Filmmaker Michael Moore says George W. Bush was a deserter. The White House says the honorable discharge Bush received in 1973 proves he fulfilled his obligations. Between those two positions remains a considerable murk, even with the White House disclosure on Feb. 13 of more than 300 documents from what remains of Bush's military file.
News that young Bush skipped out of his Air National Guard commitment for somewhere between six months to a year finally got the attention of the mainstream news media, nearly four years after the Boston Globe in May 2000 first reported the president's lackadaisical approach to his military service. The Globe had obtained more than 160 pages of Bush's Guard records, which showed no evidence that the then-lieutenant appeared for Guard duty between April 16, 1972, and May 1, 1973. Moreover, the records contained a May 2, 1973, statement by two of his superiors at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston that they could not do his annual rating because he had not been observed at the base for the previous 12 months.
Bush, who had a reputation for hard partying, had sought permission from his superiors to move temporarily to Alabama in May 1972 to work on a US Senate campaign. The records showed that the Air Force first blocked the transfer, then allowed the move in September 1972. Bush was scheduled for just two weekend drills, in September and October 1972, with an Air Guard unit in Montgomery. But the unit's commander said in interviews in 2000 that Bush never appeared at his unit.
Marty Heldt, an Iowa farmer, used the Freedom of Information Act to look up some of Bush's Guard records and wrote an article for TomPaine.com, "George W. Bush's Missing Year," that was published in The Progressive Populist for 11/1/00.
But those disclosures were largely ignored by the mainstream news media. Eric Alterman, a columnist at The Nation, senior fellow of the Center for American Progress and the co-author of The Book on Bush: How George W (Mis)Leads America, noted that "Any number of reporters and commentators in 2000, including those employed by the [New York] Times, knew there were serious questions about whether Mr. Bush actually performed his Guard service to the full. But they chose to look the other way."
In 2000 the same press press corps that was sent into a frenzy investigating whether Al Gore served as the inspiration for Erich Segal's Love Story could not be bothered to check into allegations that George W. Bush failed to take an Air Force physical as a young man, was stripped of his flying status and failed to fulfill his military obligation but was still somehow given an honorable and early discharge during a time of war, Alterman noted.
"Remember this was a campaign that was dominated by questions of the alleged 'character' of the two candidates. But this key window into just what kind of fellow young Bush had been, was deemed uninteresting or unimportant, CBS News aired not one story on the topic. Ditto ABC News. Just about the closest any network came was on the eve of the election during a Meet the Press telecast, when, on Nov. 5, 2000, host Tim Russert read back his guest, Gore supporter Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), a series of quotes he'd made attacking Bush's military service, and which appeared in a follow-up Oct. 31, 2000, Boston Globe article: '[Bush] needs to explain where he was when he was supposed to be fulfilling his military obligation.' But Russert didn't raise the issue with Kerrey for further discussion, but rather to frame the debate around Bush campaign talking points; that Kerrey's comments about Bush's military record were 'out of bounds,' as Russert put it."
Still, Russert never bothered to inform viewers what the Oct. 31, 2000, Boston Globe article actually reported, that not only had Bush failed to report for duty in Alabama during most of 1972, but that even upon returning to Houston the next year, existing records "raise questions about whether Bush performed any duty" the final 18 months of his commitment.
Little more was heard about Bush's Missing Year, even after his widely seen photo-op landing on the aircraft carrier in May 2003 brought recollections of his Air Guard service. Webloggers circulated information on Bush's questionable past on the Internet but questions about Bush's service didn't hit the public at large until January when filmmaker Moore, introducing retired Gen. Wesley Clark at a political rally, called Bush a military "deserter." ABC anchor Peter Jennings then challenged Clark to repudiate Moore during a Democratic debate Jan. 22. Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe followed up with the clarification that Bush had been "absent without leave" after the government had invested at least a quarter of a million dollars to train him as a fighter pilot.
In a Feb. 8 interview on NBC's Meet the Press, Bush sought to quell the controversy, promising to release all his military records. His aides by midweek had backed off from that pledge, but the White House finally gave the press corps access to more than 300 documents on Feb. 13.
The records showed that National Guard officials credited Bush with enough points to meet minimum requirements for the 12-month period ending May 26, 1973, the period of the original gap in his records. An Air Force "Reserve Personnel Record Card" shows Bush received 9 points for active duty training, 31 points for inactive duty training and 15 points for membership in the reserves. That totalled 56, barely exceeding the 50-point requirement for satisfactory service during the period.
But the records didn't add much to what already was known about Bush's stint in the Guard. And some records apparently still are undisclosed.
