

That's what Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe did this Sunday on ABC News' "This Week," when he referred to Bush as "a man who was AWOL in the Alabama National Guard." That brought a quick rebuttal from South Carolina's Republican Gov. Mark Sanford, who told CNN it was wrong for Democrats to be "taking shots at [Bush] for being a guardsman."

In similar fashion, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., claimed Tuesday night that by bringing up Bush's National Guard service, the Democrats are impugning the patriotism of guardsmen, implying that their contributions are less worthy than those who serve in the military. As those disingenuous comments suggest, Republicans are trying to change the subject, falsely framing the debate as a repeat of the National Guard controversy that dogged Vice President Dan Quayle during the 1988 presidential campaign.

It's easy to see why they're pursuing this strategy. If the story were simply about how Bush used his family connections to land a slot in the Texas Air National Guard (and all indications are he did just that ), it wouldn't matter much. But the real story is not how Bush got into the Guard. It's how he got out.

Until the last two days the mainstream media has routinely ignored or downplayed the issue. Slate columnist Michael Kinsley took euphemism to new heights when he wrote in a Dec. 5 column that Bush was "lackadaisical" about fulfilling his Guard requirement. On Jan. 17, the Associated Press, recapping the "deserter" controversy, did Bush a favor, erroneously reporting that his absent-without-leave time lasted just three months in 1972, instead of the 12-18 months actually in question. And on Feb. 1, ABC News, suggesting Democrats might turn off voters by attacking Bush's military service, reported Bush simply "missed some weekends of training." None of those descriptions come anywhere near describing the established facts at the center of the controversy.

Perhaps that's not surprising. The press, apparently deeming the National Guard story unworthy, paid more attention to the debate over Moore's "deserter" comment than they did to the actual story of Bush's unexplained absence when it came out during the 2000 campaign.

While co-moderating the Democratic debate, ABC News' Jennings was sure he knew the facts about Bush's military record. But as the Daily Howler noted, a search of the LexisNexis electronic database indicates that ABC's "World News Tonight," hosted by Jennings, never once during the 2000 campaign ran a report about the questions surrounding Bush's military record. Asked if ignoring the story was a mistake, and whether ABC News planned to pursue it in 2004, a network spokeswoman told Salon, "We continue to examine the records of all the candidates running for president, including President Bush. If and when we have a story about one of the candidates, we'll report it to our audience."

ABC was not alone in turning away from the story in 2000. CBS News did the same thing, and so did NBC News. But it was the New York Times, and the way the paper of record avoided the issue of Bush's no-show military service, that stands out as the most unusual. To this day, the Times has never reported that in 1972 the Texas Air National Guard grounded Bush for failing to take a required physical exam. Nor has the paper ever reported that neither Bush nor his aides can point to a single person who saw Bush, the hard-to-miss son of a congressman and U.S. ambassador, perform any active duty requirements during the final 18 months of his service. Instead, the Times served up stories that failed to delve deep into the issue.

The Boston Globe story broke on May 23, 2000. The next day Bush answered reporters' questions on the campaign trail, defending his military record. His comments were covered by the Times Union (of Albany, N.Y.), the Columbus Dispatch, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the Houston Chronicle, among others, which all considered the story newsworthy. Not the Times: The paper ignored the fact Bush was forced to respond to allegations that he'd been AWOL during his Guard service.

Throughout the 2000 campaign, the Times' Nicholas Kristof wrote a series of biographical dispatches about Bush's personal history. On July 11, he wrote about Bush's post-college years, including his National Guard service, but no mention was made of the controversy surrounding Bush's missing year.

The Times finally addressed the issue on July 22, two months after the Globe exposé was published. The Times article, written by Jo Thomas, focused on Bush's post-Yale years in the late '60s and early '70s. In a section on the National Guard controversy, the Times reported that Bush's commanding officer had told the Boston Globe that Bush had never showed up, quoted Bush as insisting that he had, and noted that "Emily Marks, who worked in the Blount campaign and dated Mr. Bush, said she recalls that he returned to Montgomery after the election to serve with the Air National Guard." But then the Times went on to write, "National Guard records provided by the Guard and by the Bush campaign indicate he did serve on Nov. 29, 1972, after the election. These records also show a gap in service from that time to the previous May. Mr. Bush says he made up for the lost time in subsequent months, and guard records show he received credit for having performed all the required service."

