The X Files Of Lt. Bush

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AFP / GETTY

Congressman George H. W. Bush together with his son, George W. Bush in 1968, as the younger president-to-be enters the Texas Air National Guard as 2nd Lieutenant

Journalists and politicos have been trying off and on for a decade now to suss out exactly what George W. Bush did in the National Guard more than 30 years ago. The basic facts are not very mysterious: Bush got a coveted homeland gig in the Guard, just as many other well-connected college graduates did, while hundreds of thousands of other young men got drafted and sent to Vietnam. Ever since Bush ran for Texas Governor in 1994, details of the subplot have dribbled out, suggesting that he was a slacker in his later days as a pilot in the Guard and may not have fulfilled his obligations to the military. Bush has prolonged the intrigue by never fully answering questions about his service. His representatives repeat, like a mantra, that Bush was honorably discharged from the service, so why keep asking us about these pesky details? With critics of Democratic challenger John Kerry raising unsubstantiated claims that he exaggerated his heroism as a swift-boat commander in Vietnam, the matter of Bush's own service is back in the spotlight.

Various search dogs, partisan and not, barked madly up and down the hills of people's memories last week, sometimes scenting truth and other times falling off the cliff entirely. CBS released several damning new memos, which may or may not be authentic (more on that later), that sent forensic experts researching the history of the type font Times New Roman and bloggers dusting off their old IBM typewriters. Welcome to the final stage of a tight race. Now let's pause for a few reality checks.


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On the question of whether Bush got preferential treatment as the son of a Texas Congressman and later the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Ben Barnes, a former speaker of the Texas House, has long been on record saying he did. After years of denying he had done anything special for Bush, he reluctantly said in a 1999 deposition that he had pushed to get Bush into the Guard at the request of a friend of the Bush family. Recently, Barnes, who has become a fund raiser for Kerry, has again spoken out about the matter, acknowledging at a Texas rally and on CBS that he had helped Bush. Bush has always denied that he or his family asked for any favors.

After Bush joined the Guard in Texas in 1968, he received positive evaluations. But records clearly show that his performance dropped off suddenly in 1972. After he transferred to an Alabama unit so he could work on the Senate campaign of a family friend, Bush began missing regular Guard duty. Only one member of Bush's unit has come forward to say he saw Bush reporting for duty in Alabama, but his recollection places Bush in the state before Bush was officially assigned there. A new TV commercial produced by the Democratic-allied group Texans for Truth features a member of Bush's Alabama unit vowing that he never saw Bush there. A gap in service was not unprecedented, though; members of the Dallas Cowboys served in the Guard and routinely disappeared during the football season.

In a report last week, the Boston Globe zeroed in on a document showing that before Bush moved to Cambridge, Mass., in 1973 to attend Harvard Business School, he pledged to register with a local unit. In 1999 his spokesman Dan Bartlett told the Washington Post that Bush had indeed done so. Bartlett told TIME last week he had misspoken. Bush never registered locally. But he did not have to, Bartlett now claims, because the military's central registry in Denver knew his whereabouts. It remains unclear, however, what exactly the registration rules were at the time.

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