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A Matter of Record

February 10, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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KWAME HOLMAN: Dormant since the 2000 campaign, questions about President Bush’s military service during the Vietnam War have resurfaced. According to military records and press reports, after graduating from Yale University in 1968, George W. Bush joined the Texas Air National Guard at the height of the Vietnam War. By 1970, he had completed flight school and combat training.

After serving two years in Texas in 1972, Mr. Bush asked to continue his duties in Alabama where he worked on a Senate campaign. In July 1972, he failed to take a required annual flight physical in Alabama and a month later was suspended from flying status. In November that year, Mr. Bush returned to his unit in Texas. In the fall of 1973, George W. Bush attended Harvard Business School and was formally, and honorably, discharged from the National Guard, some eight months short of fulfilling his six-year commitment.

Some Democrats claim that gaps in the record suggest the president failed to fulfill his military duties. At a campaign event for retired Gen. Wesley Clark last month, filmmaker and activist Michael Moore called President Bush “a deserter.” And last month on CNN, Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said:

TERRY McAULIFFE: I would call it “AWOL,” you call it whatever you want. But the issue is the president did not show up for the year he was in Alabama, when he was supposed to show up for the National Guard.

KWAME HOLMAN: McAuliffe’s Republican counterpart, Ed Gillespie, responded.

ED GILLESPIE: Terry’s wrong that the president was AWOL in the National Guard. That is not accurate. The president served honorably in the National Guard. This is one of the — the Democrats throw these charges out there. They’re just completely inaccurate and it’s unfortunate that they stoop to this kind of politics.

KWAME HOLMAN: President Bush himself countered during an interview Sunday on Meet the Press.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The political season is here. I was, served in the National Guard. I flew F-102 aircraft. I got an honorable discharge. I’ve heard this. I’ve heard this ever since I started running for office. I mean, it’s a — I put in my time, proudly so. I would be careful to not denigrate the Guard. It’s fine to go after me, which I expect the other side will do. I wouldn’t denigrate service to the Guard, though, and the reason I wouldn’t is because there are a lot of really fine people who served in the National Guard and who are serving in the National Guard today in Iraq.

TIM RUSSERT: The Boston Globe and the Associated Press have gone through some of their records and said there is no evidence that you reported for duty in Alabama during the summer and fall of 1972.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Yeah, they’re just wrong. There may be no evidence. But I did report. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been honorably discharged. In other words, you don’t just say “I did something” without there being verification. The military doesn’t work that way. I got an honorable discharge, and I did show up in Alabama.

TIM RUSSERT: You did — were allowed to leave eight months before your term expired? Was there a reason?

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Right. Well, I was going to Harvard Business School and worked it out with the military.

TIM RUSSERT: But would you allow pay stubs, tax records, anything to show that you were serving during that period?

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Yeah. If we still have them, but I — you know, the records are kept in Colorado, as I understand, and they scoured the records. And I’m just telling you, I did my duty, and it’s politics that kind of ascribe all kinds of motives to me. But I have been through it before. I’m used to it. What I don’t like is when people say serving in the Guard is, may not be true service.

KWAME HOLMAN: Vietnam combat veteran and leading Democratic candidate John Kerry has responded to reporters’ questions on the issue.

SEN. JOHN KERRY: Look I’m not trying to — first of all, let me say this, because I heard the president try to suggest something about the Guard: I have always honored and I will always honor anybody who serves anywhere. I’ve said since the day I came back from Vietnam that it was not an issue to me if someone chose to go to Canada, or to go to jail, or to be a conscientious objector, or to serve in the National Guard or elsewhere. I honor that service, but that’s not the issue here. The issue here as I have heard it raised is, was he present and active on duty in Alabama at the times he was supposed to be? I don’t have the answer to that question. Just because you get an honorable discharge does not in fact answer that question.

