RETIRED GENERAL Wesley Clark has faced many enemies in his career, from the Viet Cong to Slobodan Milosevic. At last week’s Democratic debate in New Hampshire, however, Clark was ambushed by an unexpected foe. ABC News anchor Peter Jennings took the general to task for staying silent while liberal filmmaker—and Clark supporter—Michael Moore labeled President Bush a “deserter” at a campaign rally. “That’s a reckless charge not supported by the facts,” Jennings admonished Clark, all but demanding that he exhibit “a better example of ethical behavior” by repudiating the claim. An off-guard Clark responded by blathering about Moore’s right to free speech, prompting an unsatisfied press corps to stay on the story until Clark finally declared the next day, “I can’t agree with Michael Moore.”
But, in fact, Moore’s charge isn’t beyond the pale at all. It’s true that Bush isn’t a deserter in the narrow sense: He never abandoned his post under attack. But he came as close as one could to deserting the Texas Air National Guard. As The Boston Globe meticulously documented in 2000, Bush’s Guard records indicate that he failed to perform a year of service from 1972 to 1973. Despite the Globe’s investigative work and a string of non-denial denials from the Bush campaign during the 2000 election, the press largely gave Bush a pass on his military service—a crucial test of character for Bill Clinton eight years earlier. If either Clark or John Kerry—both highly decorated Vietnam vets—won the Democratic nomination, he might be tempted to raise Bush’s military service as a character issue in the general election. What Jennings taught Clark last week is that the media probably won’t tolerate it.
THEN BUSH GRADUATED from Yale in 1968—just months after the Tet Offensive—he found a coveted spot in the Texas Air National Guard waiting for him. A Bush clan ally, Texas House Speaker Ben Barnes, had phoned state Guard officials to inquire about a place for George W. Despite a dismal score on his pilot aptitude test, Bush received a six-year stint in the Texas Air National Guard, which would require him to undergo flight training and report for periodic drills through 1974, according to the Globe. Of course, Bush was hardly unique in seeking alternatives to serving in Vietnam; many members of his social class—with notable exceptions, such as Kerry and Al Gore—did the same. Where Bush did distinguish himself was in failing to perform even the minimal service that he had signed up for.
Less than two years after finishing his initial pilot’s training, Bush was offered a job in Alabama with the 1972 Senate campaign of former U.S. Postmaster General Winton Blount. Bush asked Guard officials in May of that year if he could fulfill his continuing duty obligations by serving with a mail squadron based in Montgomery, but they turned him down, noting the unit’s lax drilling schedule. Bush left Texas anyway—with his Guard responsibilities unresolved— joining the campaign in Alabama that month. In August, he failed to take his annual flight physical, which meant losing his flight status. A month later, he requested and received permission to perform his fall Guard duty with the 187th Tactical Recon Group in Montgomery before returning to Houston’s Ellington Air Force Base after the election. But he apparently never showed up: The Globe investigation found that Ellington had no record of Bush performing service in Alabama. In fact, the 187th’s commander—Bush’s commander—William Turnipseed told the paper, “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.” His memory was corroborated by Bush’s discharge papers, which showed neither any service in Alabama nor any training by Lieutenant Bush at all after May 1972.
Bush was supposed to return to Houston after Blount’s losing race. But, by May 1973, his commanding officers in Texas noticed that they could not write his annual performance evaluation for the simple reason that Bush wasn’t there. “Lt. Bush has not been observed at this unit during the period of this report”—May 1, 1972, to April 30, 1973—his evaluation reads. This was a serious charge: Delinquent guardsmen could be inducted into the Army. Just after the report was issued, Bush received two “special orders” commanding him to return for nine days of active duty in May, and he subsequently logged 36 days of duty by July 1973. Explained the Texas Air Guard’s then-personnel director, Albert Lloyd Jr., “I’ll bet someone called him up and said, `George, you’re in a pickle. Get your ass down here and perform some duty.’” Bush officially ended his Guard career on October 1, 1973, eight months shy of his six-year obligation.
