Bush strategists may feel tempted to attack John Kerry?s opposition to Vietnam. Why it?s a battle they can?t win
By Eleanor Clift
The voters don't want to refight the Vietnam war, but with John Kerry looking like the likely nominee, Vietnam returns to the front pages. Kerry is accompanied on the campaign trail by the men he served with in the Mekong Delta. "I know a little something about aircraft carriers for real," he says, in an allusion to President George W. Bush's premature "Mission Accomplished" landing last spring on the USS Abraham Lincoln.
There is another chapter to Kerry's war history that Republicans are examining, and that is his leadership in 1971 of Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Some GOP strategists envision television ads linking Kerry with Jane Fonda in order to undermine his credentials as a decorated war veteran.?
Highlighting Kerry's antiwar activism is a risky strategy for the Republicans. To quote Kerry, who quotes the president: "Bring it on." If the election turns into a debate over war records, Bush can't win.
Retired general Wesley Clark was widely criticized for not objecting when left-wing activist Michael Moore called Bush a "deserter" in his presence. As a military man, Clark knows that deserting is a capital offense, reserved for those who have been court-martialed and found guilty. The charge against Bush is that he was AWOL for a year of his service in the National Guard. Once the pundits finished critiquing the impact on Clark of the presumed gaffe, the next logical question is to ask where Bush was during that year, how he got away with his absenteeism, and does it matter?
Boston Globe reporter Walter Robinson did an exhaustive study of Bush's military service, which was published in May 2000. Robinson concluded that during Bush's final 18 months in the Texas Air National Guard in 1972 and 1973, he did not fly at all and was "all but unaccounted for," with no records to indicate that he attended any of the required drills. Bush was working for a Senate campaign in Alabama for part of the time, and was supposed to appear for duty there, but never did. After the November '72 election, Bush returned to Houston, but he was a no-show there, as well.
Under the rules at the time, guardsmen who miss duty were supposed to be reported and could then be drafted. Seven months after Bush returned to Houston, two of his commanding officers filed a report noting that Bush had not been "observed" at his unit during the previous 12 months. That evidently shocked Bush into performing. Over the next three months, from May to July 1973, he spent 36 days on Guard duty, for which he was rewarded with an early discharge to attend Harvard Business School.
In his new book, "American Dynasty," author Kevin Phillips traces three generations of Bushes and the web of favoritism and influence that perpetuates the line. Phillips says it was against Navy regulations in 1942 to place 18-year-old George H.W. Bush in flight training, but the rules were bent for the son of Prescott Bush. The Los Angeles Times found a similar bending of the rules 26 years later, Phillips writes. George W. didn't qualify for either a direct commission or flight training, but he received both when he jumped several waiting lists for a coveted spot in the Texas Air National Guard.
Bush senior was a member of Congress at the time, and, according to Phillips, had a friend speak to Texas Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes about young George. Barnes in turn contacted the commander of the Texas Air National Guard, who greased the way. Direct commissions were generally reserved for doctors because the military needed flight surgeons, and expensive flight instruction was not normally given to somebody like Bush, who didn't score well on the aptitude test for pilots and who had shown no professional commitment to flying. According to Phillips, it was arranged for Bush to train on F-102 fighters, dated aircraft being phased out of service... added insurance that Bush would not go to Vietnam.
In fairness, Bush has been candid about why he enlisted in the Air National Guard. Like many young men of his generation, he wanted to avoid Vietnam. He told one reporter, "I was not prepared to shoot my eardrum out with a shotgun in order to get a deferment. Nor was I willing to go to Canada. So I chose to better myself by learning how to fly airplanes."
He has not been candid about his absences from the Guard. After the Boston Globe story broke in 2000, Bush said through a spokesman that he has "some recollection" of attending drills during the time period in question, but conceded that he was not consistent. Records unearthed by the Globe showed that Bush was removed from flight status in August 1972 for failing to take his annual flight physical. Bush aides said he didn't take the physical because his personal physician was in Houston, and he was in Alabama working on a political campaign. But that explanation didn't hold up because flight physicals must be administered by certified Air Force flight surgeons, and Bush easily could have found one at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala., where he was living.
Kerry's candidacy was elevated when a former Green Beret whose life he saved showed up on the campaign trail in Iowa to attest to Kerry's courage. In addition, former Georgia senator Max Cleland, who lost three limbs in Vietnam and was defeated in 2002 after GOP attacks on his patriotism, appears regularly with Kerry. Bush can't match that. If he's smart, he won't try.