KWAME HOLMAN: Today, the White House released pay records and other information from the period of the president’s Guard service to support the assertion that he fulfilled the requirements. White House Spokesman Scott McClellan:

SCOTT McCLELLAN: When you serve, you are paid for that service. These documents outline the days on which he was paid. That means he served. And these documents also show that he met his requirements and it’s just really a shame that people are continuing to bring this up. These documents clearly show that the president met the requirements and fulfilled his duties.

KWAME HOLMAN: McClellan did not explain a five-month period in 1972 when the president was not paid for his National Guard service. The White House has not cited any fellow national guardsmen or commanders who might corroborate that he attended Guard meetings and drills.

MARGARET WARNER: So what do the new records released by the White House today tell us about President Bush’s service in the Air National Guard? For that we turn to Walter Robinson, editor of the investigative unit at the Boston Globe. He’s been reporting on this issue since the year 2000 — and two retired military officers who saw active service in Vietnam, then went on to senior positions in the National Guard. Air Force Maj. Gen. Paul Weaver, his last post was as director of the Air National Guard. And Army Brig. Gen. David McGinnis, his last post was as director of strategic plans and analysis for reserve affairs in the Pentagon. Welcome to you all.

Walter Robinson, beginning with you. The controversial period, is this period when he was in Alabama, roughly six months. Why has there been, you’ve been reporting on this for the last four years. Where did the debate even arise? Where did the controversy even arise?

WALTER ROBINSON: The controversy arrived, Margaret, back in the year 2000 when reporters, myself among them, obtained Governor Bush’s military records in some cases with help from the Bush campaign. After looking them over it was apparent that there was a year’s period between April 16 of 1972 and May 1 of 1973 when he did not appear for any duty, according to those records. Also his discharge papers from the National Guard show no duty after April of 1972.

MARGARET WARNER: So what do the documents released by the White House today — and I know you’ve seen them — tell us about that, just that period in Alabama when he was there working on this campaign?

WALTER ROBINSON: Well, taking that period he was there for about six months. In the months of May, June, July, August, September and December, he did no National Guard duty. He did only two appearances according to these records: a weekend in late October and four days in mid November, although Mr. McClellan couldn’t say today whether that was actually done in Alabama as the president has said or done in Texas. The problem with that is Mr. Bush’s assigned commander in Alabama and his personnel officer both said pretty emphatically in the year 2000 that they had no recollection that Mr. Bush or any lieutenant from Texas had ever appeared at their unit.

MARGARET WARNER: You interviewed those two men?

WALTER ROBINSON: That’s correct.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. General McGinnis, what does, you’ve seen the White House records too. What do they tell you about the Alabama period?

BRIG. GEN. DAVID McGINNIS (Ret.): They tell me about the, they tell me the Alabama period is a, is fairly, fairly void of duty and that his overall performance during that period is spasmodic. I think that’s the best way to put it.

MARGARET WARNER: Would you go so far as to –does this qualify for being AWOL?

BRIG. GEN. DAVID McGINNIS (Ret.): Not necessarily. That’s a decision for the commander to make. He should have been performing duty on a more regular basis. And administrative action and procedures should have been taken to ensure that he did perform those duties on a regular basis so he can maintain proficiency in his aircraft. And that definitely did not occur.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. General Weaver, how do you read these?

MAJ. GEN. PAUL WEAVER (Ret.): Briefly I just want to correct the record. I’m a Vietnam era veteran; did not serve in Vietnam. I’m a Desert Shield/Desert Storm veteran; I wanted to make sure of that for the record.

I view that he did satisfactory service. For the records that the White House released today that he performed minimally and met the requirements for a satisfactory year in order to give him the ability to be — retire with an honorable discharge. And that’s what it says. I mean, we’ve had occurrences like this before. I mean, this is nothing new.

MARGARET WARNER: So you mean, for instance, when he was transferred would that be unusual that someone could be transferred, one, and that during that period say five and six months they wouldn’t actually do any Guard duty?

MAJ. GEN. PAUL WEAVER (Ret.): Absolutely. In the Guard and Reserve, we have the ability to be able to transfer our members from one state to another, from one unit to another with the agreement between the commanders in order that that person might have a civilian job requirement in another area and he or she wants to keep up that military duty so we have an agreement between the commanders and that’s worked out to where they’ll do duty in another state or another unit in order to keep up their military requirement.

