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

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The biggest blot on Bush's record may be his failure to take his required annual physical in 1972. As a result, he was suspended from flying — an embarrassment for serious pilots. In years past, the Bush campaign claimed he missed the physical because his personal physician was in Houston. Now the White House says Bush did not need to take the physical, since he did not intend to fly during his stint in Alabama. New egregious claims about Bush's service are made in four memos released by CBS last Wednesday dating from 1972 and 1973. The network has not revealed how it obtained the documents but says they are from the personal files of Lieut. Colonel Jerry Killian, Bush's squadron commander in Texas, now deceased. If authentic, they demonstrate more favoritism toward Bush than previously indicated. In one document, Killian states that he and his superior, Major General Bobby Hodges, were pressured by Walter Staudt, the Texas National Guard commander, to "sugar coat" an evaluation of Bush. Hodges, who initially thought the memos were handwritten and authentic, now says he thinks they are fake. He told TIME last week, "There was no political pressure that I can remember." And Staudt's military records show that he had left the Guard by the time the memo was written, according to the Dallas Morning News. A TIME reporter called and visited Staudt's home but got no response. Killian's son Gary, who served in the Guard alongside his father from 1971 to 1979, says he believes the documents are fake, in part because he remembers that his father admired Bush.

So far, forensic and typewriter experts consulted by TIME and other major media organizations have not reached a consensus on the authenticity of the memos. Some insist it would have been nearly impossible for a 1970s-era typewriter to produce the memos because of the letter spacing in the documents and the use of a raised and compact th symbol. But Bill Glennon, a technology consultant in New York City who worked for IBM repairing typewriters from 1973 to 1985, says those experts "are full of crap. They just don't know." Glennon says there were IBM machines capable of producing the spacing, and a customized key — the likes of which he says were not unusual — could have created the superscript th.

Another memo released by CBS, if real, indicates that when Bush missed his physical, he was disobeying a direct order from Killian to get one. But Hodges, who is now retired, says missing the physical was "no big deal." CBS broadcast a special segment wholeheartedly defending its report two days after it aired.

Will any of this matter come Election Day? The truth is, while Kerry may have taken a hit in the polls as a result of the largely bogus criticism of his war record, Bush, as the incumbent, is not as vulnerable — even if the accusations are more credible. Americans have spent four years watching Bush as President. Kerry is the unknown, and as with any stranger at the gate, people are wary. What's more, the breathless debate over typewriter fonts last week shifted the debate away from Bush's questionable record.

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