Bush Service Still Unclear

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, February 17, 2004; 10:11 AM

On Friday night, the White House dumped 400 pages of President Bush's Vietnam-era National Guard records on an unsuspecting -- and deeply suspicious -- press corps. After all, there's nothing like a three-day weekend to muffle a bombshell.

But if there was something explosive -- or even conclusive -- in that pile, no one's found it yet. (USATODAY.com posted the documents in PDF format.)

Lucky for you, you have White House Briefing to bring you up to speed on all the news reports from the long weekend.

In a nutshell, the press corps has concluded that the newly released records were not much use at all. The evidence is still inconclusive, leaving many questions unanswered about Bush's service in general, and his final year of sporadic duty in particular.

And there are still no eyewitnesses who can reliably recall Bush performing his assigned duties with the Alabama Air National Guard.

As Manuel Roig-Franzia and Lois Romano report in The Washington Post: "Only one person has vivid recollections of serving with Bush at Dannelly field. John B. 'Bill' Calhoun, 69 -- whose name was provided by a Republican ally of Bush's -- said he saw Bush sign in at the 187th eight to 10 times for about eight hours each from May to October 1972.

"But Calhoun remembers seeing Bush at Dannelly at times in mid-1972 when the White House acknowledges Bush was not pulling Guard duty in Alabama yet; his first drills were in October, according to the White House. White House press secretary Scott McClellan on Friday was at a loss to reconcile the discrepancy."

In Time magazine, Michael Duffy writes that "for the second time in as many months -- first on prewar intelligence in Iraq and now on his military record -- Bush is caught in a gap between what he has claimed and what he can prove."

Duffy raises what he calls four key questions:

• How Did Bush Get in the Guard, and What Were His Duties?

• What Did Bush Have to Do to Fulfill His Guard Commitment?

• So Did Bush Report for Duty in Alabama or Not?

• Why Did He Miss the Physical?

Duffy, by the way, starts off his story by uncovering Bush's nickname among some colleagues on the Senate campaign that brought Bush to Alabama in 1972. He writes that "a group of older Alabama socialites, who were volunteering their time, gave Bush a nickname because they thought he 'looked good on the outside but was full of hot air.' They called him the Texas Soufflé."

The story will take an interesting twist later today, when Bush travels to Fort Polk, La., where he'll have lunch with National Guard members, as Scott Lindlaw previews in a story for the Associated Press.

Today's National Guard, unlike that of the Vietnam era, is bearing an enormous amount of the burden of war. It will be interesting to see how this plays, and whether the service and sacrifices of today's guard will reflect well on the commander in chief, or create an even more dramatic contrast with his own experiences as a young man.

I'll be Live Online taking your questions (and asking some) today at 2 p.m.

Dave Moniz and Jim Drinkard in USA Today focus on one of the bigger mysteries: "Why 1st Lt. Bush stopped flying F-102 fighters remains murky despite the release on Friday of more than 400 pages of records detailing his Guard service from the time he enlisted until he was discharged."

They conclude that in at least three significant ways, "Bush was treated differently from most pilots."

On CBS News, Randall Pinkston reports from Alabama on all the folk trying to recall having seen Lt. George W. Bush, but to little avail.

In Newsweek, Evan Thomas anchors a cover story that puts Bush and Sen. John Kerry side by side, and looks at their contrasting pasts.

Newsweek got an interesting quote I hadn't seen before. "Pressed by his anxious staff, Bush himself couldn't recall much about his duty in Alabama. 'He remembers shooting the breeze,' said communications director Dan Bartlett."

(Thomas also writes about another long-ago nickname: "Bush had a quality prized by Andover boys of that era: sarcastic humor. Everyone had a nickname at Andover; Bush's was 'Lip.' "

James G. Lakely in the Washington Times notes that at Sunday night's Democratic debate in Milwaukee, Kerry asked supporters to stop pursuing the AWOL story.

"Mr. Kerry said Sunday that from now on he'd leave the questioning of Mr. Bush's service record to reporters."

Blogger Orcinus insists the AWOL question is still a big deal.

Blogger Calpundit explains why he believes former Lt. Col. Bill Burkett, who says that members of George Bush's staff, along with senior officers at Texas National Guard Headquarters, purged Bush's National Guard files of potentially embarrassing material back in 1997.

But to be honest, it doesn't look like anyone in the blogosphere has actually gone through the whole pile yet.

Here are some more important headlines about this story from the weekend:

Walter V. Robinson and Wayne Washington in the Boston Globe: "Bush Releases His Military Records"

Dana Milbank and Mike Allen in The Washington Post: "Many Gaps In Bush's Guard Records; Released Papers Do Not Document Ala. Service"

Adam Nagourney and Richard W. Stevenson in the New York Times: "Bush's Campaign to Intensify, With Emphasis on His Record"

Bradley Graham in The Washington Post: "Guard, Reserves Have History of Spotty Record-Keeping; Gaps Such as Those in Bush Documents Are Common; Most Files Contain Omissions, Official Says"

John F. Harris in The Washington Post: "Analysis: From Some Democrats, Caution on Bush Allegations"

Richard W. Stevenson in the New York Times: "Files Offer Glimpse of Bush After College"

Elisabeth Bumiller in the New York Times: "Lieutenant Bush, Cavities and All"

Elisabeth Bumiller in the New York Times: "Bush Urged Speedy Release of Guard Files"

David Barstow in the New York Times: "In Haze of Guard Records, a Bit of Clarity"

Harry Jaffe in the online Washingtonian reports on a testy exchange during Friday morning's "gaggle" between press secretary Scott McClellan and Helen Thomas, the dean of the press corps (see more about Thomas). Thomas kept asking if Bush was by any chance performing court-ordered community service in Texas in 1972, a favorite claim among anti-Bush rumor-mongers.