MARGARET WARNER: So would you agree that that wouldn’t be unusual?

BRIG. GEN. DAVID McGINNIS (Ret.): No, it wouldn’t be unusual during that period. One of the issues here is his status in Alabama. From all indications, I believe he was on equivalent training. He never left. He was never transferred from the Houston unit. There’s certain obligations there by both the gaining unit and the parent unit to make sure that that training occurs and it’s reported on a regular basis. I see no evidence of that.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me ask you — Walter Robinson, back to you. Also during that Alabama period, is the month he didn’t show up for his annual physical and then was suspended. Now is all that documented in documents — it’s not in any of the White House but he was suspended from flight status.

WALTER ROBINSON: That’s in his military records that he did not appear for his annual flight physical, which was scheduled for August of 1972 and there were orders issued in September of 1972 suspending him from flight duty. There are no other documents in the records that explain why that happened. He clearly was serving at a unit in Alabama which did not have the same type of aircraft as his unit in Houston. But there’s no documents to explain why he didn’t take the physical.

MARGARET WARNER: So, General Weaver, how unusual would that be? I mean, here the Air Force has invested probably tens of thousands of dollars in training him to be a pilot yet essentially he stops being a pilot.

MAJ. GEN. PAUL WEAVER (Ret.): There had to be an agreement between President Bush and his commander that he possibly was going to be working at his civilian capacity. In this case it was working on a campaign, that he would not be able to fly and stay current. He’d let his physical lapse — that I would fault him for — for letting his physical lapse. That’s extremely important because you should be able to be called back at recurrent training and then perform duties as a military aviator.

But it has happened where individuals having a, again, a job requirement outside the normal local area, won’t be able to fly for a certain period of time but we try to keep them current on their physicals and their qualification requirements so that they can come back in the cockpit.

MARGARET WARNER: Anything you would add to that?

BRIG. GEN. DAVID McGINNIS (Ret.): The unit that he participated with in Alabama was a reconnaissance unit, had two-seat aircraft. So he would have the opportunity to fly with that unit in the back seat and perform other flight officer duties other than pilot but that’s the extent that he would have, that I would add.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now, Walter Robinson, then the other area that there’s been a question about is when he returned to Houston. You said earlier there had been no records before today showing actually was paid for days. Was there any other evidence that suggested to you and other reporters that, in fact, he hadn’t served?

WALTER ROBINSON: Well, this remains a riddle, Margaret. The records released today show that he did attend drills in January, again in April, and then — we know this from his military records in the past — he was ordered to begin a series of drills starting the first of May of 1973.

But what remains a puzzle is that his two superior officers who were supposed to do his annual officer efficiency report on May 1 of 1973 — and one of them was a friend of his, Col. Jerry Killian — they wrote they could not rate him because he had not been at the base for the prior 12 months, that he been fulfilling his duty at Dannelly Air National Guard Base in Alabama. So they were essentially at least from our reading of the records saying that he wasn’t at the Houston base to be rated during that period. Additionally, I should add –

MARGARET WARNER: Go ahead.

WALTER ROBINSON: Both of those officers are dead. There were two other officers we interviewed four years ago who said that it had been their impression that after Lieutenant Bush left for Alabama he finished his Guard duty in Alabama and did not return at all to Houston.

MARGARET WARNER: So General McGinnis, what do you make of this Houston period? The records released today show that he was paid for many, quite a few days in that period.

BRIG. GEN. DAVID McGINNIS (Ret.): They do. They show he was paid for a large number of days. From the beginning of the year I think I counted up 46 assemblies from January on. In May most of those were in May and beyond. And into July. He obviously he wasn’t performing in Alabama he would have to be performing in Houston.

MARGARET WARNER: A columnist, Richard Cohen wrote in The Washington Post today who himself had been in the Guard, said that in fact — I think he called it playing hooky — that he successfully played hooky. He went in the Guard to get out of serving in Vietnam and he played hooky and he still got paid. Was one ever paid for meetings and drills you missed?

