Why Is There a One-Year Gap in Bush’s National Guard Duty?

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Michael Moore called him a deserter. Democratic National Committee Chairman Terrence McAuliffe called him AWOL. The controversy over a one-year gap in President Bush’s military service has come under fresh scrutiny in recent weeks. We speak with the Boston Globe’s Walter Robinson who first exposed the story in 2000 when he revealed that Bush’s National Guard records indicate he failed to perform a year of service from 1972 to 1973. [Includes transcript]

A one-year gap in President Bush’s Texas Air National Guard service during the height of the Vietnam War has once again come to the mainstream media’s attention.

It all started during the New Hampshire campaign last month when documentary filmmaker Michael Moore referred to Bush as a “deserter” at a Wesley Clark rally of 1,000 people outside Concord when he described a hypothetical debate between Clark and Bush.

  • Michael Moore, Academy award-winning filmmaker and author speaking at a Wesley Clark rally in Concord, New Hampshire.

This past Sunday, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terence McAuliffe accused Bush of going AWOL or “absent without leave” while he was serving in the Air National Guard in the early 1970s.

In response, Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie accused McAuliffe of leveling a “demonstrably false and malicious charge that would be slanderous under any ordinary circumstance.” And Bush campaign spokesman Terry Holt yesterday accused McAuliffe of trying to “perpetuate a completely false and bogus assertion. The president was never AWOL.”

The Washington Post picked up the story this week propelling it even further into the media limelight. On Tuesday, White House spokesman Scott McCllean was questioned by reporters at press briefing.

  • Scott McClellan, White House Press Secretary speaking at a White House Press Briefing Feb. 3, 2004.

The story was first exposed four years ago when the Boston Globe’s Walter Robinson produced a meticulously documented report in 2000 showing that Bush’s National Guard records indicate he failed to perform a year of service from 1972 to 1973.

  • Walter Robinson, editor of the Pulitzer Prize winning Boston Globe Spotlight team. He has been reporting with the Globe for nearly three decades. Read his original article.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, a one year gap in the Military Service Record of President Bush at the Texas Air National Guard during the height of the Vietnam War has come up again in the mainstream media. The issue flared up during the New Hampshire campaign last month when documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, referred to Bush as a deserter at a Wesley Clark rally of 1,000 people outside Concord when he described a hypothetical debate between Clark and Bush.

MICHAEL MOORE: The General versus the Deserter! That’s the debate! That’s the debate we want to see!

AMY GOODMAN: This past Sunday, Democratic National Committee Chair, Terrence McAuliffe accused Bush of going AWOL, or absent without leave while he was serving in the Air National Guard in the early 1970’s. In response, Republican National Committee Chair, Ed Gillespie, accused McAuliffe of a leveling a “demonstratably false and malicious charge that would be slanderous under any ordinary circumstance.” And Bush campaign spokesman Terry Halt, accused McAuliffe of trying to “perpetuate a completely false and bogus assertion. The president was never AWOL.” he said.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The Washington Post picked up the story this week and propelled it even further as a big issue. White House Spokesman, Scott McClellan was questioned by reporters at a press briefing.

REPORTER (TERRY): Scott, you expressed outrage this morning that Democrats are questioning whether President Bush shirked his military duty with the Texas Air National Guard. Is the White House trying to come up with any records or any eyewitnesses to demonstrate that he did show up for–in Alabama?

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: Terry, I would just say that it was a shame that this issue was brought up four years ago during the campaign, and it is a shame that it is being brought up again. The president fulfilled his duties. The president was Honorably Discharged.

REPORTER (DANA): Scott, can I follow up?

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: You want to follow up?

REPORTER (TERRY): The question actually was whether or not you’re trying to find any eyewitnesses or any records to disprove —

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: Terry this was addressed four years ago. Like I said, it was a shame that it came up then, and it’s a shame that some are bringing it up again. Dana, did you have one?

REPORTER (DANA): The Democrats have been attacking the president for months on a lot of issues. Why this issue —- why is it that you are choosing to respond to this particular issue where in the past -—

SCOTT MCCLELLAN: The reason, as I said, it is really shameful this was brought up four years ago, and it’s shameful that some are trying to bring it up again. I think it is sad to see some stoop to this level, especially so early in an election year. The president, like many Americans, was proud to serve in the National Guard. The National Guard plays an important role in the security of America, and the president was proud of his service.

