President Bush’s Vietnam-era military service returned to the forefront of the race for the White House on Thursday after a host of media outlets reported details about the president's suspension from flying in the Texas Air National Guard.
Following up a report on CBS’ “60 Minutes II” program, the Washington Post reported that “Bush failed to carry out a direct order from his superior in the Texas Air National Guard in May 1972 to undertake a medical examination that was necessary for him to remain a qualified pilot, according to documents made public yesterday.”
The New York Times said, “Newfound documents emerged from (Bush’s) squadron commander’s file that suggested favorable treatment.”
After weeks of watching their candidate, Sen. John Kerry, battered by questions over his own service in the Vietnam war, Democrats were quick to pounce on the new reports about Bush.
Democratic Party chairman Terry McAuliffe said Bush's "cover story" on his National Guard service was rapidly unraveling.
"George W. Bush needs to answer why he regularly misled the American people about his time in the Guard and who applied political pressure on his behalf to have his performance reviews ‘sugarcoated.’”
The White House was equally quick to dismiss the new reports as partisan attacks. White House communications director Dan Bartlett told “60 Minutes” that Democrats were “recycling the very same charges we hear every time President Bush runs for re-election. It is dirty politics.”
Kerry, campaigning in Iowa, refused to talk Thursday about the new Bush documents. “That’s for the White House to answer,” he said in an Associated Press interview. Presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said, “I think you absolutely are seeing a coordinated attack by John Kerry and his surrogates on the president.”
Yet, it was the White House — not Kerry’s campaign — that distributed four memos from 1972 and 1973 from Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, now deceased, who was the commander of the 111th Fighter Interceptor Squadron in Houston where Bush served. The White House obtained the memos from CBS News, which said it was convinced of their authenticity, and the White House did not question their accuracy. There was no explanation why the Pentagon was unable to find the documents on its own.
According to an Associated Press account that tied together the various threads of the story, the newly unearthed memos state that Bush was suspended from flying for the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam war because he failed to meet Guard standards and failed to take his annual flight physical as required.
The suspension came as Bush was trying to arrange a transfer to non-flying status with a unit in Alabama so he could work on a political campaign there.
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A memo written a year later referred to one military official “pushing to sugar coat” Bush’s annual evaluation. Video:
“On this date I ordered that 1st Lt. Bush be suspended from flight status due to failure to perform to USAF/TexANG standards and failure to meet annual physical examination ... as ordered,” says an Aug. 1, 1972 memo by Killian.
The same memo notes that Bush was trying to transfer to non-flying status out of state and recommends that the Texas unit fill his flying slot “with a more seasoned pilot from the list of qualified Vietnam pilots that have rotated.”
The Vietnam-era documents add details to the bare-bones explanation of Bush’s aides over the years that he was suspended simply because he decided to skip his flight physical.
The White House said in February that it had released all records of Bush’s service, but one of Killian’s memos stated it was “for record” and another directing Bush to take the physical exam stated that it was “for 1st Lt. George W. Bush.”
“I can’t explain why that wouldn’t be in his record, but they were found in Jerry Killian’s personal records,” Bartlett told CBS, which first obtained the memos.
Bartlett said Bush’s superiors granted permission to train in Alabama in a non-flying status and that “many of the documents you have here affirm just that.”
A memo dated May 19, 1972, five days after Bush was supposed to have completed his physical, summarizes a telephone discussion with Bush about how he could “get out of coming to drill from now through November.”
It says Bush was “told he could do ET for three months or transfer.” ET referred to equivalent training, a procedure for meeting training requirements without attending regularly scheduled drills.
The same memo says “We talked abut him getting his flight physical situation fixed” and quotes Bush as saying he would “do that in Alabama if he stays in a flight status.” It also says, "I advised him of our investment in him and his commitment.”
Bartlett told CBS, “As it says in your own documents, President Bush talked to the commanders about the fact that he’d be transferring to a unit ... in Alabama that didn’t fly that plane,” the F-102, the type Bush was trained in.
Using only last names, one of the newly disclosed documents points to sharp disagreement among Bush’s superiors in Texas over how to evaluate his performance for the period from mid-1972 through mid-1973.
“Stuart has obviously pressured Hedges more about Bush,” Killian wrote on Aug. 18, 1973. “I’m having trouble running interference and doing my job — Harris gave me a message today from Grip (a headquarters unit) regarding Bush’s OETR (officer efficiency training report) and Stuart is pushing to sugar coat it. Bush wasn’t here during rating period and I don’t have any comments from 187th in Alabama. I will not rate.”
The memo concludes: “Harris took the call from Grip today. I’ll backdate but won’t rate. Harris agrees.”
At the time, Walter B. Stuart was commander of the Texas National Guard; Lt. Col. Bobby Hedges was one of Bush’s superiors in Texas who two years earlier had rated Bush an outstanding young pilot; and Lt. Col. William D. Harris Jr. was another superior of Bush’s.
Records released this year when Bush’s military service re-emerged as a campaign issue contain no evidence that he showed up for duty at all for five months in mid-1972 and document only a few occasions later that year.
Asked about Killian’s statement in a memo about the military’s investment in Bush, Bartlett told CBS: “For anybody to try to interpret or presume they know what somebody who is now dead was thinking in any of these memos, I think is very difficult to do.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.