BRIG. GEN. DAVID McGINNIS (Ret.): That could occur. But there was an internal audit review process that would catch that. Unit pay was inspected and attendance was inspected annually. Generally when that occurred, it was caught by the higher headquarters, in this case the state.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me jump ahead General Weaver to another issue that’s come up because I want to get to all of them. That has to do with this early discharge now he was and he himself said in the interview with Tim Russert that eight months before he was, his commitment was due to expire, he said he’d worked it out with the military so he could leave and go to Harvard Business School.

MAJ. GEN. PAUL WEAVER (Ret.): Not unusual. Not unusual. I mean he was nearing the end of his commitment. As Robby wrote in an article in 2000, during that period of time the commanders were looking to make sure that they had people that were going to attend Guard drills, be Guard members, that were going to be active participants, be important members, President Bush was going on to school and so it’s not unusual.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally let’s talk about the Guard then and the Guard today. Robby, a quick question to you — there’ve been all these, there have been allegations that he and others got — it was favoritism to even get in the National Guard and it was a way to avoid service in Vietnam. What does your reporting show about how hard it was to get in the Texas National Guard? His father was a congressman at that time.

WALTER ROBINSON: Well, there was a long waiting list. And I think The Washington Post reported and the L.A. Times most in depth on this that there was a waiting list of 500 people and that there was an affidavit or I should say a deposition in a civil suit in which a former Texas House speaker acknowledged that he, along with a close family friend of the Bush’s, arranged for George W. Bush to essentially leap that waiting list and get into the Guard.

MARGARET WARNER: So General McGinnis, how different would you say or would you say that the Guard of today is from the Guard of that era?

BRIG. GEN. DAVID McGINNIS (Ret.): Dramatic. Night and day. The Guard today and since the mid-’80s has been actively involved in carrying out our foreign policy and defending America in a proactive way. The Guard back in the ’60s was preparing to defend Europe against the Russians. It was a Cold War service. Up until 9/11 at any given day when I was in the building and when General Weaver was in the building 10 percent of the Americans deployed were guardsmen and reservists overseas. Today that number is higher than that.

MARGARET WARNER: In Iraq, it’s something like 40 percent, isn’t it?

MAJ. GEN. PAUL WEAVER (Ret.): Forty percent of the combat forces in Afghanistan and Iraq are guardsmen and reservists.

BRIG. GEN. DAVID McGINNIS (Ret.): Guardsmen died in Afghanistan after 9/11 and they’ve died in Iraq.

MARGARET WARNER: General McGinnis, President Bush, we heard him say well if my unit had been called up, he supported the war in Vietnam and he said if my unit had been called up, I would have gone. What were the chances of his unit being called up to Vietnam?

BRIG. GEN. DAVID McGINNIS (Ret.): Specifically a fighter interrupter unit, his responsibility was to defend the continental United States. So it’s highly unlikely they would have been called up to go to Vietnam or any other incident. There were call-ups during the Vietnam period in ’68 for the Pueblo crisis. But the units that were called up were tactical units deployed to Korea not air defense units.

MAJ. GEN. PAUL WEAVER (Ret.): Many guardsmen were deployed to Southeast Asia during that period of time. So I agree with Senator Kerry and President Bush not to get the argument about that the Guard was a scapegoat for men and women or men who were trying to escape the draft. The Guard does not deserve that at all.

I mean the Guard is older than the birth of our country. We’ve been there at every conflict and as evidence today where we are today. David is right. We’ve changed a lot. But they’re still at the door. They’re still lined up at door to join the Guard and Reserve. So that tells you something about the caliber of individuals that we have in our country.

MARGARET WARNER: Walter Robinson and generals both, thank you.

MAJ. GEN. PAUL WEAVER (Ret.): Thank you.

BRIG. GEN. DAVID McGINNIS (Ret.): Thank you.

WALTER ROBINSON: Thank you.