Guard Memos Fuel Another Vietnam-Era Battle
A day after reports that President Bush received preferential treatment during his time in the Texas Air National Guard, the controversy raged on in the presidential race Thursday as Bush’s critics suggested he lied about his Vietnam-era record and defenders accused Democrats of fueling baseless attacks.
As both sides fought over the nature of Bush’s military service more than 30 years ago, experts raised questions about the authenticity of documents that a day earlier had cast a shadow over Bush’s performance as a pilot and first lieutenant in the Texas Guard.
Forensic authorities said that critical memos that CBS News said were written by Bush’s squadron commander in the early 1970s might not be legitimate -- the product of a modern-day word processor and not a Vietnam-era typewriter that Bush’s commander would have used.
The network, which first reported on the documents Wednesday, insisted that the four memos from 1972 and 1973 had been authenticated by the network’s experts and by “close associates” of the commander, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, who “confirm that the documents reflect his opinions and actions at the time.”
The charges and countercharges came during a feverish day of politicking that began with Democrats welcoming the chance to turn the same spotlight on the president’s military record that had been shone on Sen. John F. Kerry’s Vietnam War service for several weeks, beginning last month.
The relish with which some launched the Democratic attack was counterbalanced, however, by some party strategists who worried that criticism of Bush’s service 30 years ago would distract from issues that concern voters today.
The largely dormant issue leapt to the fore Wednesday, when CBS’ “60 Minutes II” released memos it said were written by Killian, the commander of Bush’s 111th Fighter Interceptor Squadron in Houston.
The memos showed Killian resisting pressure by a higher-up to “sugar coat” Bush’s performance evaluation and ordering Bush to take a physical examination so he could keep flying.
Doubts about Bush’s service were also raised by Ben Barnes, a Democratic political operative and Kerry supporter who said in interviews that he used his position as speaker of the Texas House three decades ago to help Bush get a slot in the Guard.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) led the Democrats’ charge by suggesting Bush lied when he said he had faithfully completed his military service in the early 1970s.
“We want a president who will be truthful and honest and level with the American people,” Harkin said at a news conference in Washington.
“If the president will lie about this, will he lie about how we got into Iraq?”
Senior Kerry advisor Joe Lockhart, meanwhile, mocked claims that the case against the president had been concocted with forged documents.
And the Democratic National Committee initiated an effort that will continue for several days, with military veterans in battleground states accusing Bush of using his family’s clout to avoid combat service in Vietnam.
In response, the Republicans put forth their own senator and strategist to say that the accusations against Bush were part of a desperate attempt by Kerry to stop the momentum that the president gained during last week’s Republican National Convention.
Republican National Committee spokesman Jim Dyke accused Harkin and others of “attempting to fill the vacuum of positive policies with character assassination.”
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) said that Kerry and other Democrats “are unable to move beyond what happened 35 years ago and unwilling to discuss Kerry’s 19-year Senate record. President Bush is offering a positive vision for a safer world and a more hopeful America.”
Critics have said that after graduating from Yale University in 1968, the young son of then-Rep. George H.W. Bush received preferential treatment when a Guard assignment virtually assured he would not be sent to combat in Vietnam.
The White House continued to be pressed for a response to the memos and whether Bush had defied Killian’s May 1972 order to take an annual physical examination to maintain his flying status.
Spokesman Scott McClellan repeatedly declined to answer directly about the physical, as he flew with the president to a campaign stop in Colmar, Pa. McClellan called the issue part of the “same old recycled attacks that we see every time the president is up for election.”
He added: “It’s not surprising that you see a coordinated effort by Democrats to attack the president when Sen. Kerry is falling behind in the polls.”
The president’s representatives did not join in the complaints that the Killian memos were faked, but did not discourage such speculation by the media.
Killian’s daughter said Thursday that her family knew nothing about the source, or authenticity, of the 32-year-old documents.
Nancy Killian Rodriguez said only that her father, who died in 1984, had “admired George Bush and was proud of the fact that he pinned his [flying] wings on him.”
“You can imagine all this from our perspective,” Rodriguez said in a telephone interview from her home in Brownsville, Texas. “Why is a man who passed away 20 years ago being brought up on something that happened 30 years ago and what does that have to do with what’s going on in the world right now?”
Conservative talk radio programs and Internet sites were rife with reports Thursday contesting the authenticity of the memos. The reports included typographical analyses that suggested the typefaces in the memos were not produced by a 1970s-era typewriter but, instead, by a modern-day word processor.
The radio and Internet reports pointed, in particular, to a “th” character, appearing in references to Bush’s 111th squadron, saying that such a character was not likely the product of a typewriter of that era.
But at least one document previously released by the Pentagon as part of Bush’s Guard record also features such a super-scripted “th” character.
Other critics said that the spacing of letters in the memos also appeared to be the work of a word processor and not a vintage typewriter, but that point also remained in dispute.
Farrell C. Shiver, a Georgia-based analyst who edits a journal for document examiners, said that such “proportional spacing” was unusual, but available, on some typewriters in the 1970s but that the super-scripted “th” would have been very unusual for that time.
“You would not be able to do that with a typewriter at that time unless you had a specialty key made,” said Shiver.
The Democrats signaled Thursday that they did not plan to let the issue drop and that they would use military veterans, whenever possible, to lead the attacks on Bush.
Those surrogates will theoretically leave Kerry free to talk about other issues, such as healthcare, the focus of a forum Thursday in Des Moines. When a woman in that crowd mentioned her military service number, Kerry responded: “That’s something you never forget.”
Someone else in the audience shouted out, “George did!” But Kerry would not take the bait. “Well,” he replied. “Moving on.”
Times staff writers Edwin Chen, Michael Finnegan and Susannah Rosenblatt contributed to this report.