A former senior politician from Texas has told close friends that he recommended George W. Bush for a pilot's slot in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War because he was eager to "collect chits" from an influential political family.
The reported comments by former Texas lieutenant governor Ben Barnes add fuel to a long-running controversy over how Bush got a slot in an outfit known as the "Champagne Unit" because it included so many sons of prominent Texans. Friends said that Barnes had recorded an interview for the CBS program "60 Minutes" that will address the question of whether Bush pulled strings to evade being sent to Vietnam.
Barnes, a longtime Democrat who works as a lobbyist and political consultant in Austin, has said that he is now "very ashamed" of helping "a lot of people who had family names of importance get in the National Guard." He made the statement during a meeting with John F. Kerry supporters in Austin on May 27, a video of which is now circulating on the Internet.
Friends said Barnes will expand on the remarks in his interview with "60 Minutes" while taking care not to contradict sworn testimony from 1999, in which he said that no member of the Bush family had directly asked him for help. Barnes was unavailable for comment yesterday.
The White House, which has been anticipating a Democratic counterattack on Bush's military record since a flurry of attacks on Kerry by former Vietnam War veterans funded by prominent Republican contributors, dismissed Barnes as a "partisan Democrat." In a CBS News interview last week, former president George H.W. Bush described charges that he used his influence to get his son into the National Guard as "a total lie."
According to a friend who has spoken with Barnes in recent days, Barnes is now willing to go public with a charge that he first made behind closed doors in September 1999, when he testified in a wrongful dismissal lawsuit brought by a former associate. In a sworn affidavit, Barnes testified that he had been approached by a longtime Bush family friend, Houston businessman Sidney Adger, for help in getting George W. Bush into the National Guard.
Barnes is now telling friends that he understood that Adger was making his request on behalf of the Bush family, even though Barnes has no memory of Adger explicitly saying he was. Barnes based his understanding on the knowledge that Adger was extremely close to the Bush family and Barnes's feeling that Adger would not have acted without the family's consent.
At the time, Barnes was speaker of the Texas House of Representatives and in close touch with the head of the Texas Air National Guard, Brig. Gen. James Rose. Adger and Rose are dead.
Barnes has told friends that he intervened with Rose to help a number of other prominent, young Texans into the National Guard. In addition to Bush, who was accepted for pilot training in May 1968, other recruits to the Texas National Guard during the late 1960s included the son of former Texas senator Lloyd M. Bentsen (D) and members of the Dallas Cowboys football team.
"I was collecting chits," Barnes told a friend, in explaining why he was willing to help Republicans as well as Democrats.
Lloyd M. Bentsen III, a Texas venture capitalist who joined the Guard at the same time as Bush, said that allegations of nepotism were ridiculous, at least in his case. He said that he applied for the post of accounting and finance officer in the unit, and was accepted on the basis of a master's degree in business administration from Stanford University.
"The short version of the story is that I heard there was an opening in the Guard, and I went and applied," he said. "I was obviously qualified. There were openings for officers, but there weren't openings for enlisted personnel."