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White House Briefing: Dan Froomkin

The Story That Won't Go Away

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, September 9, 2004; 11:46 AM

Back in February, the White House assured everyone that all the existing, relevant documents about President Bush's disputed National Guard service had been made public.

But just in the past two days, several new documents have emerged -- as have new, intensive examinations of the record. The result: The guard story this morning muscled its way onto the front page of virtually every major newspaper.


Where does it go from here? Bush taking and answering questions on the topic might be one way to calm the furor -- but for the last week or so, he's stopped answering questions from the press altogether.

The Coverage

One big impetus for today's coverage was last night's report by Dan Rather on CBS's 60 Minutes. In addition to interviewing Ben Barnes, the man who claims to have pulled strings on Bush's behalf, CBS somehow got a hold of new documents written by Bush's deceased squadron commander, Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, including this one, ordering Bush "to be suspended from flight status for failure to perform" to U.S. Air Force and National Guard standards and failure to take his annual physical "as ordered."

The CBS story contains links to the other document as well.

Here's video of CBS's Bill Plante this morning, hitting the highlights.

Michael Dobbs and Thomas B. Edsall write in The Washington Post: "President Bush failed to carry out a direct order from his superior in the Texas Air National Guard in May 1972 to undertake a medical examination that was necessary for him to remain a qualified pilot, according to documents made public yesterday."

Dobbs and Edsall write that "White House officials dismissed the latest criticism of Bush's service as partisan attacks in the midst of a heated campaign. . . .

"White House officials have said there was no reason for Bush to take the annual physical required of fighter pilots because there were no suitable planes for him to fly in Alabama, where he applied for 'substitute training' to replace his required service with the Texas National Guard. But the new documents suggest that Bush's transfer to non-flight duties in Alabama was the subject of arguments among his National Guard superiors.

Katharine Q. Seelye and Ralph Blumenthal write in the New York Times: "President Bush's Vietnam-era service in the National Guard came under renewed scrutiny on Wednesday as newfound documents emerged from his squadron commander's file that suggested favorable treatment. . . .

"The events created a new round of scrutiny for Mr. Bush, after a month in which Mr. Kerry's Vietnam service dominated the campaign because of veterans with longstanding anger at how Mr. Kerry, who was a decorated veteran, came home and turned against the war. With advertisements, through a book and on talk shows, the group, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, leveled largely unsubstantiated accusations about Mr. Kerry's record and told how his antiwar statements had demoralized veterans.

"Democrats were unabashed in turning the spotlight on Mr. Bush. Terry McAuliffe, the Democratic chairman, said in a conference call with reporters the party would keep Mr. Bush's record before the public."

James Rainey writes in the Los Angeles Times that "intensifying scrutiny of the president's record -- and whereabouts -- in the Air National Guard seemed to put the White House on the defensive in a campaign that previously focused on Kerry's service in Vietnam and his subsequent antiwar activities."

Dave Moniz and Jim Drinkard write in USA Today: "President Bush's commander in the Texas Air National Guard concluded that Bush was failing to meet standards for fighter pilots, but the commander felt pressure from superiors to 'sugar coat' his judgments, according to newly disclosed documents."

USA Today also publishes an updated timeline.

"BUSH UNDER FIRE" screams the cover of the New York Daily News. Inside, Thomas M. DeFrank, James Gordon Meek and Corky Siemaszko write: "The Bush campaign was rocked yesterday by allegations that the Top Gun President was a substandard pilot who disobeyed a direct order while serving in the Texas Air National Guard."

Michael Forsythe writes for Bloomberg: "Some political experts said the news reports on Bush's service may undermine his credibility. The focus on Bush 'will eventually be all about his reliability to govern,' said Terry Sullivan, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill."

Walter V. Robinson and Francie Latour write in the Boston Globe: "Former military officers said last night that the four documents obtained by CBS, two of which should have been in Bush's publicly released file, contain evidence that political influence may have come into play as he sidestepped his training requirements in his final two years of service, from May 1972 until May 1974."

Robinson, who also anchored yesterday's big Boston Globe investigative piece on the subject, was on CNN with Aaron Brown last night.

