War Stories 

Why President Bush's military record matters.

George W. Bush lied about his military service record. The lie can be found in his 1999 campaign autobiography (as written by Karen Hughes), where he dramatically describes his experience as a pilot in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War.

On page 34 of A Charge To Keep, Bush claims that after learning to fly the F-102 fighter jet, he was turned down for Vietnam duty because he "had not logged enough flight hours" to qualify for a combat assignment. Before going on to recall the "challenging moments" that involved close formation drills at night during poor weather, he adds: "I continued flying with my unit for the next several years."

In light of what journalists and other researchers have learned since the publication of Bush's book, his account is unmistakably fraudulent.

The issue is relevant because Michael Moore, the author and filmmaker who supports Wesley Clark's presidential campaign, recently impugned the president as a "deserter." During the final Democratic presidential debate in New Hampshire, moderator Peter Jennings called Moore's statement "a reckless charge not supported by the facts" and demanded that Clark repudiate his celebrity backer.

As the ABC newsman may (or, more likely, may not) know, the facts about the president's National Guard stint are complex, disputed, and, in many respects, unflattering. To call him a "deserter" was wrong and inflammatory, even if Moore was joking, as he now insists. Although Bush may well have been absent without leave, he was never prosecuted for that offense, let alone desertion, and he eventually received an honorable discharge. But to suggest that the Bush record is beyond criticism, as Jennings did, is both misleading and biased. That bias reflects an enduring double standard on this topic that has protected Bush ever since he first declared his presidential candidacy.

The facts, established by Boston Globe reporter Walter Robinson in 2000, explode the lyrical flights of fancy penned by Hughes.

Bush graduated from Yale in June 1968. After his father's influential friends contacted Texas Air National Guard officials, they awarded young George a safe berth in Houston's famed "champagne unit," where sons of the Texas elite avoided Vietnam. His very special treatment included instant admission to flight training and an extraordinary commission as a second lieutenant. According to his former superiors, Bush performed admirably as a pilot while patrolling the coastal waters of the United States.

But in May 1972, only 22 months after he completed pilot training, he stopped flying. In August 1972, he failed to show up for his annual physical examination and was automatically grounded. According to The Times of London, a conservative newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch, Bush's campaign spokesman said he knew that he would be suspended if he missed that physical.

He never flew a military aircraft again (or not until his flight-suit photo-op last spring, when he briefly took the controls of an S-3B Viking jet before landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln). Instead, he left his Guard unit in Houston and went to Alabama to work in a Republican Senate campaign. He claims to have continued to serve in an Alabama Guard unit, but there is no evidence to support that assertion and much contradictory evidence. The commanding officer of the Alabama Guard unit told the Globe that Bush never showed up for duty there. Nor is there any evidence that he sought duty in Vietnam.

In fact, there is considerable evidence that Bush skipped all duty for a full year, until April 1973. At that point, his two superior officers in Houston noted in writing in an official document: "Lt. Bush has not been observed at this unit during the period of this report." They erroneously believed that he had been completing his duty in Alabama. Yet he somehow received an honorable discharge eight months before he completed his six-year commitment so that he could begin attending Harvard Business School.

As the Globe noted, the "champagne unit" and others like it back then displayed "a tendency to excuse shirking by those with political connections."

So Bush's claim that he "continued flying with my unit for the next several years" is an unabashed falsehood. Yet the spotty coverage of his military record in the mainstream press -- aside from the Globe investigation and similar efforts in the Dallas Morning News and the Los Angeles Times -- elided that lie. Compare this soft treatment with the media scourging of Bill Clinton, who was held accountable during the 1992 campaign for every word he uttered about his draft record.

What the Jennings episode validates is not Bush's strange military career but the Bush method of press management. Treat journalists like vassals, with nicknames, cheek-pinching, and -- whenever they forget their place momentarily -- sneering disdain. It works brilliantly.

Joe Conason writes a weekly column for The New York Observer.

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