Video: Tim Russert's interview with President Bush

By MSNBC Politics Editor
updated 2/9/2004 12:10:42 PM ET 2004-02-09T17:10:42

President Bush defended his service in the National Guard during an interview aired Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and offered to produce evidence to counter allegations raised by political opponents that he was AWOL for a time in 1972.

In an hourlong session with host Tim Russert conducted Saturday in the Oval Office of the White House, the president also defended his decision to go to war in Iraq, said CIA chief George Tenet was in no danger of losing his job, and wouldn’t rule out further tax cuts, even before giant federal deficits are erased.

The charges about Bush’s service record, which date back to the 2000 campaign, have been raised again in this year’s campaign by a number of the Democratic candidates and the party chairman, Terry McAuliffe. What’s at issue is Bush’s record of attendance in the guard in 1972 when he transferred temporarily from a Texas unit to an Alabama unit while he was working on a political campaign.

Critics say he missed required drills during that time and that his “honorable” discharge on Oct. 1, 1973, shows that Bush completed five years and four months of service — less than the obligatory six years — before entering graduate school.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, again questioned Bush's record in the National Guard on Sunday.

“Just because you get an honorable discharge does not in fact answer that question,” Kerry said while campaigning in Virginia .

The White House has consistently defended the president’s service record and says any comments about it are politically motivated.

But Kerry insisted he was not making a political issue of Bush’s service, saying he had no trouble with the “many people” like Bush who served in the Guard to reduce the odds of seeing combat in Vietnam.

“The issue here, as I have heard it raised, is was he present and active on duty in Alabama at the times he was suppose to be? I don’t have the answer to that question,” said Kerry, who won three Purple Hearts, one Bronze star and one Silver star in Vietnam.

On “Meet the Press,” Bush said, “I put in my time, proudly so.” When pressed by Russert on why news reporters who previously investigated the charge could find no records of his Alabama service, Bush said, “They’re just wrong. There may be no evidence, but I did report; otherwise, I wouldn’t have been honorably discharged. In other words, you don’t just say ‘I did something’ without there being verification. Military doesn’t work that way. I got an honorable discharge, and I did show up in Alabama.”

When asked why he served less than the six-year commitment, Bush responded, “I was going to Harvard Business School and worked it out with the military.”

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The president said he “absolutely” would release all records of his time in the National Guard to settle the issue. “The records are kept in Colorado, as I understand, and they scoured the records.  And I’m just telling you, I did my duty, and it’s politics, you know, to kind of ascribe all kinds of motives to me.  But I have been through it before.  I’m used to it.”

Other issues
On other topics, Bush did not explain why he changed his mind last week and appointed an independent commission to look into problems with U.S. intelligence agencies. But he said he was confident the probe “will help future presidents understand how best to fight the war on terror.”

As to the fact that the commission will not deliver its report until after Bush stands for re-election, the president said, “The reason why we gave it time is because we didn't want it to be hurried.  This is a strategic look, kind of a big-picture look about the intelligence-gathering capacities of the United States of America, whether it be the capacity to gather intelligence in North Korea or how we've used our intelligence to, for example, learn more information about AQ Kahn.  And it's important that this investigation take its time.”

Video: Democrats answer Bush Bush said that one issue with U.S. intelligence that does not concern him is Tenet’s stewardship of the CIA, saying his job is “not at all” in jeopardy.

Once again, Bush stood by his selling of the Iraq war to the American public by warning that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, despite the fact that post-war searches have not supported that claim. “I went to Congress with the same intelligence — Congress saw the same intelligence I had, and they looked at exactly what I looked at, and they made an informed judgment based upon the information that I had.  The same information, by the way, that my predecessor had.  And all of us, you know, made this judgment that Saddam Hussein needed to be removed.”

Plan to cut deficit
On the economy, Bush touted his plan to cut the deficit in half within five years but would not rule out further tax cuts before the budget is balanced. “That's a hypothetical question which I can't answer to you because I don't know how strong the economy is going to be. I mean, the president must keep all options on the table, but I do know that raising the child — lowering the child credit thereby raising taxes on working families does not make sense when the economy is recovering, and that's exactly what some of them are calling for up on Capitol Hill.

"They want to raise taxes of the families with children, they want to increase the marriage penalty.  They want to get rid of those taxes on small businesses that are encouraging the stimulation of new job creation, and I'm not going to have any of it.”

Asked about his declining approval ratings in the polls, and especially in Europe, Bush said, “When you do hard things, when you ask hard things of people, it can create tensions.  And I … heck, I don't know why people do it.  I'll tell you, though, I'm not going to change, see?  I'm not trying to accommodate. I won't change my philosophy or my point of view.  I believe I owe it to the American people to say what I'm going to do and do it, and to speak as clearly as I can, try to articulate as best I can why I make decisions I make, but I'm not going to change because of polls.  That's just not my nature.”


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