Brown: "The central charges here I think are fairly simple that the president back then all those years ago did not do what he agreed to do, what he signed contracts to do and that he was never punished for it, fair?"

Robinson: "I think that's a fair reading of the records. . . . "

Brown: "The White House in all of its response to this falls back on one fairly simple and I think to most people easy to understand conclusion which is at the end of the day whatever he did -- and I think they acknowledge there was a period where he didn't go to drills, they say he made them up -- that he was honorably discharged. Therefore, he must have done what he agreed to do."

Robinson: "I think that's partly true. He was honorably discharged from the Texas Guard by the very same officers who it is clear from these records and even clearer from the records that CBS obtained, this very same officer . . . who condoned his non-attendance at drills for most of the last 17 months he was in the guard."

Brown: "Just to take it one sentence further. I gather what you mean by that is, look, they knew who he was and they gave him a pass?"

Robinson: "That's a fair conclusion from the documents."

Another Major Re-Examination

Adding more fuel to the fire, Kit R. Roane unleashes a major U.S. News report: "A new examination of payroll records and other documents released by the White House earlier this year appear to confirm critics' assertions that President George W. Bush failed to fulfill his duty to the Air National Guard during the Vietnam War.

"Among the issues identified by the magazine:

• "The White House used an inappropriate -- and less stringent -- Air Force standard in determining that President Bush fulfilled his National Guard duty.

• "Even using this lesser standard, the president did not attend enough drills to complete his obligation to the Guard during his final year of service.

• "During the final two years of his service obligation, Bush did not comply with Air Force regulations that impose a time limit on making up missed drills. Instead, he took credit for makeup drills he participated in outside that time frame. Five months of drills missed by the President in 1972 were never made up, contrary to assertions made by the White House."

Roane writes: "For several experts contacted by U.S. News, how President Bush received his honorable discharge from the Guard remains a mystery."

A Nod to the Web

Eric Boehlert writes in Salon about amateur researcher Paul Lukasiak, who on his AWOL Project Web site, has been "closely examining the paperwork, and more important, analyzing U.S. statutory law, Department of Defense regulations, and Air Force policies and procedures of the 1960s and 1970s. As a result, Lukasiak arrived at the overwhelming conclusion that not only did Bush walk away from his final two years of military obligation, coming dangerously close to desertion, but he attempted to cover up his absenteeism through swindle and fraud."

Not Taking Questions

From yesterday's gaggle with press secretary Scott McClellan.

"Q Before I get to my question, has the President spoken to any reporters or taken a question since this plane a week ago with Columbus?

"MR. McCLELLAN: I think you've been around -- since a week ago Columbus? No, I don't think so.

"Q Can you advocate to put him in front of us?

"MR. McCLELLAN: He takes questions on a regular basis. He did a number of interviews before the convention. You know that he takes questions on a regular basis.

"Q I'd be grateful if we could talk to him today. There's a lot of news going on.

"MR. McCLELLAN: Your request is heard. I'll take it under consideration. At this point, I think the plan is to be touring these areas and then speaking to the Floridians.

"Q Just a five-minute detour to the press. I'd really appreciate it."

Changing Course on Intelligence

Walter Pincus and Dana Milbank write in The Washington Post: "President Bush yesterday proposed giving a new national intelligence director broad powers to plan intelligence agencies' spending priorities and clandestine activities, making a concession to lawmakers moving to implement the more sweeping proposals of the Sept. 11 commission. . . .

"In several aspects, Bush's proposal still stops short of the recommendations of the 9/11 commission. . . . Bush's plan would not place the intelligence chief in the office of the president, and would give the chief full authority over only the 70 percent of the intelligence budget that is not related solely to military operations."

Is this a flip-flop?

Pincus and Milbank write: "The administration had not explicitly rejected giving the intelligence director authority over the budget, but officials were dismissive of the notion on Aug. 2, when Bush first outlined his response to the recommendations of the commission that probed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks."