AMY GOODMAN: Scott McClellan, the White House Press Secretary. He says this issue was first raised four years ago. Well the, the Boston Globe’s Walter Robinson produced a documented report in 2000 showing that President Bush’s National Guard records indicate he failed to perform a year of service from 1972 to 1973. We are joined by Walter Robinson who is editor of the Pulitzer Prize winning Boston Globe Spotlight team. He has been reporting with the Globe for nearly 30 years. Welcome to Democracy Now!.

WALTER ROBINSON: Good morning, Amy and Juan.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. Could you just go through President Bush’s record in detail back in 1972?

WALTER ROBINSON: Sure. Let’s put bookends on it first. The future president was — won a slot in the Texas Air National Guard when he finished Yale largely through the intersession of family, and friends connected to his father, who was a congressman in Houston. He leap-frogged over 500 people to get in. Back then, the National Guard was a refuge for people who did not want to face the draft or serve in Vietnam. Whether that was his motive or not, who knows. But he got in. He went to flight training. From 1970 to 1972, he flew quite regularly. He had a commitment until 1974. The other end of the bookend is of course, they let him out early in 1973, so he could go to Harvard Business School. In the middle period, all of a sudden, in April, 1972, he stopped flying. He never flew again. He moved to Alabama that month to work on a senate campaign. He was supposed to do his National Guard duty while in Alabama, and there’s no record he ever did it. Bush claimed he did. The commander of the unit in Alabama said Bush never showed up. When he returned in early 1973 to Houston, he was supposed to return to his unit in Houston, and he never did. There are four officers at that unit. Two of them were his direct superiors, and on the first of May of 1973, they wrote that they could not do his annual efficiency report for the prior 12 months because he had, quote, “not been seen at the base in that period.” and they presumed that he was doing his training in Alabama, which, of course, he was not. Two other officers, who supervised him, told us in interviews four years ago when we did this story that their assumption was that Bush completed his military obligation in Alabama because they have no recollection of him ever returning to the Houston Base. So, there is in his formal record, there’s no evidence that after May, early May of 1972, he ever did any Guard duty. Between May of 1972, and September of 1973, when he was released. There is some paper in the personnel files of the unit suggesting he may have crammed some drills into the late spring and summer months of 1973 to meet the very minimum requirements before he got out of the service. But the fact of the matter is, he was missing for a year. Whether he — absent without leave is a serious charge, and it suggests that you essentially left town, didn’t show up, and you did it in violation of orders. There’s no — there’s no evidence that Bush was ever charged with that. His superior officer was also a friend of his, and I wouldn’t want to speculate on whether they knew that Bush wasn’t showing up, but at that period of time in 1972 and 1973, when U.S. troops were being withdrawn from Vietnam, people who had taken refuge in the guard in many instances, there wasn’t a lot of attention to fulfilling the requirements of the guard. Bush early in the campaign for President, as you know, made comments like, when I was young and foolish, I was young and foolish, and — quite clearly there is a period of his life before he went to business school that he’s not proud of. All of this, as you pointed out, was reported four years ago and received a remarkably little attention at that time.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, of course, I guess part of the problem was that in the middle of a presidential race against Al Gore, who himself did not exactly have a sterling military record, I think he worked as a reporter for the military newspaper for a time, it seems unlikely that Al Gore was going to raise the issue, but obviously in this context —

WALTER ROBINSON: Well, Gore, as we have gone back over this issue in this morning’s Globe which sounds like a presidential candidate here, can be seen at www.boston.com, but one issue that Gore faced was that he himself, as you note, had credibility issues. One of them was that Gore, who had in fact served in Vietnam, had claimed at one point falsely that he had come under fire. That had been — that was part of the public record in 2000. So, Gore was not exactly in the kind of position where he could have challenged Bush on this issue back then.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, has Bush himself ever responded or explained where he was in that —


JUAN GONZALEZ: In that period?

WALTER ROBINSON: There are a number of explanations by him and his principle spokesman on the issue Dan Bartlett. Some of them are at odds with one another. For instance, after he went to Alabama, he was removed from flight status because he hadn’t taken his annual flight physical. Mr. Bartlett said well, that’s because his doctor was in Houston, and he was in Alabama. Effective flight physicals are given by Air Force doctors, and there were Air Force doctors in Alabama who could have done that. When Bartlett initially said — speaking for Bush — that Bush had in fact showed up at the Alabama Guard unit, we contacted the officers who ran it, and they said, no way. And Bartlett said, well, then, he went back there later and did the drills. So — but Bush’s memory as well — I did my duty in Alabama, and after I returned to Houston, I did some duty, but I don’t remember what it was or who I worked for. Neither in Alabama nor Texas has any serviceman, who was at either base come forward, which is remarkable given the resources of the Bush Administration, ever come forward to say–to testify, yes, that he in fact was present for duty during this missing year.