On Oct. 31, the Boston Globe published another damning story, suggesting Bush failed to serve -- in fact, did not even show up for duty-- during the final 18 months of his commitment. The Times' Thomas quickly wrote, "A review of records by The New York Times indicated that some of those concerns [about Bush's absence] may be unfounded." Contradicting the Globe's account of Bush war service, the paper reported that Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett "pointed to a document in Mr. Bush's military records that showed credit for four days of duty ending Nov. 29 and for eight days ending Dec. 14, 1972, and, after he moved back to Houston, on dates in January, April and May."

The document cited by the Times is apparently the mysterious torn paper that appeared in Bush's records in 2000. That document, a "Statement of Points Earned," tracks when guardsmen have served, and whether they have fulfilled their annual duty. It contains references to "29" and "14" and other numbers whose meaning is not clear. The Times did not inform its readers that the document is badly torn, undated, and unsigned; does not have Bush's name on it (just a wayward "W"); and has a redacted Social Security number.

"The Times got spun by Dan Bartlett," Robinson at the Globe told Salon. He and others note that if the documents provided by the Bush campaign proved he did Guard duty upon returning to Houston in January and April of 1973, then why, on Bush's annual effectiveness report signed by two superiors, did it say, "Lt. Bush has not been observed at this unit during the period of the report," which covered the dates between May 1, 1972, and April 30, 1973?

"I had a lot of arguments with Dan Bartlett and never got spun by him," says Thomas, now an assistant chancellor for public affairs at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. "But if he gave me some documents that proved his point, I'm not going to ignore them." She added, "The Times carried no brief for or against Bush."

Nonetheless, the author James Moore says it was those two Times stories, which seemed to back up Bush's sketchy account of his Guard service, that effectively stopped other reporters from pursuing the story.

Here are the known facts of that story: Following his graduation from Yale University in 1968, with the Vietnam War raging, Bush vaulted to the top of a 500-person waiting list to land a coveted spot in the Texas Air National Guard. Then, despite having no aviation or ROTC experience, he was approved for an automatic commission as a second lieutenant and assignment to flight school.

By every indication, Bush's service between 1970 and 1972 as a fully trained pilot in the 111th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron near Houston was commendable. But then came the spring of 1972 -- and Bush simply vanished.

Contrary to the official campaign biography that appeared on the Bush Web site during 2000, which stated he flew fighter planes until his discharge in late 1973, Bush flew for the last time ever in April 1972. In May, he moved to Alabama to help out in the Senate campaign of Winton Blount, a friend of Bush's father. Bush asked to be transferred to an Alabama Air National Guard unit where he could do "equivalent training." Bush asked to be transferred to a postal unit for paper-pushing duties -- and remarkably, his Houston commanders signed off on the request. But officials at the Air Reserve Personnel Center in Denver eventually overruled the request, pointing out the obvious: Doing paperwork in a postal unit did not qualify as "equivalent training" for a fully trained pilot.

The situation remained unresolved for months. During that time, Bush was still obligated to attend drill sessions with his regular unit near Houston. Guard records indicate he did not.

In September 1972, Bush won approval to do temporary training at the 187th Squadron in Montgomery. But the unit's commander, retired Brig. Gen. William Turnipseed, told the Boston Globe he was "dead certain" Bush never showed. "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."

On Wednesday, Bush-Cheney '04 spokesman Terry Holt told Salon that Turnipseed recently donated $500 to Sen. John Edwards' campaign. Holt questioned whether the motives behind Turnipseed's comments regarding Bush's service were "pure," or whether he's part of a "political attack." Turnipseed could not be reached for comment.

In any case, as already noted, there is no official National Guard record of Bush's ever serving in Alabama, and not a single guardsman who served at that time has ever come forward and corroborated that Bush was there.

Meanwhile, in July of that summer, Bush's "failure to accomplish" his mandatory annual physical (that is, to take it) forced the Guard to ground him.

Following Blount's election loss in November, Bush returned to Houston. But he did not return to his Guard duties, at least according to his commanding officers. In May 1973, his two superior officers at Ellington Air Force Base noted on Bush's evaluation that he had not been seen during the previous year. In the comments section, Lt. Col. William Harris Jr. wrote that Bush "cleared this base on 15 May 1972, and has been performing equivalent training in a non flying role with the 187th Tac Recon Gp at Dannelly ANG Base, Alabama." The problem is, Bush never reported for duty there, or anywhere else in Alabama. According to his discharge papers, Bush took the whole year off instead.

