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Whither Lieutenant Bush?

Observer Viewpoint | Sunday, February 15, 2004

In the contest between George W. Bush and Al Gore four years ago, hindsight reveals, the press patently neglected its duty to the public. By glossing too mercifully over the rolling litany of Bush’s less-than-presidential lapses and tics, the press left voters under-informed. America – or, at least, the Supreme Court – plumped in the end for W. The country, as a result, got stuck with a cowboy blueblood whose biography brims with episodes of mendacity and recklessness, for which he was scarcely held responsible.Precious little has changed. Curiously warm Big Business relations, the fraud of “No Child Left Behind,” his mammoth tax-plan swindle, the pandering shams called “Clean Skies” and “Healthy Forests,” his Top Gun photo-op theatrics, and, of course, WMD and the Iraq war – Bush’s taste for illusion, and elite distaste for accountability, has not only been preserved intact, but bolstered by the license of White House fiat.What should we expect from a “war president” who dodged the draft? It’s an intriguing irony, and worth our scrutiny. To get a clearer grasp of Bush’s character, we should turn to a revealing chapter of our president’s life – a chapter more or less passed over by the mainstream media in 2000: his “service” in the Air National Guard. National security, of course, wasn’t issue number one back then. One thing’s certain: he got a free pass from the media last time (which Clinton never got), but he’s not getting off so easily this year.Of the countless measures of electability, a candidate’s military history has survived to become a perennial issue. The campaigns of decorated vets John Kerry and Wesley Clark drew special attention to this matter, reviving the storm swirling around Bush’s non-stint. Both Democrats hold military credentials infinitely more impressive than Bush’s. For this reason, both Kerry and Clark have been forced to confront the controversy head on.Kerry was drawn in, undoubtedly, by his crack campaign staff, who saw the advantage of pitting Kerry’s sterling record against Bush’s hazier one. Clark was drawn in by the bothersome Michael Moore’s antics, who framed the prospect of a forensic scuffle between Bush and Clark one-dimensionally: “The General versus The Deserter.” Soon Clark drew wide criticism for refusing to reject Moore’s slander. Draft dodger, sure, but “deserter?” Not technically, under Article 85 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice.Rewind back to 1973. The ordeal of Vietnam was finally ending, as the anti-war movement and the sheer military triumph of the North Vietnamese had taken its toll. Nixon ordered a ceasefire in January, announcing a peace deal later in the month. By the end of March, the last American troops had left Vietnam.At the beginning of October 1973, Bush was relieved of his commitment to the National Guard eight months early so he could attend Harvard Business School. This despite his annual performance review, dated May 2, 1973, indicating he did not report for duty to his home base for an entire year. In his defense, Bush says he worked on a campaign in Alabama, doing service at the Air National Guard base there. Bush wants us to believe that he “did the duty necessary” to merit the honorable discharge he received.The reality isn’t so cut-and-dry. Bush’s commander in Alabama, William Turnipseed, reportedly said, “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.” Bush’s discharge papers agree, showing no record of service after May of 1972. Disappearing, without family connections, would mean jail time or a court-martial or an order to active duty. Bush, as usual, got off scot-free.There’s no question Bush is feeling the pressure: he agreed to a televised cross-examination, to set things straight. During this recent “Meet the Press” interview, a surprisingly declawed Tim Russert broached the issue of Bush’s National Guard service. Bush lied, saying he released all relevant records in 2000, when the Boston Globe, on May 3, 2000, reports otherwise. And he claimed again he served in Alabama, despite his commander’s recollection. The White House also, on Feb. 10, released more discrepancy-heavy documents, which trimmed his time missing down to six months, leaving questions about his early discharge – in light of his poor attendance, suspension from flying and failure to meet the minimum-traning requirement – wholly unresolved.Understandably, the Bush administration is chagrined at the swelling criticism of Bush’s military record. “These kinds of attacks have no place in politics and everyone should condemn them,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. But Bush Sr. had no qualms about branding Clinton a draft-dodger. What does this all mean? Foremost, it severely and irrevocably damages his credibility as commander in chief – it’s a character issue. And the problem isn’t that he dodged the draft by joining the National Guard, it’s that he shirked his modest obligations to his country, thanks to old-boy connections. On top of that, he assiduously denies it all. If the media presses the issue, and the voters learn the facts, the AWOL President and his stable of strategists can only pray it doesn’t become a decisive campaign issue.

Roque Strew is a junior political science major. His column appears every other Monday. He can be contacted at wstrew@nd.edu.The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.