LOS ANGELES -- Veterans of George W. Bush's National Guard unit charged today that the president has misrepresented his military service during the Vietnam War. The veterans allege that during a period when the future president was supposed to be serving in the Texas Air National Guard, he was actually fighting in Vietnam.
"For more than 30 years we have remained silent," said the head of the group, which calls itself "Stiff Drink Veterans for Kerry, Whoops We Mean for Brewsky, Whoops We Mean for Truth." But, he added, "We want to be on Larry King just as much as those Swift Vote guys."
Two members of the group claim to be eyewitnesses. "It was a typical night at the Guard offices," one of them recalled at a press conference yesterday. "Okay, I'd had a few. But I personally saw George parachute down from a B-52, kill a dozen Cong with his bare hands, leap into one of those Swift boat thingies and stick his tongue out at John Kerry."
The White House yesterday strongly denied the Stiff Drink version of events. "As has been his policy throughout his entire life," a spokesman said, "the president never left the continental United States during the entire Vietnam era -- well, except for a few weekends in Tijuana. These Stiff Drink fellows are nothing more than a front for the Kerry campaign, which would like to convince the American people that George W. Bush is responsible for the Vietnam War."
The Stiff Drink story is not easy to confirm or refute. On one side, claiming that Bush has been lying, are two obscure drunks with close ties to the Democratic Party and longstanding grudges against the Bush family, which they claim cooperated with space aliens who kidnapped them to Crawford, Tex., or possibly Mars ("Who can tell?") and examined their genital areas. On the other side, confirming Bush's version of events, are 143 fellow reservists who have signed affidavits attesting that they saw the future president popping a Bud in the Guard offices at a time when the Stiff Drink group alleges he was on a secret mission to Hanoi, where he personally arm-wrestled Ho Chi Minh.
There is no documentary evidence supporting the view that Bush was in Vietnam. However, there is an extensive collection of speeding tickets from several Southern states, issued throughout the period in question to someone whose description resembles that of George W. Bush. This person, whose identity cannot be firmly established, called himself George W. Bush. He was driving a car registered to Bush and was carrying Bush's driver's license. In addition, there are photographs of Bush at the time in Texas papers, accompanying stories such as "Bush Son Seeks Own Way" (Houston Chronicle, March 28, 1969) and "Bush Son Still Seeking Own Way" (Dallas Morning News, Dec. 12, 1972).
Bush also kept a diary throughout this period. Supplied to reporters yesterday by the Bush-Cheney campaign, the diary contains multiple entries along the lines of, "Woke up. Terrible hangover. But at least I'm not in Vietnam. Thanks, Dad!"
Bush signed up for the Texas Air National Guard in 1968, to defend the state of Texas against the Viet Cong. In 1972 -- having decided, sources say, that Texas was now secure from communist infiltration -- he transferred his allegiance to a Guard unit in Alabama.
There has long been mystery and controversy about what exactly Bush did in Alabama and whether he fulfilled his reservist's obligation to show up and sharpen pencils for 45 minutes every other weekend. This is different from today's National Guard and Army Reserve policy, under which a recruiting officer leads young people to believe they are signing up for pencil-sharpening duty and then, as soon as they've signed, shouts "Aha! Gotcha!" and ships them off to a distant war.
"Look, Larry," the president told Barbara Walters in a recent interview, "just because I got away with it is no reason they should get away with it." Although Bush has never said what he was doing when he was supposed to be sharpening pencils for his country, he has not denied published hypothesizes that he spent the period drinking, sleeping and watching sports on TV. "It sounds easy," said one Bush friend from that era, "but keep in mind that in those days there might be only one game on the tube at any given time."
The Stiff Drink group, however, insists that Bush was actually flying sorties over Hanoi. And doing it without a plane. In the end, it is their word against his. The truth probably lies somewhere in between. And the full story of George Bush's secret war in Vietnam will never be known.
The writer is editorial and opinion editor of the Los Angeles Times.