Elisabeth Bumiller and Philip Shenon write in the New York Times: "President Bush said on Wednesday that he wanted to give a new national intelligence director 'full budgetary authority,' a sharp shift from an earlier position and an acquiescence to a major recommendation of the Sept. 11 commission.

"Mr. Bush was acting after weeks of intense election-year pressure from Democrats and members of his own party, who have repeatedly told the White House that an intelligence director without budget authority would be powerless to push through significant reform. Mr. Bush also said he would submit his own proposal to Congress to overhaul the nation's intelligence agencies."

Here is the text of Bush's comments on changing the intelligence services.

Here is a fact sheet released by the White House.

The Cheney Quote

Vice President Cheney's assertion Tuesday that if Kerry is elected, "the danger is that we'll get hit again" by terrorists, continues to reverberate.

Spencer S. Hsu and Dana Milbank write in The Washington Post: "Bush did not respond to reporters' queries about the subject at the White House. Bush spokesman Scott McClellan later stood by Cheney's warning without repeating it. 'There are differences in how the two candidates approach the war on terrorism, and that's what the vice president was talking about in his remarks,' McClellan said. . . .

"The comments underscore a pattern in which the vice president has acted as the leading edge of the Bush-Cheney communications machine on controversial security issues such as the Iraq war, the hunt for weapons of mass destruction and the fight against al Qaeda, issues in which Cheney has often gone further in making the administration's case than the president."

They note a fascinating revision in the official transcript of the remarks. The original transcript said: "[I]t's absolutely essential that eight weeks from today, on November 2nd, we make the right choice. Because if we make the wrong choice, then the danger is that we'll get hit again."

In the revised version, Hsu and Milbank write, "the period at the end of 'hit again' was removed and replaced with a comma, which linked his blunter statement to his standard stump language expressing concern that future attacks would be treated as 'just criminal acts, and that we're not really at war.' "

Adam Nagourney writes in the New York Times: "Vice President Dick Cheney's assertion that the nation was more likely to 'get hit again' by terrorists if John Kerry was elected was one of the toughest attacks launched in a presidential election in 40 years.

"But Mr. Cheney's latest assault on Mr. Kerry, which startled Democrats and Republicans alike, raised a central question even in this notably ferocious presidential campaign: Is it possible for a candidate to go too far, and alienate the very voters he is trying to court?

"In one sign that the answer to that question may be yes, Mr. Cheney's aides were quick to say that he had not meant to be quite so direct. . . . But what Mr. Cheney said was, if a bit stark, in line with the not-so-subliminal message of Mr. Bush's nominating convention. . . . "

Martin Kasindorf writes in USA Today: "Some political analysts said Cheney went over the top in election-year rhetoric but was on established historical ground in doing so. These observers cited 'vote for us or the other guy will get you killed' precedents."

There was much discussion about Cheney's comment in my Live Online yesterday.

Florida Photo Op

"Need Ice? Cereal? The Bush Brothers Are on the Way!" That's the headline over David E. Sanger's piece in the New York Times. "The president moved through Florida today like the two hurricanes that preceded him, buzzing from Fort Pierce to Miami with a fleet of helicopters -- Marine One, its backup, and three more stuffed with staff members, Secret Service and windblown reporters -- so that he could be photographed thanking relief workers and drop in on the National Hurricane Center."

Manuel Roig-Franzia writes in The Washington Post: "Bush's visit to Fort Pierce and the neighboring town of Port St. Lucie placed him at the center of one of the most contentious points in Florida, which still has nearly 1 million customers without power since Frances hit the state last weekend."

Brendan Farrington writes for the Associated Press: "Two devastating hurricanes have given President Bush something his political advisers couldn't dream up: the chance to play comforter in chief in a battleground state he is determined to win again."

Today's Calendar

The Associated Press reports that Bush will be talking about his economic plans in two Pennsylvania campaign appearances today.

Bush will speak at Byers' Choice, a Colmar company that makes the Caroler brand of Christmas figurines. He headlines a campaign rally later in the day in Johnstown.

Laura Bush talks about the economy at Mahar Tool Supply in Saginaw, Mich.

Vice President Cheney attends a town hall meeting in Cincinnati and then a fundraiser in Green Bay.