After his graduation from Yale University, George W. Bush was allowed to join the Texas Air National Guard in 1968 for a six-year term. Ben Barnes, Texas House speaker at the time, testified in 1999 that he helped pull strings to get Bush one of the highly-coveted slots in a fighter jet unit, dubbed the "Champagne Unit," at a time when there was a long waiting list for National Guard openings, despite Bush scoring poorly on a pilot aptitude test. His father was a congressman.
Bush got the assignment despite an arrest record for a Yale fraternity prank, and a driving record that included two speeding tickets and two citations for "negligent collisions." USA Today reported that someone with multiple arrests or driving violations on his record normally would need to obtain a waiver to enlist in the Air National Guard, but there is no such waiver on file.
For four years Bush had a good record as he trained to fly F-102 interceptor jets. He was promoted to first lieutenant. His father became UN ambassador in 1971.
In 1971-72, Dubya apparently started losing interest in the Guard. He started missing drills and flew for the last time on April 16, 1972.
In May 1972 Bush moved to Alabama to work on the Republican senatorial campaign of family friend Winton (Red) Blount. His request for a transfer to an Alabama postal unit was denied because he had trained as a pilot. For the next six months he apparently did not show up at any drills.
In July 1972 Bush missed his annual flight physical. On Aug. 1, 1972, he was suspended from flight status for not taking the physical and he never flew again.
As Kevin Drum of Calpundit.com, who did excellent work examining the Bush affair, noted Feb. 18, "Even by the loose standards of the '70s-era Guard, this was pretty unusual." Two retired National Guard generals told the Boston Globe it was almost unheard of for a military aviator to miss an annual flight physical. And Guard regulations would have required an investigation of Bush's failure to take the physical. The records show no sign of such an inquiry.
On Sept. 5, he was authorized to perform some of his service in Alabama. Records indicate he was paid for six days of service in October and November. No one can say what he did, with the exception of a former major whose timeline conflicts with the known facts, but Bush insists he reported for duty.
The documents show Bush attended about 25 days of Guard training between May 27, 1972, and May 26, 1973. For eight of those 12 months, he performed no duty at all. He did a flurry of drills, 11 days, in May 1973 after receiving special orders to report for them, the Globe reported. The White House said the 25 days were sufficient to fulfill his obligation for retirement credit. But he fell two weeks shy of the minimum number of annual training days expected of guardsmen. Soon after, Bush left the Guard to attend Harvard Business School. His official discharge date was Oct. 1, 1973 -- eight months before his military commitment would normally have concluded.
Bush returned to Houston in November 1972, Drum noted, but Bush apparently went back to Alabama afterwards and got a dental checkup on Jan. 6, 1973, even though his transfer to Alabama was only for September-November. "He says he went back to 'finish up his commitment,' but that doesn't make any sense," Drum wrote. "There was no commitment. Why not simply report back to his home unit at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston? Was he avoiding something?"
During Bush's final two years he performed the minimal duties needed to fulfill his commitment. His father became the Republican national chairman in early 1973. Dubya was transferred to the Reserves six months before his commitment was up and he was discharged from the Reserves a year after that.
Drum noted that Bush refused to release his full military records in 1994, 1998, 2000 and again for several weeks in 2004 even under intense pressure. "Why act guilty if you have nothing to hide?"
Drum also noted that Bush's drill records from the Texas Air National Guard are relatively complete before his hiatus in April 1972. His records change abruptly during that six month period in 1972 when he was absent from drills. After that they are all national-level records and are mere summaries.
Although his retirement records indicate that he attended drills at least five times in April and May of 1973, Bush's annual review from officers at Ellington Air Force Base in May 1973 said he "has not been observed at this unit" for the past 12 months. "Even if Bush were no longer flying and [was] performing 'odds and ends' for different people, it's just not plausible that his direct superiors would be completely ignorant that he had returned to the base," Drum noted. "But even after being asked again about Bush in June, his superiors apparently confirmed that he had not been seen."
Drum also noted that the "complete release" of documents seems to be missing some records. "Where is his final Officer Efficiency Report? His pay stubs? The Flight Inquiry Board report after he was grounded for missing his physical? Even Albert Lloyd, who helped the Bush campaign make sense of his records during the 2000 election, is now suspicious about the lack of original documentation in the file, which would place Bush's whereabouts with more precision."
A former Texas Guardsman, retired Lt. Col. Bill Burkett, claims that documents were purged from Bush's files in 1997. Burkett told the Dallas Morning News (Feb. 12) that in 1997 he overheard then-Gov. Bush's chief of staff, Joe Allbaugh, tell the chief of the Texas National Guard to get the Bush file and make certain "there's not anything there that will embarrass the governor." The newspaper quoted Burkett as saying that a few days later he saw Mr. Bush's file and documents from it discarded in a trash can, and that he recognized the documents as retirement point summaries and pay forms. Drum also interviewed Burkett and found his story credible.
