The White House released President Bush’s National Guard pay and retirement records Tuesday and denounced allegations that he shirked his Vietnam War-era military duties as political posturing.
“These records I’m holding here clearly document the president fulfilling his duties,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan said at a lengthy and contentious briefing for reporters Tuesday afternoon, seeking to put an end to a controversy that has sidetracked the Bush team as his re-election effort gathers steam. Bush left the National Guard with an honorable discharge eight months shy of the obligatory six years in 1973, to attend Harvard Business School.
The documents, in the form of annual retirement ”point summaries” and poorly photocopied payroll records, indicate that Bush received credit for nine days of active duty between May 1972 and May 1973, the period that Democrats have cited as evidence that he failed to meet his military responsibilities.
The White House promised clearer copies of the payroll records later Tuesday afternoon.
The point summaries had previously been released, but as recently as Monday the White House had indicated that it knew of no additional records to document Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard. McClellan said the White House learned of the pay records Monday night.
Showdown with press corps
Asked earlier in the day whether the records should end the controversy about Bush’s service, McClellan told reporters, “You have to ask those who made these outrageous accusations if they stand by them in the face of this documentation that demonstrates he served and fulfilled his duties.”
McClellan said he did not know whether tax returns for 1972 and 1973 still existed to substantiate that Bush actually was paid, as the payroll records indicated. He said additional information would be disclosed if it came to light.
Indicating the hold the issue has taken on the campaign, McClellan came under nearly a half-hour of intense questioning about Bush’s Guard service.
At one point, he sidestepped four consecutive questions about why medical records that Bush would have had to have maintained during his service could not be produced, leading a frustrated network television reporter to demand to know why McClellan would not directly answer his question.
At another point, McClellan said he was “disappointed” by the tone of a reporter who asked whether the president owed the American people a fuller explanation of his Vietnam-era service in light of his decision to send U.S. troops to war in Iraq.
“It’s just really a shame that people are continuing to bring this up,” he said.
During the Vietnam War, Guard units were rarely called up, and “the Reserves and the Guard acquired reputations as draft havens for relatively affluent young white men,” the Air National Guard says in a history posted on its Web site.
Bush acknowledged in an interview broadcast Sunday on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that he had not volunteered to go to Vietnam, and he called the war a “political war.” But he said he supported the government and would have gone had his Guard unit been called. “I put in my time, proudly so,” he said.
Years-old questions over whether Bush skipped his service obligations while in Alabama in 1972 helping with a political campaign were given new life by this year’s Democratic presidential primaries.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., a highly decorated veteran in Vietnam, has said Bush must clear up the questions over his military record.
The Bush team has fought back aggressively against the criticisms, which could tarnish the president’s self-portrayal as a “war president” leading the country in a fight against global terrorism.
“We are seeing some who are not interested in the facts,” McClellan said. “They are interested in twisting the facts for partisan political advantage.”
Bush’s campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, said Monday in an online chat session on the campaign’s Web site that “we should be able to disagree without making personal attacks.”
“For instance, we honor Senator Kerry’s patriotic service during the Vietnam War,” he wrote. “Yet we question the judgments of his votes to consistently cut defense and intelligence funding, his vote against the first Gulf War, and his recently stated belief that the war on terror is primarily about law enforcement and intelligence.”
Kerry said Tuesday he has said all he is going to say about Bush’s record. He told reporters between campaign stops in Tennessee and Virginia: “It's not an issue that I chose to create. It’s not my record that’s at issue, and I don’t have any questions about it.”
Questions have been raised about whether family connections helped Bush get into the Guard when there were waiting lists for what was seen as an easy billet. Bush says no one in his family pulled strings and that he got in because others didn’t want to commit to the almost two years of active duty required for fighter pilot training.
A central issue is whether he showed up for duty while assigned to Guard units in Alabama in 1972. “There may be no evidence, but I did report,” Bush said on “Meet the Press.” “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been honorably discharged.”
Another question is why he was allowed to end Guard duty about six months early to attend Harvard Business School. Bush said on NBC that he had “worked it out with the military. And I’m just telling you, I did my duty.”
The White House also released previously distributed statements from Lt. Col. Albert Lloyd Jr., personnel director for the Texas Air National Guard from 1969 to 1995, who reviewed Bush’s military records at the request of his campaign four years ago.
Lloyd said the review showed that Bush had “satisfactory years” for the period of 1972-73 and 1973-74, “which proves that he completed his military obligation in a satisfactory manner.”
Lloyd has said Bush’s early discharge was not uncommon for pilots or other crewmen who were to leave soon and had been trained on jets that had become obsolete, as was Bush’s case.
But retired Army Col. Dan Smith, a 26-year military veteran, questioned the usefulness of the latest information.
“Pay records don’t mean anything except that you’re in or you’re out,” Smith said. “It doesn’t necessarily reflect what duty you’ve actually performed because pay records simply record your unit of assignment and then all of your pay and benefits per pay period. In terms of actually reporting for your duty, that would not be reflected on the pay notification, or pay stub.”