Documents say Bush got breaks in military
George W. Bush’s squadron commander in the Texas Air National Guard grounded the young lieutenant from flying when he missed a medical examination and failed to meet performance standards, according to documents made public Wednesday that revived an issue that has shadowed Bush for much of his political career.
Four memos from the late Col. Jerry Killian, released Wednesday by CBS’ “60 Minutes,” suggest that Bush received favored treatment during a time in the early 1970s when many young men were being drafted and sent to fight in Vietnam.
In one memo, dated Aug. 18, 1972 and entitled “CYA,” Killian wrote that he was being pressured from higher-ups in the Guard to gloss over Bush’s poor performance and to “sugarcoat” his evaluation.
“I’m having trouble running interference and doing my job,” he wrote.
The memos appeared to be written by Killian to himself and were placed in his personal file, “60 Minutes” reported. The news program cited the opinion of a handwriting expert and a close friend of Killian who said all four of them appeared authentic.
Questions about Bush’s military service have survived for much of his political life and were raised four years ago in his first run for the White House. But the topic was reinvigorated by several revelations Wednesday:
(1) Killian’s memos and an interview with a Texas Democratic politician and supporter of John F. Kerry who said he helped Bush jump to the front of the line in the Air National Guard.
(2) A Boston Globe story published Wednesday that concluded Bush “fell well short of meeting his military obligation” by failing to report for duty to a Guard unit in Boston when he moved there to attend Harvard Business School.
(3) A new television ad by a liberal Texas advocacy group that features a former guardsman saying he never saw Bush, though they both served in the Alabama Air National Guard at the same time.
White House officials said Wednesday that the Killian memos and reports on Bush’s Guard service were mostly rehashes of previous reports and support their contention that the president fulfilled his duties.
“If the president had not fulfilled his commitment he would not have been honorably discharged,” spokesman Scott McClellan said.
Still, intensifying scrutiny of the president’s record — and whereabouts — in the Air National Guard seemed to put the White House on the defensive after a group opposing Kerry questioned his service in Vietnam and criticized his subsequent antiwar activities.
Bush’s service has been in dispute for years because of a six-month gap in 1972 that has not been fully explained by military records. Repeated news reports and document releases by the White House and Pentagon have not settled the question.
Killian’s memos, written daily in the early 1970s when he commanded Bush’s squadron at Houston’s Ellington Air Force Base, appear to be the most damaging revelations in long-running accusations by his critics that he had received special treatment. The memos involving Bush were dated between May 4 and Aug. 18, 1972.
They suggest that Killian, who died in May 1984, ordered Bush to take a physical so that he could maintain his flying status, in contradiction to White House reports that Bush didn’t need the exam because he was transferring to an assignment where he would not be flying.
And while the official version from Bush’s camp has been that he was grounded on Aug. 1, 1972 only because he had not completed the physical, Killian wrote that he also took that action for other reasons, as well.
“On this date, I ordered that 1st Lt. Bush be suspended not just for failing to take a physical,” Killian wrote, according to the news report, “but for failing to perform to U.S. Air Force/Texas Air National Guard standards.”
“The officer (then-Lt. Bush) has made no attempt to meet his training certification or flight physical,” the memo goes on.
Previously released Pentagon records have shown that Killian gave glowing reports to Bush early on, calling him “an exceptionally fine young officer and pilot” who “performed in an outstanding manner.”
But “60 Minutes” — without saying how it obtained them — reported that Killian also kept his own personal “daily memos” during that period at the Houston air base.
In one such memo from May 19, 1972, Killian wrote that Bush called him to talk about “how he can get out of coming to drill from now through November.”
The memo goes on to say that Bush told Killian he was “working on another campaign for his dad” in Alabama, and “may not have the time” to take his physical. But Killian’s memo suggests that some in the Guard command were not pleased. He advised the young flier of the military’s “investment” in his flight training, which some experts have estimated at $1 million.
Bush had received permission by the Guard to move to that state to assist the U.S. Senate campaign of Winton Blount, a former postmaster general and Bush family friend.
More than a year later, Killian wrote that Col. Buck Staudt, the commander of the Texas Air National Guard, was pressuring him to “sugarcoat” Bush’s annual evaluation. Staudt has repeatedly told the media that Bush fulfilled his duty.
Killian wrote that he refused to alter the evaluation. Texas guard officials reported that they could not properly evaluate Bush, because of his reassignment to Alabama and a lack of reports from officers there.
“I will not rate. Austin is not happy today either.”
After the election in November 1972, Bush returned to Houston and then in the summer of 1973 moved to Cambridge, Mass., to attend business school at Harvard. He was honorably discharged on Oct. 1 of that year.
A spokesman suggested that the Killian memos support Bush’s account of those times, showing that he wanted to clear his reassignment in Alabama.
“So at every step of the way, President Bush was meeting his requirement, granted permission to meet his requirement,” Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett said. “And that’s why President Bush was honorably discharged.”
The television report also featured an appearance by Ben Barnes, a Democratic political activist and former Texas lieutenant governor, who said he helped Bush get a coveted slot in the National Guard in May 1968.
Barnes, a former Texas House speaker and now a top fundraiser for Kerry, said he received a call in 1968 from Texas oilman Sid Adger — a mutual friend of his and then-Rep. George H.W. Bush — who said he was hoping to get the younger Bush into the Air National Guard.
Barnes said he followed through by calling another friend, James Rose, the head of the Texas Air National Guard before Staudt.
“There were hundreds of names on the list of people wanting to get into the Air National Guard or the Army National Guard,” Barnes told “60 Minutes.” “I think that (call) would have been a preference to anybody that didn’t want to go to Vietnam or didn’t want to leave.”
Bush re-election officials dismissed Barnes’ credibility, pointing out that he has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Democratic candidates and was a close ally of one-time Texas Gov. Ann Richards, whom Bush defeated in the 1994 governor’s race.
In a television interview last week, George H.W. Bush called reports that his son received favored treatment “a total lie,” adding that “Nobody’s come up with any evidence, and yet it’s repeated all the time.”
Also on Wednesday, an investigative team from The Boston Globe reported that Bush did not fulfill his military obligation because he did not report to a Guard unit in the Boston area, where he had moved to attend Harvard’s graduate business school.
The White House on Wednesday pointed to a previously released document from the Guard that it said accounted for Bush’s final seven months, in the Guard, from his honorable discharge Oct. 1, 1973 until his final release on May 26, 1974.
That “special order” shows that the Guard was aware that Bush was in Cambridge, and that his command was “transferred” to the Guard’s Air Reserve Personnel Center in Denver. That left him on call as a “ready reserve” if needed.
Two retired officers familiar with National Guard procedures differed as to whether Bush was still obligated, at that point, to check in with a unit in the Boston area.
Times staff writers Nick Anderson, Kathleen Hennessey, Edwin Chen and Susannah Rosenblatt contributed to this report.