Right in the Teeth

By Dan Froomkin
Special to Washingtonpost.com
Thursday, February 12, 2004; 10:07 AM

Dental records are typically used to identify the dead.

Last night, the White House e-mailed the press corps a copy of Lt. George W. Bush's dental exam -- to prove that Bush was alive, and not AWOL, at an Alabama Air National Guard base.

The day Bush went to the dentist -- Jan. 6, 1973 -- was one of the days for which he was paid, according to other military records released on Tuesday. But those records did not indicate where he was or what he was doing. The teeth definitively put him in Alabama.

And it wasn't the only time the White House showed some teeth yesterday. Press secretary Scott McClellan repeatedly lashed out at those who questioned Bush's service as engaging in "gutter politics" and "trolling for trash." (In his mid-day briefing, he said "gutter politics" five times and "trolling for trash" three times, and that's not even counting the morning gaggle.) Here's the transcript and the video.

Most strikingly, however, White House officials yesterday backed off Bush's unqualified pledge Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" to open his entire military file.

Also, the Boston Globe says that Bush's suspension from flying should have triggered an investigation, according to guard regulations.

And USA Today and the New York Times both give a lot of play to one man's allegation that Bush advisers in the late 1990s discussed ways to limit the release of potentially embarrassing details from his military records.

Reporters are still asking lots of questions about the period between May 1972 and May 1973. Bush as a young man received a coveted position in the Texas Air National Guard -- coveted because it protected him from being drafted and sent to Vietnam. He stopped flying in 1972, however, and critics have accused him of shirking his duty, particularly during a period when he was working for a political campaign in Alabama. (There's lots more background in my White House Briefing Archives.)

Mike Allen and Lois Romano in The Washington Post find the administration growing more defensive. Communications director Dan Bartlett told them that anything new concerning Bush's attendance in Alabama would be released. "But Bartlett -- like McClellan -- was emphatic that the White House had no immediate plans to open Bush's entire file, which would include his Guard medical records.

"'These are attempts to troll for personal records for partisan advantage. We're not going to play,' Bartlett said. 'The goal post is being moved.'"

This in spite of the following exchange on "Meet the Press" on Sunday:

"Russert: When allegations were made about John McCain or Wesley Clark on their military records, they opened up their entire files. Would you agree to do that?

"President Bush: Yeah."

The Boston Globe's Walter V. Robinson and Francie Latour write: "President Bush's August 1972 suspension from flight status in the Texas Air National Guard -- triggered by his failure to take a required annual flight physical -- should have prompted an investigation by his commander, a written acknowledgement by Bush, and perhaps a written report to senior Air Force officials, according to Air Force regulations in effect at the time."

The Globe interviewed Brig. Gen. David L. McGinnis, a former top aide to the assistant secretary of defense for reserve affairs, who said he "thought it possible that Bush's superiors considered him a liability, so they decided 'to get him off the books, make his father happy, and hope no one would notice.'

"But McGinnis said there should have been an investigation and a report. 'If it didn't happen, that shows how far they were willing to stretch the rules to accommodate' then-Lieutenant Bush."

Dave Moniz and Jim Drinkard write in USA Today: "As Texas Gov. George W. Bush prepared to run for president in the late 1990s, top-ranking Texas National Guard officers and Bush advisers discussed ways to limit the release of potentially embarrassing details from Bush's military records, a former senior officer of the Texas Guard said Wednesday."

The reporters raise questions about the significance of "blacked-out entries in response to questions about arrests or convictions."

Ralph Blumenthal writes that the New York Times was shown a copy of a 1998 letter from Bill Burkett, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Texas National Guard, to a Democratic state senator in which he complained "that Dan Bartlett, then a senior aide to Governor Bush and now White House communications director, and Gen. Daniel James, then the head of the Texas National Guard, reviewed the file to 'make sure nothing will embarrass the governor during his re-election campaign.'"

Blumenthal caveats that "Mr. Burkett's letter to Senator Barrientos was part of a running battle that he waged with the National Guard after retiring in January 1998."

So if Bush reported for drills in Alabama, where are the eyewitnesses? The Associated Press looked, but couldn't find any. Allen G. Breed writes: "'I don't remember seeing him. That does not mean he was not there,' said Wayne Rambo, who was a first lieutenant with the 187th Supply Squadron at Dannelly Air National Guard Base at the time. The AP contacted more than a dozen former members of the unit on Wednesday, and none could recall ever running into Bush."

Outside the White House press office, there was at least one person jumping to Bush's defense yesterday: Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who had a sharp exchange at a congressional hearing with Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), after Brown made an offhand comment about Bush being AWOL.

"I won't dignify your comment about the president, because you don't know what you're talking about," Powell said angrily. "Mr. Brown, let's not go there. Let's just not go there. Let's not go there in this hearing."

MSNBC has the gripping video.

Powell also snapped at a staffer. (See Glenn Kessler in The Washington Post.)

Hey, maybe a joke will lighten things up.

