W as in AWOL: Case Not Closed

W as in AWOL: Case Not Closed


George W. Bush is lucky that …



George W. Bush is lucky that Scott McClellan is not his lawyer and that the White House press briefing room is not a courtroom.

On February 10, the Bush White House tried to rid itself of the allegation that Bush ducked out of his Air National Guard Service from May 1972 to May 1973. Two days earlier on Meet the Press, Bush maintained, “I did report, otherwise I wouldn’t have been honorably discharged.” But he offered no details. He did not describe what drills he did; he did not mention anyone with whom he served during the time in question. When host Tim Russert asked if he would open up his “entire” file and release “everything to settle this,” Bush said, “Yeah. Absolutely.”

And two days later, McClellan was in the briefing room holding up new documents that he claimed proved Bush had “fulfilled his duties.” The key material, which the White House had managed to obtain PDQ from the Air Reserve Personnel Center in Denver–were several pages of microfiche payment sheet summaries that apparently showed Bush was paid several times in the months of October and November 1972 and January and April 1973. McClellan also cited two retirement records that showed Bush had amassed attendance points for these days.

This new material did bolster Bush’s defense. But it hardly resolved the issue. Nor did it address the most damning elements of the case against Bush. Most notable of these is the May 2, 1973, annual performance review–signed by two superior officers, who were friends of Bush–that noted, “Lt. Bush has not been observed at” his home base unit in Houston for the past year. Bush has said he spent about half of that period reporting to a Guard base in Alabama, while he was temporarily living there. The new records do not explain why the commander of that unit and his administrative officer say they never saw Bush. Nor do they explain why the Bush campaign in 2000 failed to keep its promise to produce the names of people who had served with Bush in Alabama. Nor do these records explain why Bush, who had been trained as fighter pilot, failed to take a flight physical during the year in question and was grounded. Nor do they back up the 2000 Bush campaign’s explanation that Bush did not take a flight physical because he was living in Alabama and his personal doctor was in Houston. (Flight physicals are administered by military physicians, and there were flight physicians at the base in Alabama where Bush says he served.)

The records hailed by the White House only demonstrate that Bush received payments and credit for a modest amount of days. They do not show what he did and where he did it. Those sorts of records detailing Bush’s service should exist, according to military experts. But that is not what the White House handed out. Is it possible Bush received payment and credit for days of service that did not happen? Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen, who served in the National Guard during the Vietnam War, recently wrote that he was routinely paid for Guard duty he never did. Given the other evidence, these pay records are not end-of-story proof.

But what makes the White House case particularly unconvincing is McClellan’s performance at the press briefing. It was a remarkable exhibition of dissimulation that deserves to be studied by students of political spin. He avoided remaining questions. He kept insisting that these records meant there was nothing else to discuss. He denied reality and refused to acknowledge there was documentary evidence contradicting Bush’s account. He was an automaton: these records showed that he served, these records showed that he served, these records showed that he served.

The first question was a tough one for McClellan. A reporter asked:

The records that you handed out today, and other records that exist, indicate that the President did not perform any Guard duty during the months of December 1972, February or March of 1973. I’m wondering if you can tell us where he was during that period. And also, how is it that he managed to not make the medical requirements to remain on active flight duty status?

The exchange that followed was not edifying.

A: These records verify that he met the requirements necessary to fulfill his duties. These records —

Q: That wasn’t my question, Scott.

A: These payroll records —

Q: Scott, that wasn’t my question, and you know it wasn’t my question. Where was he in December of ’72, February and March of ’73? And why did he not fulfill the medical requirements to remain on active flight duty status?

A: These records — these records I’m holding here clearly document the President fulfilling his duties in the National Guard. The president was proud of his service. The president —

Q: I asked a simple question; how about a simple answer?

A: John, if you’ll let me address the question, I’m coming to your answer.

But McClellan never got there. He did not reveal where Bush had been during those months. And he said nothing about Bush’s failure to take a flight physical.

Another reporter, citing the promise made by the Bush campaign in 2000, asked whether the White House had been able to find anyone who could verify Bush’s service in Alabama. McClellan replied: “All the information that we have we shared with you in 2000, that was relevant to this issue….[T]here are some out there that were making outrageous, baseless accusations. It was a shame that they brought it up four years ago. It was a shame that they brought it up again this year. And I think that the facts are very clear from these documents. These documents — the payroll records and the [attendance] point summaries verify that he was paid for serving and that he met his requirements.” In other words, the Bush White House had found no one.

Then came this follow-up from a reporter: “I do think this is important. You know, it might strike some as odd that there isn’t anyone who can stand up and say, I served with George W. Bush in Alabama….Particularly because there are people, his superiors who have stepped forward…who have said in the past several years that they have no recollection of him being there and serving. So isn’t that odd that nobody — you can’t produce anyone to corroborate what these records purport to show?” McClellan answered, “We’re talking about some 30 years ago.” But there were 600 to 700 people who served at the Alabama base at that time. Surely, if the White House had to find someone who went to grade school with Bush 45 years ago–and class sizes were not that big back then–they could.