Editorial cartoonists are having a great time with this story, big surprise. Daryl Cagle has a roundup on Slate.

And it remains fodder for Jay Lenno, on NBC's "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno" via Reuters: "The White House is starting to backtrack a little on this whole National Guard thing. Like today they said President Bush may not have actually attended the National Guard, but he did attend National Guard-related programs. . . . "


Bush had a field day on Sunday at the Daytona 500. The imagery was glorious. Air Force One buzzed the grandstands. Bush got huge cheers when he appeared on the enormous Nextel-vision screen in a black Daytona 500 windbreaker.

On NBC, Norah O'Donnell described it as a political pit-stop -- but look at those visuals!

On CBS, Joie Chen described how Bush was courting "a high-octane voting block" and couldn't avoid -- in fact, brought up himself -- the National Guard issue. But look at those visuals!

Mike Allen and Liz Clarke write in The Washington Post: "Bush's appearance before a throng of 180,000 race fans in the grandstands and infield, plus a television audience approaching 35 million, was the most visible sign so far of the parties' competition for socially conservative but economically struggling white men in the South and Midwest who political consultants have taken to calling 'NASCAR dads.' "

David E. Sanger describes the "political spectacle" in the New York Times.

Take a minute, go to Yahoo News, and look at those visuals!

Bush as Talk Show Host

Mike Allen of The Washington Post describes the latest Bush talk-show-style forum, this one at a Tampa window and door factory on Monday.

"The appearance, which the White House called 'A Conversation About the Economy,' was classified as a government event rather than a political one, meaning that Bush's campaign did not have to help underwrite it.

"But Bush appeared to be honing a campaign message. He asserted that opponents of permanent versions of his tax cuts are essentially saying they are 'going to raise your taxes.' And he said the economy is strong."

David E. Sanger of the New York Times writes: "President Bush on Monday used one of his favorite campaign formats, a 'conversation' with employees of a small manufacturing company, to take one of his most direct shots yet at Democrats seeking to roll back part of his tax plan. . . .

"As has become its habit, the White House said the meeting with a few hundred workers at the plant was an 'economic policy event,' even though the conversation has become indistinguishable from Mr. Bush's campaign appearances."

Edwin Chen in the Los Angeles Times notes that Bush "has settled on a favorite format as he travels around the country pitching his economic policies. The White House calls it a 'conversation,' although Bush speaks far more than he listens during the nearly hourlong sessions that amount to an economics seminar for Everyman.

"At these events, like the one held here Monday, the president shares a stage with as many as half a dozen carefully screened participants, each perched on a stool and armed with a wireless microphone. . . .

"Without fail, they relate upbeat stories that reinforce the president's economic program, especially his across-the-board tax cuts."

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post that the economy may ultimately work in Bush's favor.

Special Interests

On NBC News, David Gregory looks at Bush's attacks on Kerry's special interest money and the possibility that it will backfire.

Dana Milbank notes in The Washington Post that "the Center for Responsive Politics, which calculated the figure Bush cited about Kerry ($638,358 raised from lobbyists since 1989, to be exact), has some bad news for Bush, too. The president raised $842,262 from lobbyists in the current election cycle -- almost four times the $226,450 Kerry raised. And if you take away the funds Kerry collected for the presidential campaign, he is no longer the Senate's top recipient of special-interest funds.

"Does Bush have a glass-houses problem here?"

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times about Kerry's ad that responds to Bush's ad.

Here's links to the Kerry video, and to the Bush/Cheney video that prompted it.

Will He or Won't He?

Dan Eggen reported in The Washington Post on Saturday: "President Bush agreed to meet privately with the independent commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but has ruled out offering any testimony in a public setting, according to a White House statement released last night."

But the White House on Saturday said that Bush only agreed to meet with only some of the 10 members of the commission, not all of them.

As Eggen wrote Sunday, "The new details surprised some commission officials and members -- who believed they had secured a promise from Bush for a private meeting with all 10 members -- and could add to the tensions that have strained relations between the two sides."

Douglas Jehl notes in the New York Times that: "The highly classified digest that provides President Bush with his daily intelligence updates is being scrutinized within the government and Congress after criticism that the information Mr. Bush has been given on Iraq and other matters has not reflected a broad range of views, senior administration and Congressional officials say."

More Headlines

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Bush Pardons Former Texas Mayor Who Was Jailed for Bank Fraud Los Angeles Times

How the White House Shelved MTBE Ban The Associated Press

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