Cheney's Town Meetings

It's becoming increasingly clear that Cheney really doesn't have Bush's touch when it comes to drawing out softballs, even from a hand-picked audience.

Here's the text of his town hall meeting in New Hampshire yesterday.

The first question starts off fine, with the questioner, who's in the meat business, offering to donate some steaks to the Cheneys. But he doesn't stop there. He asks Cheney what's he doing to help the two FBI whistleblowers.

"Because there's a legitimate complaint with a terrorist, or with somebody internally, the only way we're going to straighten out this country, or the terrorists, we're going to have to make sure the FBI is straight forward like they should be. Thank you."

Cheney's response: "I'm not familiar with the specific cases you're talking about. I'd be happy to take a look at it if you want to give me your card or something afterwards."

I'll help. Here's a 60 Minutes story on Sibel Edmonds. Here's the Time cover story on Coleen Rowley. Not exactly state secrets.

Cheney then proceeded to get grilled on Social Security -- "There's no detailed proposal out there on the table," he responded -- and tax reform -- "There are no proposals yet. There's the desire."

Finally, for the last question, Lynne Cheney bailed out her husband.

"I choose the little girl," she said.

Cheney: "All right, good idea."

Little girl: "I love to read. What's your favorite book?"

Crowd Control

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post: "This is the time in the political calendar when soothsayers point to the size of crowds at rallies to see which candidate is producing more enthusiasm. The campaigns, well aware of this practice, can't resist putting their thumbs on the scale."

Teaming up with a correspondent from the Washington Times, Milbank counted the crowds at President Bush's three stops in Missouri, then compared the actual figure with the official Bush campaign figure.

His conclusion: "It seems that the Bush campaign is inflating its crowd counts by 45 to 75 percent."

Assault Weapon Watch

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "Despite widespread popular support, the federal law banning the sale of 19 kinds of semiautomatic assault weapons is almost certain to expire on Monday, the result of intense lobbying by the National Rifle Association and the complicated election-year politics of Washington.

"While President Bush has expressed support for legislation extending the ban and has said he would sign it into law, he has not pressured lawmakers to act, leading critics to accuse him of trying to have it both ways."

Kitty Kelley Watch

Howard Kurtz writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush's former sister-in-law denied yesterday that she had given author Kitty Kelley any information about allegations of past drug use by Bush.

"Sharon Bush is quoted in Kelley's forthcoming book about the Bush family as making one of the allegations, and Kelley's editor said in an interview Tuesday that she had provided 'confirmation' for the information. . . .

"The conflicting accounts will undoubtedly become fodder in the emerging debate over 'The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty.' White House and Republican Party spokesmen have denounced the book as 'garbage' and 'fiction.' Publication day is set for Monday, when Kelley will begin three days of 'Today' show interviews, but some of the allegations have already leaked to a British newspaper."

David D. Kirkpatrick writes in the New York Times: "A representative of the White House recently called Neal Shapiro, president of NBC News, to discourage that network from broadcasting interviews with Ms. Kelley about the book on its 'Today' program and on its MSNBC cable program 'Hardball With Chris Matthews,' a network executive said. . . .

"A copy of the book was obtained by The New York Times. Ms. Kelley writes that she spent four years and interviewed nearly a thousand people in researching the book, which spans three generations of Bushes. Little, if any, of its content is flattering to the family."

Kirkpatrick also writes that "Lou Colasuonno, a former publicist for Ms. Bush, confirmed that he was the third party" at the lunch at which she and Kelley talked about cocaine use. He contradicted her denial.

Late Night Humor

Via the Associated Press, from the "Late Show with David Letterman": "There's a brand new book out about George Bush, and the new book says George Bush smoked marijuana while in the National Guard. And Bush said, 'See! I told you I was in the National Guard! I was there!' "

From the "Tonight Show with Jay Leno": "In a shocking new book by Kitty Kelley, acquaintances of President Bush say that when he was in the National Guard, 'he liked to sneak out back for a joint or into the bathroom and do cocaine.' Isn't that unbelievable? They actually found some people who saw Bush in the National Guard!"


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