The Memphis Flyer on Feb. 20 reported that two members of the Alabama Guard unit who had been told to expect him late in that year were on the lookout for him. "He never showed, however; of that both Bob Mintz and Paul Bishop are certain," Jackson Baker wrote for the weekly Flyer. The two former Guard pilots were skeptical when John "Bill" Calhoun, a Guard major and the flight safety officer for the 187th Air National Guard Tactical squadron in 1972, came forward at the apparent prompting of the White House to claim that he remembered Lt. Bush showing up at Dannelly Air Base in 1972 and that Bush spent time in Calhoun's office reading magazines and flight manuals. There is a glaring discrepancy in Calhoun's statement that Bush was on the base during the spring and early summer of 1972. Even the White House does not claim the young lieutenant had arrived at Dannelly in that period.
"I'm not saying it wasn't possible, but I can't imagine Bill not introducing him around," Mintz told the Flyer. "Unless he [Bush] was an introvert back then, which I don't think he was, he'd have spent some time out in the mainstream, in the dining hall or wherever. He'd have spent some time with us. Unless he was trying to avoid publicity. But he wasn't well known at all then. It all seems a bit unusual."
Bishop was even more explicit. "I'm glad he [Calhoun] remembered being with Lt. Bush and Lt. Bush's eating sandwiches and looking at manuals. It seems a little strange that one man saw an individual, and all the rest of them did not. Because it was such a small organization. Usually, we all had lunch together."
Mintz, now 62 and a FedEx pilot living in Memphis, told the Flyer he was looking forward to meeting Bush but never saw him: "I remember that I heard someone was coming to drill with us from Texas. And it was implied that it was somebody with political influence. I was a young bachelor then. I was looking for somebody to prowl around with." But, says Mintz, that "somebody" -- better known to the world now as the president of the United States -- never showed up at Dannelly in 1972. Nor in 1973, nor at any time that Mintz, a reserve first lieutenant at Dannelly, can remember. "And I was looking for him," repeated Mintz.
The 187th's flying squadron -&endash; that to which Bush was reassigned -&endash; had only 25 to 30 pilots, Mintz said. "There's no doubt. I would have heard of him, seen him, whatever." Even if Bush, who was trained on a slightly different aircraft than the F4 Phantom jets flown by the squadron, did not fly with the unit, he would have had to encounter the rest of the flying personnel at some point, in non-flying formations or drills. And it would have been "virtually impossible," said Bishop, for an officer to go in and out of the safety office, which was in the relatively small hangar, for eight hours a month several months in a row and be unseen by anybody except then-Major Calhoun.
Calhoun may have been confused, one weblogger suggested, by an Associated Press reporter who repeatedly and incorrectly reported that Dubya got permission to transfer to the Alabama unit in May 1972. In fact, according to the New York Daily News, Bush left his Texas Guard assignment and moved to Alabama in 1972 even though the Air Force denied his request for a transfer. Bush did not even ask for an official transfer until nine days after he moved to Alabama in May 1972. The Air Force rejected Bush's first request, saying the fighter pilot was "ineligible" to move to the Alabama unit Bush wanted -- a squadron of postal handlers. Nevertheless, Bush stayed in Alabama until his Texas commanders finally gave him written authorization five months later to train there, the Daily News reported Feb. 12.
"We can only speculate whether ex-Lt. Col. Calhoun saw one of those original AP stories (they ran everywhere) and used it as, shall we say, a memory aid before talking to reporters himself. Ooops," wrote the blogger at Billmon.org.
The Flyer also found Wayne Rambo of Montgomery, Ala., who as a lieutenant served as the unit's chief administrative officer until April 1972 but continued to drill with the unit. He also could not remember Bush but he explained the point system, which assigned service points to Guardsman based on their record of attendance and participation. The minimum for a satisfactory year was 50 points. Bush was awarded only 41 actual points for his service in Texas and Louisiana in 1972, but he was given 15 "gratuitous" points, presumably by his original Texas command, to bring him up from substandard. Otherwise Bush would have been called up for disciplinary or other corrective action. Rambo also does not understand how Bush got the final year of his six-year commitment cancelled to pursue a post-graduate business degree at Yale. Normally, graduate students were still expected to report for drill weekends. "There would have been no need for an early release," Bishop told the Flyer. "Maybe they do things differently in Texas. I don't want to malign the commander-in-chief, but this is an issue of duty, honor country," he said. "You must have integrity."