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Rot Never Sleeps

Serik Kulmeshkenov

In strictly political terms, the week of February 8 proved the roughest yet at Bunker 1600. It began with an hour-long appearance on Meet the Press in which the president ducked and mumbled like a punch-drunk, rope-hugging fighter waiting for the bell. The public mostly missed it, but the chattering classes were shocked--archconservatives most of all. Author and radio host Laura Ingraham (think Ann Coulter, without the personality disorder) declared that this was not the George W. Bush "we" elected. Republican columnist Bob Novak, a soldier so loyal he last year outed an undercover CIA agent at the behest of the White House, harrumphed that the interview was Strike Two on Bush's reelection effort. (The State of the Union was Strike One.) And op-ed diva Peggy Noonan deserves some sort of award for finding ponies in piles of horseshit. The Bush I speechwriter and grande dame of Republican letters explained Bush's Rain Man demeanor this way: Democrats, you see, are all about "talking points," while Republicans are all about philosophy of governance, which does not yield talking points, which is why the president found himself unable to say anything.

To make matters worse, reporters began showing up bright and early Monday morning to see the National Guard service records that Bush had categorically and perhaps unintentionally promised Tim Russert he would provide. (When Bush made the pledge, he added that he had already made the records public during the 2000 campaign, which he patently had not done--raising some doubt as to what Bush thought he was promising, and lending credence to the widespread suspicion that, for whatever reason, the president was even less than usual the master of his own words that morning.) In any event, the White House reacted as though caught by surprise. At first it released very limited records that indicated Bush received pay, sporadically, during part of the time he stands accused of going AWOL from his Alabama National Guard unit. For Wednesday's late news cycle their sole release recorded a Bush dental exam at the Alabama base in 1973, demonstrating conclusively that the president had done the right thing with respect to--his teeth.

After that stinker, the clamor rose to such levels that on Thursday, Team W finally assented to "full" release of his military file. No one has entirely digested the resulting document dump yet, but here are a few salient points raised or left hanging by the disclosures so far:

  • A blogger named Kevin Drum, the proprietor of Calpundit.com, has pointed out that the pay records released by the White House are Air Reserve Force records. The ARF was a "paper unit" for Guard members who were off active duty. Assignment there was sometimes a disciplinary measure, and those on its roster were subject to call-up for Vietnam duty. As I write this on Sunday night, the mainstream press has yet to explore this dimension of Bush's record at all.
  • The records released by the White House contain no indication of why Bush skipped his pilot's physical in early 1972, forcing him off active flight duty. Two Guard generals told the Boston Globe that any such lapse by a Guard pilot should have triggered an automatic investigation, though there is no record at present that one ever occurred.
  • Of the hundreds of individuals who might have encountered Bush during the time he was supposed to be at the Alabama base, precisely one--a John B. "Bill" Calhoun--has come forward to profess any recollection of his being there. And Calhoun's recollections do not jibe with the White House's own pay records, though they do match the time frame contained in a widely circulated but erroneous AP wire story.
  • The alt-weekly Memphis Flyer published an interview with two pilots from Bush's Alabama unit who say they're sure he was never there. This is significant because both say they remember hearing of Bush's transfer and looking forward to meeting him, and because they could hardly have missed his presence: He would have been one of only 25 to 30 fighter pilots in the whole unit.
  • The New York Daily News reported that Bush went to Alabama in 1972 without the permission of Texas Guard officials, only applying for a transfer nine days later. But that transfer, to a postal unit, was denied. W had been in Alabama for a full five months before Texas brass belatedly granted him a transfer to the 187th in Alabama.

It's clear enough that Bush passed his time in Alabama as he had spent his days at Yale, in full-time pursuit of a career as the prodigal son. No one seems to have noticed that one of the most notorious of Bush's reported "youthful indiscretions" occurred during the period when he was assigned to the Alabama Guard. During the 1972 Christmas holiday, Bush was visiting his parents in Washington when he and 15-year-old brother Marvin got crocked at a party and wound up dragging a neighbor's metal garbage can home under their car. According to a 2000 Time campaign profile, Bush Senior summoned his son to the family den: "'I hear you're looking for me,' the son told the father. 'You wanna go mano a mano right here?' It was Jeb who tried to ease the tension by announcing to the Bush parents that W had just been accepted at Harvard Business School. They hadn't even known he had applied, but they leaped at the idea until he told them, 'Oh, I'm not going. I just wanted to let you know I could get into it.'"

He was 26 then, by Barbara Bush's own account a "late bloomer," which is what better mothers everywhere call sons who are chronic fuck-ups. If you're Uncle Sam, do you want this character flying your expensive fighter jets?

But it's a mistake to suppose the real question is what Bush did in the National Guard. As ever, the cover-up outstrips the crime. A former Guard official named Bill Burkett has gone public with the claim that he saw 20 to 40 pages of documents from Bush's service file in a wastebasket, where they had been tossed by campaign operatives during a 1997 purge of the then-governor's records. Burkett's account has been publicly denied by one of the Guard officials he says he spoke to at the time, George Conn. One problem: Two years ago, Conn told USA Today reporter Dave Moniz that Burkett had indeed discussed the Bush file cleansing with him when it happened.

Conn isn't the only one who's changed his tune. William Leon, a freedom of information officer in the Texas Guard, confirmed to USA Today in 2002 that there had been meetings regarding Bush's file. Contacted by the paper again last week, Leon spat: "Don't ever call me again at home. I'll call your publisher and sue you." On the face of it, the president's men appear to be leaning on people.

There may be more to conceal than meets the eye. What the press corps is really after at this point has not been laid on the table: a persistent buzz that during the period in question, Bush was either in treatment or doing community service to expunge a criminal offense from his record, or both. Helen Thomas hinted at it in an extraordinary exchange with press secretary Scott McClellan last week in which she repeatedly raised the question of Bush's "community service." I can't reproduce it here, but I'll link to the transcript at my CP blog, Bush Wars. The Guard issue is hardly over, though Democrats would do well to turn the focus from the matter of Bush's service--about which two-thirds of the public does not care, according to a Washington Post poll--to the abiding cover-up, which speaks volumes about the way the Bushmen do business. Ask Paul O'Neill.

(Note: I meant to get into John Kerry's female troubles here, but since space does not allow I'll post that item at Bush Wars as well. You can get to it by going directly to bushwarsblog.com.)

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