- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 3, 2004

ASSOCIATED PRESS

The White House struck back yesterday at Democratic critics questioning President Bush’s record of military service at the height of the Vietnam War, saying the issue “represents the worst of election-year politics.”

“It is outrageous and baseless,” presidential spokesman Scott McClellan said in response to suggestions that Mr. Bush shirked his military duties when he was in the Texas Air National Guard in 1972.

Military service has re-emerged as an issue in the campaign for the White House. Sen. John Kerry, the front-runner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, and retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark are decorated veterans and repeatedly remind campaign audiences of their service.

Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe said Mr. Bush was “AWOL” during the Vietnam conflict, while former Sen. Max Cleland, Georgia Democrat, has criticized the president’s service in the Texas Air National Guard. Mr. Clark has criticized Mr. Bush for his remark challenging enemy forces to “bring ‘em on” earlier in postwar Iraq.

Mr. Bush was a pilot in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War but never flew in battle.

Responding to Mr. Bush’s critics, Mr. McClellan said: “The president fulfilled his duties. That’s why he was honorably discharged.”

“These kinds of attacks have no place in politics, and everyone should condemn them,” the spokesman said.

Mr. Bush spent most of his time in the Texas Air National Guard based near Houston, but in May 1972 he received a three-month assignment in Alabama so he could work on a campaign.

While serving as political director of the Senate campaign of Winton “Red” Blount, a family friend, he was ordered to report for duty at the 187th Tactical Recon Unit in Montgomery, Ala. The 187th did not fly F-102s, so Mr. Bush did not go to the base as a pilot. After missing a required physical exam and being out of the cockpit so long, he lost his flight credentials in Alabama.

Retired Gen. William Turnipseed, a commander at the base, said during the 2000 campaign he never saw Mr. Bush appear for duty. Mr. Bush, however, says he remembers meeting Gen. Turnipseed and performing drills at the base.

The Bush campaign staff searched for records that would show he was actually there, but concluded none of those records survived.

The Republican National Committee yesterday released excerpts of an interview in which Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican and a former Navy pilot who was held as a POW in Vietnam for more than five years, defended Mr. Bush. Mr. McCain was Mr. Bush’s chief rival for the 2000 Republican presidential nomination.

“Everything that I’ve heard — every bit of information I’ve ever heard, I never got into it because I wasn’t that interested — is that he served honorably and well. And I assume that to be the case,” Mr. McCain said on MSNBC.

Asked about Mr. McAuliffe’s charge that Mr. Bush was “AWOL” during the war, Mr. McCain said: “Well, but that charge was never proven.”

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