The speaker of the Texas legislature personally asked the top official of the Texas Air National Guard to help George W. Bush obtain a pilot's slot in a Guard fighter squadron during the war in Vietnam, according to informed sources.
The speaker, Ben Barnes, intervened on Bush's behalf sometime in late 1967 or early 1968 at the request of a good friend of Bush's father, then a Republican congressman from Houston, the sources said. The friend, Sidney A. Adger, was a prominent Houston business executive who died in 1996. The Guard official contacted at his behest, Brig. Gen. James M. Rose, died in 1993.
Both Bush, now governor of Texas and front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination, and his father, the former president, say they did not ask for any help with Guard officials and have no knowledge of any assistance from Adger or anyone else.
"Gov. Bush did not need and did not ask anybody for help," said a Bush campaign spokesman, Scott McClellan. "President Bush has said he did not seek any help for his son in getting into the National Guard."
Jean Becker, a spokeswoman for former president Bush, confirmed that the senior Bush and Adger were good friends, but she said Bush firmly denies talking to Adger about helping his son get into the Guard.
The question of how George W. Bush got into the Texas Guard as a pilot trainee less than two weeks before his graduation from Yale has been a recurring issue in his political campaigns and has now been raised in a contentious lawsuit in which Barnes, who retired from politics after serving as House speaker and then lieutenant governor, is scheduled to give a deposition in Austin Sept. 27.
Barnes said in an interview this summer that when he was speaker he sometimes received requests for help in obtaining Guard slots, but never received such a call from then-Rep. Bush or anyone in the Bush family. But he declined to comment when asked if an intermediary or friend of the Bush family had ever asked him to intercede on George W. Bush's behalf.
Barnes has refused to make any further statement. However, he has told associates in Texas that Adger once called him seeking his help for George W. Bush. Barnes then called Rose, and, the sources say, recommended young Bush in a see-what-you-can-do fashion. Rose was in charge of the state's Air National Guard as assistant adjutant general for air.
A commercial airline pilot who later became an executive with an oil exploration supply company, Adger belonged to the same men's luncheon club in Houston as the senior Bush and often socialized with him, the former president's office said. Their children went to the same private school.
"They saw each other a lot," Bush spokeswoman Becker said. Former president Bush, she said, was very fond of Adger. But, she said, Bush is sure "without a doubt" that he did not ask Adger for help in getting his son into the Guard.
Bush was sworn in as an airman on May 27, 1968, in the office of another Guard official, then-Col. Walter B. "Buck" Staudt, commander of the 147th Fighter Group. His pilot trainee application was then sent to Austin and Rose initialed his approval around June 5.
Bush has denied joining the Guard to avoid the draft. He said he "wanted to be a pilot," met all the requirements when he walked into Staudt's office at Ellington Field, and was accepted. He has pointed repeatedly to Staudt's denials that any influence was exerted on Bush's behalf.
Staudt said in an interview that he knew Adger, but that Adger never mentioned Bush to him. Bush has said that he met Staudt in late 1967, during Christmas vacation of his senior year at Yale, called him later, and by Bush's account, "found out what it took to apply."
Asked recently how it was that Bush came to call Staudt, Bush's communications director, Karen Hughes, has said he heard "from friends while he was home over the Christmas break that the Guard was looking for pilots and that Colonel Staudt was the person to contact."
She said Bush did not recall who those "friends" were.
Jake Johnson, a former legislator, said Rose once told him that " 'I got that Republican congressman's son from Houston into the Guard.' " Johnson, a close friend and ally of Rose's, was chairman of the House Veterans and Military Affairs Committee in Austin in the late 1960s. He said Rose made the remark at one of their frequent meetings about bureaucratic infighting in the Texas Guard.
Asked about Rose's claim, Staudt said: "Lots of people like to take credit. I'm the guy he [Bush] came to see. . . . I don't care who said who called who. . . . We ran the unit." Staudt said that "nobody called me using influence, including Rose," but when asked if Rose mentioned George W. to him at all, Staudt said: "I don't know."
Staudt praised Bush as someone who "volunteered to serve his country" when many others didn't. But the unit he joined offered Bush a chance to fulfill his military commitment at a base in Texas and was seen as an escape route from Vietnam by many men his age. "It was sometimes called Air Canada," Johnson said. "What that meant was you didn't have to go to Canada to stay out of Vietnam."
The suit involving Barnes was brought by former Texas lottery director Lawrence Littwin, who was fired by the state lottery commission, headed by Bush appointee Harriet Miers, in October 1997 after five months on the job. It contends that Gtech Corp., which runs the state lottery and until February 1997 employed Barnes as a lobbyist for more than $3 million a year, was responsible for Littwin's dismissal.
Littwin's lawyers have suggested in court filings that Gtech was allowed to keep the lottery contract, which Littwin wanted to open up to competitive bidding, in return for Barnes's silence about Bush's entry into the Guard.
Barnes and his lawyers have denounced this "favor-repaid" theory in court pleadings as "preposterous . . . fantastic [and] fanciful." Littwin was fired after ordering a review of the campaign finance reports of various Texas politicians for any links to Gtech or other lottery contractors. But Littwin wasn't hired, or fired, until months after Barnes had severed his relationship with Gtech.
Barnes and his partner had been getting 4 percent of Gtech's gross revenue in Texas each year, on condition that the lottery contract not be put up for rebid. The world's biggest lottery operator, with revenue of almost $1 billion a year, Gtech agreed to buy them out for $23.1 million in the wake of damaging publicity stemming from the criminal prosecution in New Jersey of a top Gtech executive.
But while the Barnes camp has scoffed at the assertions of a payback for a 30-year-old favor, they have been more circumspect about the "favor" itself. In a motion seeking to block the deposition, Barnes's lawyer, Charles R. Burton, simply contended that whatever Barnes did in recommending "qualified candidates for service in the Guard" was irrelevant, private and privileged.
U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks of Austin rejected the argument, saying he was "unpersuaded" by what amounted to a last-minute pleading that Barnes could have submitted weeks earlier.
CAPTION: George W. Bush is sworn in as member of Texas Air National Guard by Col. Walter B. "Buck" Staudt on May 27, 1968.
CAPTION: Texas Gov. George W. Bush in the cockpit of an F-102 during his days in a fighter squadron in the Texas Air National Guard.