Here's Jay Leno on NBC's "Tonight Show" via AP:

"President Bush stopped off at a bass pro fishing store to pick up a fishing reel, some line and some rubber worms. He's going to disappear and go fishing. So he must think he's back in the National Guard!"

Where's This All Going?

Even as the debate continues, the issue may become less whether Bush technically did or did not fulfill the requirements of Guard duty. We know he received an honorable discharge. The issue may become less whether Bush acted honorably during that time than whether he is dealing with it honorably now.

Perhaps that's why, for three days now, one of the "most e-mailed" articles on washingtonpost.com has been an op-ed by Richard Cohen, in which he describes his own experience avoiding the draft by joining the Guard, dropping from sight and getting an honorable discharge.

"It hardly matters what Bush did or did not do back in 1972. He is not the man now he was then -- that by his own admission," Cohen writes. "All that really matters is how one accounts for what one did. Do you tell the truth (which Clinton did not)? Or do you do what I think Bush has been doing, which is making his National Guard service into something it was not? In his case, it was a rich kid's way around the draft. . . .

"When Bush attempts to drape the flag of today's Guard over the one he was in so long ago, when he warns his critics to remember that 'there are a lot of really fine people who have served in the National Guard and who are serving in the National Guard today in Iraq,' then he is doing now what he was doing then: hiding behind the ones who were really doing the fighting. It's about time he grew up."

So is that going to be the central issue? Where do you think this is going? Send me your thoughts at froomkin@washingtonpost.com. Please include your name and hometown, and an acknowledgement that I can print your responses.

Bush Talks About Nonproliferation

At a speech at the National Defense University, Bush yesterday proposed that nuclear fuel be provided only to countries that renounce nuclear enrichment and reprocessing.

Dana Milbank and Peter Slevin write: "President Bush yesterday called for a tightening of international rules governing the spread of nuclear technology, a proposal that would be the most significant change to nonproliferation efforts in more than three decades. . . .

"The speech marked an opportunity for Bush to demonstrate his credentials on nuclear proliferation in response to criticism that he has mismanaged the rising problem. In his remarks, Bush sought to capitalize on recent successes -- such as persuading Libya to renounce its weapons program and cracking a nuclear smuggling operation in Pakistan -- as catalysts for mobilizing a new international effort."

David E. Sanger writes in the New York Times that "a crucial part of the seven-point plan led some critics to complain that Mr. Bush had not gone far enough. The president stopped well short of calling for an end to all trade in fissionable material."

Here are video excerpts, the full transcript and the complete video.

High Anxiety

Richard W. Stevenson and David Johnston write in their "White House Memo" for the New York Times that anxiety is taking hold at the White House as the investigation intensified into who leaked the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame to the media.

"At a White House that has largely avoided scandal -- and one that has been distinguished by remarkable internal cohesion -- the escalating investigation has brought unusual personal stress and the uncertainties that afflict anyone caught up in a full-scale criminal inquiry. . . .

"So although White House officials have publicly pledged to help investigators, there is some resistance just beneath the surface. Some people who have spoken with investigators say they have refused to sign statements that would waive any promise of confidentiality they received from reporters."

'Quack Quack' Goes Scalia

Gina Holland of the Associated Press reports that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia told a gathering at Amherst College on Tuesday night there was nothing improper about his duck-hunting trip with Vice President Cheney, and nothing about the case that made it a conflict for him.

"It did not involve a lawsuit against Dick Cheney as a private individual," Scalia said. "This was a government issue. It's acceptable practice to socialize with executive branch officials when there are not personal claims against them. That's all I'm going to say for now. Quack, quack."

Scalia budged not one inch, writes David Von Drehle in The Washington Post, who has the background:

"Scalia traveled in January with Cheney on a government Gulfstream jet to a duck-hunting retreat in Louisiana. . . .

"Three weeks before the trip, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case titled in re: Richard Cheney, in which two groups have sued the vice president to force the release of records relating to his task force on energy policy. . . .

"Since the trip was made public, first by AP and then in detail by the Los Angeles Times, there have been widespread calls for Scalia to recuse himself from the Cheney case."

Today's Calendar

Deb Riechmann of the Associated Press previews Bush's trip to Harrisburg, Pa.: "President Bush is trying to turn the nation's focus back to education and the economy, two of his election-year priorities. . . . For the 25th time since he became president, Bush on Thursday was traveling to Pennsylvania, the nation's fifth-largest electoral prize, and one that he lost in 2000."

More Headlines

* Hastert Rebukes Bush Adviser; Speaker Challenges Mankiw's Statements on U.S. Job Loss The Washington Post.

* Space Panel Is Optimistic on Planning for Bush Goal New York Times.

* Expert Warns NASA Can't Afford Mars Plan Associated Press.

* House G.O.P. Leaders, Under Pressure, Weigh Cutting Bush's Budget New York Times.

* Roaring Out of the Rose Garden; Bush Revs Up His Re-Election Effort Amid Weaker Polls, Stronger Challenges Wall Street Journal.

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