Two high-profile surrogates for Vice President Gore, in an 11th-hour attempt to exploit a dormant issue, yesterday castigated George W. Bush over allegations that he did not fulfill some of his National Guard duties in the 1970s.
Democratic Sens. Bob Kerrey (Neb.) and Daniel Inouye (Hawaii), both Medal of Honor winners, were drafted to attack Bush on a 27-year-old controversy that the Gore campaign has avoided mentioning until now. They spoke by phone to a veterans rally in Nashville led by Sen. Max Cleland (D-Ga.), a decorated Vietnam veteran. Reporters were invited to listen by conference call.
Bush says he fulfilled all his obligations as a pilot in the Air National Guard, but he has had difficulty rebutting charges that he played hooky for a year.
"Where were you, Governor Bush?" Inouye asked. "What about your commitment? What would you do as commander in chief if someone in the Guard or service did the same thing?"
Kerrey questioned how Bush immediately got into the Guard "even though there were 500 people ahead of him" at a time when "350 Americans were dying every single week in Vietnam." Kerrey has been drawing a sharp contrast with Gore, who served in Vietnam.
Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer called the attacks "the final throes of a campaign that has now lost any semblance of decency. The governor, of course, was honorably discharged, and these are inventions and fabrications. All the questions have been answered."
But Gore spokesman Mark Fabiani said the senators "seem to have raised some very important questions . . . that deserve an answer."
Bush signed up with the Texas National Guard for six years in May 1968, which allowed him to avoid the Vietnam draft. He became an F-102 pilot in 1970 but made his last flight in April 1972 before moving to Alabama to work on a GOP Senate campaign. The dispute centers on what he did in the Guard between that point and September 1973, when he entered Harvard Business School.
Bush campaign officials say their evidence shows that he did his duty in 1972-73, when he worked for six months on the Senate race in Alabama and then returned to his home base outside Houston. But other documents in his Guard record contradict that claim, and critics who have examined that record contend that he also skimped on his obligations in 1973-74. It is safe to say that Bush did very light duty in his last two years in the Guard and that his superiors made it easy for him.
The personnel officer in charge of Bush's 147th Fighter Group, now-retired Col. Rufus G. Martin, says he tried to give Bush a light load, telling him to apply to the 9921st Air Reserve Squadron in Montgomery, Ala.
Martin said in an interview that he knew Bush wasn't eligible for the 9921st, an unpaid, general training squadron that met once a week to hear lectures on first aid and the like. "However," he said, "I thought it was worth a try. . . . It was the least participation of any type of unit." But Air Force Reserve officials rejected the assignment, saying Bush had two more years of military obligations and was ineligible for a reserve squadron that had nothing to do with flying airplanes. Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett said Bush didn't know that when he applied.
Bush had been notified that he needed to take his annual flying physical by his 26th birthday in July 1972, but the move to Alabama made that unnecessary. He had been trained to fly F-102 fighter-interceptors, and none of the units in Alabama had those planes. He could have taken the physical to preserve his pilot's status but chose not to do so. "Because he wasn't flying," Bartlett said.
On Aug. 1, 1972, Bush's commander in Houston, Col. Bobby W. Hodges, ordered him grounded for "failure to accomplish annual medical examination." Some critics say this should have triggered a formal board of inquiry, but Hodges said in an interview that this was unnecessary because Bush accepted the penalty and knew "he couldn't fly again until he takes a physical."
"It happens all the time," Hodges said of the grounding. "That is normal when a Guardsman is out of state or out of the country."
In September, Bush was assigned to another Alabama unit, the 187th Tactical Reconnaissance Group. Since "Lieutenant Bush will not be able to satisfy his flight requirements with our group," the unit told him to report for "equivalent training"--such as debriefing pilots--on the weekends of Oct. 7-8 and Nov. 4-5, 1972.
There is no evidence in his record that he showed up on either weekend. Friends on the Alabama campaign say he told them of having to do Guard duty, but the retired general who commanded the 187th, William Turnipseed, and his personnel chief, Kenneth K. Lott, say they do not remember Bush ever reporting.
The Bush campaign points to a torn piece of paper in his Guard records, a statement of points Bush apparently earned in 1972-73, although most of the dates and Bush's name except for the "W" have been torn off.
According to the torn Air Reserve Forces sheet, Bush continued to compile service credits after returning to Houston, winding up his fifth year with 56 points, six above the minimum needed for retention. However, Bush's annual effectiveness report, signed by two superiors, says "Lt. Bush has not been observed at this unit during the period of the report," May 1, 1972, to April 30, 1973.
Hodges also said he did not see Bush at the Texas base again after Bush left for Montgomery. "If I had been there on the day[s] he came out, I would have seen him," Hodges said.