McClellan’s most unbelievable statements came after a reporter asked him about the annual performance review that indicated Bush had not reported for duty at his home base in Houston for a year. Let’s go to the videotape:

Q: The President’s officer effectiveness report, filed by his commanders, Lieutenants Colonel Killean and Harris, both now deceased, for the period 01 May ’72 to 30 April, ’73, says he has not been observed at this unit, where he was supposed to show up and earning these points on these days….The president said he returned to Texas in November of ’72. So some of these dates of service, which are in these [payment] records, ought to have been noted by his commanding officers, who, nevertheless, said, twice, he has not been observed here. Can you explain that?

A: I’m not sure about these specific documents. I’ll be glad to take a look at them. But these [newly released] documents show the days on which he was paid for his service…..

Q: So he served, but his commanding officers didn’t know it?

A: Again, I don’t know the specific documents you’re referring to. If you want to bring those to me, I’ll be glad to take a look at them and get you the answers to your questions.

McClellan didn’t know about this specific document? That would be like Martha Stewart’s attorney saying he was not familiar with her stockbroker’s assistant’s contention that she had sold stock on inside information. This document–first brought to public attention in May 2000 by Walter Robinson of The Boston Globe–is at the core of the case against Bush. If McClellan does not know about it, Bush ought to fire him immediately (or name him head of the CIA).

Later in the press briefing, another reporter took a stab at forcing McClellan to deal with Exhibit A.

Q: After all of the things you repeated here, you cannot explain this contradiction, the fact that his payroll records indicate he was paid for a period of time for fulfilling service, and yet his commanding officers at that time wrote that he was not observed. Can you or can you not explain that contradiction?

A:….I said I would glad to go back and look at the document that he’s referencing. I have not —

Q: You know the document he’s referencing. Everybody does. His commanders —

A: No, I have not — I have not seen the document he’s referencing.

Q: — are quoted repeatedly for years —

A: You’re talking about quotes — you’re talking about quotes from individuals. And we said for years, going back four years ago, that the president recalls serving and performing his duties.

Q: I understand that, but his commanders do not recall it. And, in fact, they say, that he was not observed. So can you explain the contradiction, or can’t you?

A: I’ve seen some different comments he’s — no, I’ve seen some different comments made over the recent time period.

Q: I haven’t seen any different — different comments…from his [Houston base] commanders, who said he was not observed. Can you explain the contradiction?

A: Look, I can’t speak for those individuals. I can speak for the president of the United States. And I can speak —

Q: — the documents —

A: And I can speak for the fact that the documents that — as far as we know, all the documents that are available relevant to this issue demonstrate that the president fulfilled his duties. Are you suggesting these documents do not reflect that?

That’s the whole issue. A critical document says Bush was gone for a year. It was signed by two superior officers who were also his buddies. As for the documents McClellan held in his hand, reporters asked him if the White House was maintaining that they proved Bush had actually reported for duty in Alabama.

Q: It’s your position that these documents specifically show that he served in Alabama during the period 1972, when he was supposed to be there. Do they specifically show that?

A: No, I think if you look at the documents, what they show are the days on which he was paid, the payroll records. And we previously said that the president recalls serving both in Alabama and in Texas.

Q: I’m not interested in what he recalls. I’m interested in whether these documents specifically show that he was in Alabama and served on the days during the latter part of 1972 —

A: And I just answered that question.

Q: You have not answered that question. You —

A: No, I said — no, I said, no, in response to your question, Keith.

Q: No, so the answer is, “no”?

A: I said these documents show the days on which he was paid. That’s what they show. So they show — they show that he was paid on these days….It just kind of amazes me that some will now say they want more information, after the payroll records and the [attendance] point summaries have all been released to show that he met his requirements and to show that he fulfilled his duties.

Can you believe it? Reporters wanted definitive information stating that Bush had truly been at the Alabama base? That apparently was too much for the press secretary. And when one of the media hounds asked exactly what Bush had done while supposedly serving in Alabama, McClellan countered, “You’re asking me to kind of break down hour-by-hour what he was doing during 1972 and 1973. What these documents show is that he was serving in the National Guard and he was paid for that service.” No one was requesting an hour-by-hour itemization. But McClellan would only say that Bush “remembers serving during that period and performing his duties.” Bush, it seems, has no recollection of what that service entailed. Instructing pilots? Filing papers? Hanging out at the officers’ lounge? He won’t say.

A reporter asked, “You can’t even tell us what kind of drills or what-have-you?” And McClellan resorted to an old dodge: “We addressed all those questions back during the 2000 campaign fully.” That was an untrue statement. In 2000, the Bush campaign left much of this unaddressed. Bush did not state then what he had done in Alabama. This reporter noted that most people can “detail” what they did when they worked. But McClellan kept fibbing: “And we did. During the 2000 campaign, we talked about this issue fully.”

