Talk about making a mountain out of a molar.
Wednesday night, President Bush's aides sent an urgent electronic page to White House reporters: "PLEASE CHECK YOUR EMAIL FOR RELEASE OF INFORMATION FROM THE WHITE HOUSE." Was it a terrorist attack? Osama bin Laden captured?
No. "DENTAL EXAMINATION" was the jaw-dropping headline. Attached to the e-mail was a summary of George W. Bush's 1973 exam in Alabama -- a "full mouth periapical," no less. "This dental examination documents the president serving at Dannelly [Air National Guard] Base, Alabama, on January 6, 1973," White House press secretary Scott McClellan announced in an accompanying statement.
Thus did the president's aides try to end the curiously reborn controversy over whether Bush did his Vietnam War-era duties in Alabama in 1972-73. Yet, yesterday morning, a mere 12 hours after Bush exposed his bicuspids, McClellan was providing new details about Bush's driving record: two teenage car accidents and two speeding tickets, undisclosed until now.
The spokesman volunteered these embarrassing tidbits because, he said, the release of part of Bush's National Guard records with the "arrest record" redacted -- that is, blacked out -- could fuel conspiracy theories.
It's all part of a painful lesson Bush has learned in recent days about the slippery slope of disclosure. It began when the president, in an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press" broadcast Sunday, agreed to release all records regarding his National Guard service. The White House insisted the records had already been released, but the vow to disclose all information opened the floodgates for old records the White House had said did not exist.
First came the National Guard payroll records, on Tuesday, which the White House said proved Bush did his duty in 1972 and 1973. But those records did not prove where Bush served or whether he did any drills.
Thus yesterday's release of Bush's dental exam. The diagrams indicate the future president was missing four wisdom teeth (numbers 1, 16, 17, 32) and one molar (no. 3) and had seven fillings (pre-molars 4, 5, 20 and 21 and molars 15, 30 and 31). An accompanying statement from the White House doctor, Richard J. Tubb, attested: "I have reviewed the medical and dental records of President George W. Bush covering the period from 1968-73," and Bush "was fit for continued flying duties."
But the dental disclosure only raised more questions that the conspiracy-minded could sink their teeth into: If the White House doctor reviewed Bush's medical records from his Guard period, that means such records exist -- so why wasn't the White House releasing them? The document proves that Bush submitted to the dentist's drill in Alabama, but what about military drills? Bush had said he returned to Texas before January 1973 -- so what was his mouth still doing in Alabama?
Flying to Harrisburg, Pa., aboard Air Force One yesterday, McClellan mused: "I suppose some might now try to suggest that, well, this is only his teeth, this doesn't show that he was there."
That morning's USA Today prompted more gnashing of teeth by McClellan and his colleagues. It reproduced another document from Bush's Guard days, a freshly released questionnaire asking "Have you ever been arrested, indicted or convicted for any violation of civil or military law?" and showing a lengthy response that had been blacked out.
The newspaper noted that Bush had previously disclosed arrests for stealing a Christmas wreath at Yale and for rowdiness at a Yale-Princeton game, but it suggested there could have been drug or alcohol violations.
Worried that the public would suspect the worst, McClellan volunteered the driving offenses: "Two speeding tickets, July '64 and August '64, $10 fine, Houston traffic court. Two collisions, July '62 and August '62, $25 fine, Houston traffic court." (Bush's 1976 drunken-driving arrest caused a brief national ruckus when it was disclosed a few days before the 2000 election.)
Will that be the end of the disclosures? Don't count on it. McClellan tried Wednesday to retreat from Bush's televised agreement to release his entire military file. The president, therefore, finds himself in an election-year disclosure dilemma over old records. If he reneges on his promise to release them, he may appear to be hiding something. If he releases them, he risks more flaps over missing molars.