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White House Counters Attack on Bush’s Military Service

Times Staff Writer

White House officials lashed back Tuesday at Democrats who have accused President Bush of going AWOL from his Vietnam-era service in the National Guard, decrying the allegation as “outrageous and baseless.”

The sharp response suggested that the White House is sensitive about the charge, which first arose during the 2000 presidential campaign. The presence of two decorated veterans among the Democratic presidential candidates -- Sen. John F. Kerry and retired Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark -- has brought new attention to the president’s military record.

“It is really shameful that this was brought up four years ago, and it’s shameful that some are trying to bring it up again,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. “I think it is sad to see some stoop to this level, especially so early in an election year.”

The charges date to 1972, when Bush was in the fifth year of his six-year commitment to the Texas Air National Guard. Like many well-connected young men, Bush avoided active duty in Vietnam by enlisting in the National Guard, where he skipped to the top of a lengthy waiting list, was trained as a pilot and, like all members not on active duty, was required to report for duty one weekend a month.

From May 1972 to May 1973, National Guard officials have no records that Bush attended required drills or performed his weekend duty rotations.

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From May to November 1972, Bush was in Alabama working on the unsuccessful Senate campaign of Winton M. “Red” Blount, a family friend. During that time, Bush applied to perform “equivalent” service with an Air National Guard unit in Montgomery, Ala.

Bush’s superior officers in Texas approved the substitute service in September 1972. However, the head of the Alabama unit at the time told the Boston Globe in 2000 that Bush never reported for duty. No records of Bush’s service in Alabama have surfaced, despite searches conducted by the Bush campaign and rewards offered by veterans’ groups.

That period of Bush’s life also raised eyebrows for another reason -- in December 1972, Bush had a confrontation with his father after taking his 16-year-old brother, Marvin, out on a drinking spree in Washington and crashing through a neighbor’s garbage cans on the way home.

Bush resumed his regular National Guard duties in Houston in the summer of 1973, putting in 36 days of active duty in a three-month period, and received an honorable discharge in October of that year -- more than six months early -- so he could enroll at Harvard Business School.

White House officials argue that the honorable discharge proves the president fulfilled his obligations.

“The president was honorably discharged,” McClellan said. “He fulfilled his duties. It is really sad that people are now stooping to this level once again. And people should condemn this.”

Democrats point to the gap in Bush’s service record as evidence that he was skipping out on his duties. Filmmaker and author Michael Moore went so far as to call Bush a “deserter,” an allegation that Republicans want the Democrats -- especially Kerry -- to repudiate.

Kerry has tried to both stay above the fray and capitalize on it by highlighting his military career -- he received a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts for his Vietnam service -- without directly attacking the president.

“It’s not up to me to talk about them or to question them at this point,” Kerry said Monday in Arizona. “I don’t even know what the facts are. But I think it’s up to the president and the military to answer those questions.”

But Republicans inside and outside the White House took aim at Kerry for those comments, treatment usually reserved for the nominee.

“President Bush served honorably in the National Guard. He was honorably discharged,” Bush campaign chairman Mark Racicot said in a statement Tuesday. “To suggest, as Sen. Kerry has, that the military should answer questions about President Bush’s honorable discharge is an outrage. The furtherance of these charges is despicable.”

Andrew Kohut, a public opinion expert and director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, said Bush has a good chance of emerging from the dispute without serious damage.

“That stuff’s been out there. It was out the last time. Now he has the stature of being president. So it’s not as if he comes as a blank state,” Kohut said. “On the other hand, in this post-9/11 environment, having the bona fides of military service is more important than back then.”

One reason the question of Bush’s National Guard service was less of an issue during the 2000 election is that it compared favorably with the record of then-President Clinton, who actively sought to evade the draft.

Times staff writer Edwin Chen contributed to this report.


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