The Bush gang did not talk about the issues fully then–and it is not doing so now. The currently available records support conflicting accounts. Bush’s unwillingness (or inability) to provide any specific recollections is certainly suspicious, as is his refusal to answer questions about his failure to take a flight physical. By releasing the pay sheet summaries and retirement records, Bush has not made good on his pledge to Russert. There likely are other records in his military files that could be of use in settling this dispute–medical records, perhaps. Are there disciplinary records? When Bob Fertik of Democrats.com filed a Freedom of Information Act request in 2000 requesting portions of Bush’s military records, he asked for pay stubs. He was turned down by the military, which cited Bush’s privacy rights. If Bush and McClellan really want to address this issue “fully,” Bush should waive his privacy rights and release all the papers that remain. He did promise to disclose “everything.”

Despite McClellan’s repeated assertion, the pay sheet summaries and retirement records are not enough. That’s especially true when they are waved about by a defender who spins, trims, and ducks and who at key moments is AWOL from the truth.


On February 11, the White House released a one-page record of a dental exam that Bush received at the Alabama Air National Guard base on January 6, 1973. This is the first documentary indication that Bush was ever present at this base. This document does strengthen Bush’s case. But assuming it is legitimate–and I’m not suggesting it is not–it does not seal the deal. Bush has said he returned to Houston from Alabama after the November 1972 election. (He had been working in Alabama on the Senate campaign of a Republican friend of his family, who ended up losing the race.) It certainly is possible that he stayed in Alabama for several months after the election–though he was in Washington, DC, with his family during the Christmas holidays. Still, there are no records covering the time he returned to Houston and the May 2, 1973, annual review that noted he had not been seen at the base.

And as the White House released this document, it declared that it had no intention of opening Bush’s entire Guard files. On Meet the Press, Bush had been asked if he would make his whole file available (as had Senator John McCain and retired General Wesley Clark). Bush replied, “Yeah. Absolutely.” But now the White House position is less absolute.

Meanwhile, Bill Burkett, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Texas National Guard told various newspapers this week that in 1997 he was in a National Guard office and overheard Joseph Allbaugh, who was then chief of staff for Governor George W. Bush, tell an officer he needed to make sure there was nothing embarrassing in Bush’s Guard file. Burkett recalled he later spotted items from Bush’s file in the trash. Allbaugh and the White House denied these allegations.

Partial releases. Allegations of file-fixing. No explanations for remaining questions. The best way for Bush to reach a final resolution on this controversy would be to release everything in his file–that is, to keep his promise.


At the daily press briefing on February 11, McClellan continued to trample the truth. When a reporter noted that Bush had agreed on Meet the Press to open up his entire military file, McClellan replied, “the specific question was about service, whether or not he had served in the military, if you go back to look at the context of the discussion.” Translation: no friggin’ way. But Bush had said he would “absolutely” release his full file. Call it, Promise Abandoned.

In another exchange, a reporter asked why the White House would not address questions regarding Bush’s failure to take a flight physical in 1972. McClellan replied, “I think this was all addressed previously. I think that, again, this goes to show that some are not interested in the facts of whether or not he served; they’re interested in trolling for trash and using this issue for political partisan gain.”

Wrong again. The White House had not addressed this previously. And the explanation the Bush campaign offered in 2000 turned out to be phony. Moreover, why is seeking an answer to this question “trolling for trash”? The reporter pressed McClellan and asked “what was the answer previous to this?” Rather than provide that “answer,” McClellan said, “I’m not going to engage in gutter politics.” But he did not say why it would be “gutter politics” to restate what the Bush folks had said about this matter earlier. Still, he insisted “we went through this in 1994, I believe again in ’98, 2000. Now some are trying to bring it up again in 2004.” He just wouldn’t repeat what had been said in those earlier instances.

At the press briefing the next day, McClellan once more was asked, “Why won’t you talk about why he didn’t show up for his physical, which is a question that still persists?” His initial response was predictable: “We answered that question four years ago.” But then he added, “The reason–well, he was on–first of all, you’re saying he didn’t show up. He was on–he moved to Alabama for a civilian job and he was on non-flying status while in Alabama. There was no need for a flight exam.”

But this was not what the Bush campaign had said in 2000. It had claimed that Bush did not take a flight physical because he was in Alabama and his personal physician was in Houston–even though personal physicians do not adminster flight physicals; Air Force doctors do. Moreover, Bush returned to Houston after November 1972, and he remained in the Guard until the end of July 1973. Why did he not take a flight physical then. Was it because he remained on non-flight status? If so, why? Perhaps his full records would resolve this mystery. But when it comes to releasing the complete file, McClellan has turned Bush’s “absolutely” into an “absolutely not.”

DON’T FORGET ABOUT DAVID CORN’S NEW BOOK, The Lies of George W. Bush: Mastering the Politics of Deception (Crown Publishers). A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER! The Library Journal says, “Corn chronicles to devastating effect the lies, falsehoods, and misrepresentations….Corn has painstakingly unearthed a bill of particulars against the president that is as damaging as it is thorough.” For more information and a sample, check out the book’s official website: www.bushlies.com.

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