Bush was finally recorded as having crammed in 36 active-duty credits during May, June and July 1973, thereby meeting his minimal requirement. But as the Boston Globe pointed out, nobody connected with the Texas unit recalls seeing Bush during his cram sessions, leading to suspicions that Bush was given credits for active duty he did not perform.

The suspicion stems in part from the incorrect, and inconsistent, answers that Bush and his spokesmen have given to the question of why, after going through extraordinarily rigorous flight training, he simply walked away from flying. The day the Globe story appeared on May 23, 2000, Bush explained to reporters that when he returned to Houston in 1973, his old fighter plane was being phased out. "There was a conscious decision not to retrain me in an airplane," he said, suggesting it was the Texas Air National Guard's decision to end his flying career. That's not true. The plane to which Bush was referring, the F-102, was phased out during the 1970s, but it was still being used in 1973. Bush did not tell reporters about his failed physical exam and how that resulted in his being grounded.

That misleading answer about Bush's Guard service was just one of many the candidate and his aides gave during the campaign. For instance, a campaign official told Cox News reporters in July 1999 that Bush's transfer to the Alabama Guard unit was for the same flying job he held in Texas. That's false. There was no flying involved at either Alabama unit (not that Bush ever reported to them, according to Guard records), and without passing a physical, Bush couldn't fly anyway.

Also in July 1999, Bush's then-spokeswoman Karen Hughes told the Associated Press it was accurate for Bush to suggest, as he'd done in a previous campaign, that he served "in the U.S. Air Force," when in fact he served in the Air National Guard.

Asked in 2000 why Bush failed to take his physical in July 1972, the campaign gave two different explanations. The first was that Bush was (supposedly) serving in Alabama and his personal physician was in Texas, so he couldn't get a physical. That's false. By military regulations, Bush could not have received a military physical from his personal physician, only from an Air Force flight surgeon, and there were several assigned to nearby Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala. The other explanation was that because Bush was no longer flying, he didn't need to take a physical. But that simply highlights the extraordinary nature of Bush's service and the peculiar notion that he took it upon himself to decide that a) he was no longer a pilot and b) he didn't have to take a physical.

Early in September 1973, Bush submitted a request to effectively end any requirements to attend monthly drills. Despite Bush's record, the request was approved. He was given an honorable discharge, and that fall he enrolled in Harvard Business School.

One of the obvious questions raised by Bush's missing year is why he was never brought up on any disciplinary charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) and why he was given an honorable discharge. (It's unlikely Bush could have run for president if he'd been tainted with anything less than an honorable discharge from the military.)

But the issue is not that black and white. "An honorable discharge usually means the person has not committed any misconduct," says retired JAG officer Lattin. "He may have failed to honor his obligation, but he hasn't committed a criminal act. And that's an important distinction."

It's important, because based on Lattin's interpretation of the military law, a guardsman on non-active duty who fails to show up for his monthly drill sessions, as Bush did, is not subject to the UCMJ. The UCMJ, Lattin says, applies only to active-duty servicemen. And while guardsmen who report for weekend duty are covered for those 48 hours by the UCMJ's unique codes (regarding desertion, being AWOL, etc.), a non-active guardsman who refuses to report for duty in the first place cannot be covered by the UCMJ. Instead, an absent-without-leave guardsman is subject to the state's military codes of justice, which mirror the UCMJ.

But even then, says Lattin, cases of guardsmen who fail to attend drill sessions are rarely dealt with under the military's criminal code, but rather administratively, which is less burdensome. Administrative options include transferring the solider to active duty, or separating him from his unit while beginning dismissal procedures that would likely -- although not always -- result in a less than, or other than, honorable discharge. Also in Bush's case, he could have been permanently stripped of his flight privileges.

So why was no administrative action taken against Bush during his missing year or more? "It could have been mere inefficiency, or a reluctance to create controversy with the son of an important federal official," says Fidell, the military law expert. "Observers of the Guard at that time have said it did seem to be an entity in which connections might be helpful."

Lattin is more blunt. "The National Guard is extremely political in the sense of who you know," he says. "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."

Lattin stresses that the Bush episode, and the Guard's failure to take any administrative actions against him, have to be viewed in context of the early '70s. With the Vietnam War beginning to wind down and the U.S. military battling endemic low morale, the Pentagon showed little interest in chasing after absent-without-leave guardsmen. "It was too hard and there were too many of them," says Lattin. "There was a 'who cares' attitude. Commanders didn't want to deal with them. And they knew they'd stir up a hornet's nest, especially if one of the [missing guardsmen] was named George Bush."

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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