The Bush campaign’s reaction to the Globe story was swift. Bush told reporters the day the story broke that he “did the duty necessary” to merit his honorable discharge, which elided the real question of whether he had in fact consistently shown up for duty. He painted Turnipseed’s comments as an instance of he-said, he-said: “I read the comments from the guy who said he doesn’t remember me being [in Alabama], but I remember being there.” (Never mind that Bush’s discharge papers affirm Turnipseed’s story.) To explain away Bush’s missed 1972 physical, the campaign resorted to inanities, such as arguing that Bush’s doctor was in Houston at the time—even though flight physicals have to be performed by Air Force physicians. And, as the Globe noted in October 2000, Bush refused interviews with the paper concerning his military service.
Which wasn’t surprising, because the campaign had a lot to protect: Not only was character the centerpiece of Bush’s bid for the White House, but his handlers had portrayed him as a rough-hewn flyboy. The image was, of course, illusory, but Bush slipped easily into the role. In his 1999 campaign autobiography, Bush wrote that, at Yale, he and his friends “discussed Vietnam, but we were more concerned with the decision each of us had to make: military service or not. I knew I would serve”—as if whether he served in the jungles of Vietnam or under the blue skies of Texas were an insignificant detail. But the Bush campaign continued to hype his military experience, and, until the eve of the 2000 election, its website peddled the demonstrably false claim that Bush had served in the Guard from 1968 to 1973.
ALTHOUGH THE Globe followed the story tenaciously throughout the election season, its elite media cousins kept their distance. When The New York Times turned to Bush’s military record in one of its treacly campaign profiles, the paper of record dubbed his absence a “hiatus” and, in an inattentive understatement, called it one of the “gray areas” of the candidate’s “youthful years.” The Times cited Turnipseed’s recollection as the center of the accusation—not Bush’s discharge papers, nor his 1973 evaluation report. As a result, the paper echoed the campaign spin that this was one man’s word against another’s, with Turnipseed taking “a tiny step back” by saying, “I don’t think he did, but I wouldn’t stake my life on it,” while Bush bluntly stated, “I was there.” (That October, Turnipseed said, “I’m dead certain [Bush] didn’t show up.”) As presidential historian Richard Shenkman observed at the time, The Boston Globe doesn’t set media perceptions: ”When it gets on the front page of The New York Times, then it’ll be an issue.” But the Times painted the issue as indeterminate, and stories in other publications essentially fell into the same mold.
Why didn’t the press seize on Bush’s spotty military record? For one thing, the story required proving a negative: that Bush was not somewhere he was supposed to be. Even though there was copious and consistent documentation, backed by eyewitness memory, that Bush shirked his Guard duties from May 1972 until May 1973, there was no evidence that could demonstrate affirmatively he was elsewhere. As a result, the he-said, he-said storyline took hold. In addition, military service was not an easy subject for Gore to raise: Although he volunteered to serve in Vietnam, he received an assignment as an Army reporter, which did not give him the opportunity for battlefield heroics. Given that the media’s Bush-fueled stereotype of Gore was that he would say or do anything to be elected, Gore had to be cautious about how he used his record in the campaign. It was a justified fear. CNN ran a piece shortly before the Democratic convention on how an old campaign brochure showing Gore carrying an M-16 “was a bit misleading,... [leaving] the impression, his critics said, that he was an infantryman.”
In the final days of the campaign, Gore’s surrogates revived the charge that Bush had wriggled out of his duty. At a rally a few days before the election, one supporter—a Vietnam veteran—mocked Bush’s pledge to restore honor and dignity to the White House, asking, “How is it that someone who’s supposedly serving on active duty, having supposedly taken that oath, can miss a whole year of service without explaining where it went?” It may be that Bush will have to answer this question in the coming months—since the supporter’s name was John Kerry. But, if last week’s debate is any indication, Bush will find a press corps eager to answer it for him.
This article appeared in the February 9, 2004 issue of the magazine.