AMY GOODMAN: Hmm. We’re talking to Walter Robinson who is the reporter who broke the story with the Boston Globe four years ago about Bush’s record in 1972 and 1973 in the Texas National Guard. At the time during that period, the issue — well, then, of course, he wasn’t a public figure, not very much raised, but then you have the election 2000. Now it looks like the question is how will the press deal with this issue? There’s an interesting piece in The New Republic that says, what Jennings taught Clark last week is that the media probably won’t tolerate it, and that is the question of calling Bush a deserter, or having gone AWOL. Can you talk about that, how this question that the Republicans are attempting to pummel the media into marginalizing that?

WALTER ROBINSON: Well, look, I don’t cover presidential politics anymore, thank God, but speaking as a journalist, what we have here are almost 200 pages of very complex military records. Very few reporters have them or have looked at them. Some who have them and have looked at them have misinterpreted them. Most reporters who are dealing with this issue are covering the campaign and dealing with a whole lot of issues every day. So, they’re essentially dependent upon what the Democratic National Committee says on the one hand and what the White House says on the other hand. So, it’s sort of — there’s a lot of fog around this issue, and it’s really being generated by both sides. I mean, it’s — to call Bush a deserter is to — I think looking at the facts to grossly overstate what happened. I mean, you had a fellow in a Guard unit who was connected who got in because of his connections, who was friendly with his commander, who apparently lost interest in the Guard duty during that period of time, and he was allowed to take a slide. So, he didn’t — you know, he didn’t fulfill the military commitment, which by itself in the view of many veterans was kind of a way to duck the draft. I mean, that’s the issue, and the question is whether — if, for instance, the democratic nominee is senator John Kerry, who has a much more meritorious military record during that period for his Vietnam service, say, than Al Gore did, the question is whether this issue matters. Whether it’s perhaps some — it’s a subliminal issue for people who are weighing the credibility of the incumbent President on issues that are more important to them like why we went to war and that sort of a thing. I think that the Democrats see it as an issue that they can exploit. Quite clearly from the reaction from the White House, the White House is — to put it mildly, a little bit concerned about this issue gaining traction.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I think — well, as you see, especially for people who are not familiar with the military and are not familiar with the times during the Vietnam where when clearly the military was having all kinds of problems with the troops, that it’s very possible for basically a person to in essence have–not to give — well be well, be given a slide, but a no-show job. More than AWOL, but you have been absent despite orders to be at a particular place to be AWOL but —- but for you to have a no-show job for a period of time which is what seems to have occurred here, was actually prevalent in those times. The problem becomes, does the President honestly answer, you know, what was he doing, and own up to -—

WALTER ROBINSON: Well, they’re not —

JUAN GONZALEZ: — whatever his negligence was in this particular case.

WALTER ROBINSON: They’re not going to do that. When Bush was governor and when he was running for president, they had on his biography that he was a pilot with the Air National Guard from 1968 until 1973. First of all, he didn’t finish his training until 1969. He only flew two years and he stopped flying. After this story appeared in 2000, they sort of fuzzed up the wording on the campaign website just saying that he had been a pilot for the Texas Guard. They left the years out. There is — I don’t think there’s — from the way the White House has reacted to this, you know, he — their point is he got an Honorable Discharge. He remembers serving. The records are inexplicable. There is — it’s not an issue that they want to give any life to. You know, understandably. For them to admit now that what the records make pretty obvious would cause more political damage to them, probably, than the continual denials.

AMY GOODMAN: Walter Robinson, I want to thank you for being with us. Walter Robinson, a reporter with the Boston Globe, broke the story of Bush’s record in the National Guard in 1972. Broke it four years ago. You are listening to Democracy Now!. He has a recap piece in today’s Boston Globe, which makes four major points. Saying again, according to the records and interviews in 2000, Bush’s attendance record in the Guard was highly unusual, saying one, although he was trained as a fighter pilot, Bush ceased flying in April, 1972, two years after he finished flight school and two years after his six year enlistment was to end, when he was allowed to transfer to an Alabama Guard Unit. The records contained no evidence that he did duty in Alabama. The Alabama unit commander said Bush never appeared for duty. Two, in August, 1972, Bush was suspended from flight status for failing to take the flight physical. In May, 1973, Bush’s superior officers in Houston wrote they could not perform his annual evaluation because he had “not been observed at the unit in the proceeding 12 months.” The two officers, both friends of Bush, one now dead, wrote they believed bush had been fulfilling his commitment at the Alabama unit.

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