Tuesday, September 14, 2004

The White House said yesterday President Bush did not defy a direct order from his commanding officer during his 1970s stint with the Texas Air National Guard, answering, for the first time, accusations that the former pilot did not deserve the honorable discharge that he received.

Despite the questionable authenticity of a document dated May 4, 1972, purportedly showing that Mr. Bush was “ordered to report … no later than 14 May to conduct annual physical examination (flight)” — an exam that the young lieutenant skipped — White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett said Mr. Bush had talked with his commanding officer about a planned move to a base in Alabama, which did not fly the plane on which he was certified, the F-102.

“I don’t accept that premise, that he defied a direct order. He did not take a flight physical because he was no longer going to fly,” Mr. Bartlett told The Washington Times.

“It’s not as if he was defying, as people try to say, a direct order. He was speaking to the very commanders who were in charge of the unit at the time about his personal situation and what he was doing and explaining why he wasn’t going to take the flight exam. … I think the commanders were obvious in saying, then keeping your flight status up was irrelevant.”

Mr. Bush moved to Alabama in the spring of 1972 to work on the Senate campaign of Winton Blount, a family friend. He returned to his unit at Ellington, Texas, that November. Until he received permission to transfer to reserve status so he could attend Harvard Business School in the fall of 1973, he participated in nonflying drills and worked at an inner-city poverty program.

To dispel the charge that the president disobeyed a direct order, Mr. Bartlett said another disputed document — an unsigned memo dated May 19, 1972, that CBS News attributed to Mr. Bush’s former commander, the late Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian — says, “We talked about him getting his flight physical situation fixed.” He noted that the memo said Mr. Bush “says he will do that in Alabama if he stays in a flight status.”

“Even if you take the documents at face value and said that they were authentic, you can tell by one of the memos where it said that he talked to Bush about his flight exam. We obviously interpret that as he was working with his commanders on the very issue as to whether he needed to take it or not. He obviously ended up not taking it because he was not flying,” Mr. Bartlett said.

Mr. Bartlett said he had showed the documents — broadcast last week by CBS News and questioned by many analysts — to Mr. Bush “and he did not remember them.”

“He remembers not taking the flight exam, obviously, but he said, ‘It wasn’t a big deal because I was going to Alabama where I wasn’t going to be flying,’ ” Mr. Bartlett said.

Until yesterday, the White House had deflected the question of whether the 25-year-old Lt. Bush had defied a direct order. Asked several times since the story broke last week, spokesman Scott McClellan said repeatedly that Mr. Bush had fulfilled his obligations and was honorably discharged after his term of service.

But Democrats charge that Mr. Bush did not fulfill his duties with the National Guard and that the White House is stonewalling rather than answering questions about his service.

“The strategy here from the White House has been to avoid answering these questions,” said Jano Cabrera, the top spokesman for the Democratic National Committee. “The White House has put out some documents, has put out Dan Bartlett to protect the president or, to defend the president, has talked endlessly about the president being discharged honorably from the military. The one thing they won’t do is answer these questions.”

Mr. Cabrera said of Mr. Bush’s assertion that he fulfilled his duties with the National Guard, “The president lied.”

“He did not fulfill his duty with the National Guard. He walked away from it.”

But Mr. Bartlett said Mr. Bush fulfilled all of his duties, as evidenced by his honorable discharge.

The White House does not have a document showing that Mr. Bush received a waiver or exemption from the annual requirement to take his flight-status physical.

“We only have the official document which shows that he was suspended [from flight status] for not taking one, which was the obvious result for not taking one, which they knew he wasn’t going to take,” Mr. Bartlett said.

“They’re saying, ‘We’re taking you off flight status.’ He’s saying, ‘Fine,’ ” Mr. Bartlett said. “It’s not unheard of to not take a flight exam, but the regulation does require that you go forward with the paperwork to say that he’s technically suspended from flying until he takes the exam. …

“The people that I’ve talked to from the unit at the time said that was not abnormal; it was pretty routine. … The regulations require suspension, but it wasn’t for failure or for defiance, but for a personal circumstance that had him not flying and living in a different state.”

Although Mr. Bartlett said, “Obviously, we don’t know the authenticity of these documents,” he noted that if they are genuine, they prove that Mr. Bush — well before his deadline to take the exam, July 6, his birthday — informed his commander that he might not need to undergo the physical.

“I don’t consider that noncompliance of a direct order. If he was given a direct order, he was talking to the very commander about that order,” he said.

The May 4, 1972, memo that said Mr. Bush was “ordered to report” is suspect, Mr. Bartlett said, because members of the Texas Air National Guard could report for their physical for up to 60 days before their birthday, and said often their birthday month was part of a grace period. The memo came 62 days before Mr. Bush’s birthday, but said “he only had 10 days” to report for an exam.

Dick Morris, a pollster for former President Bill Clinton, said Democrats are making a “gigantic mistake” by focusing on Mr. Bush’s National Guard service.

“I think if it comes out that he disobeyed a direct order, it’s not going to make a … bit of difference. I also bet that [the White House] polled it, and have found the ‘honorable discharge’ wipes it all out,” Mr. Morris said.

“Probably the way people will look at it is, ‘Hey, don’t bother me with the specifics of what went on, the bottom line was he was honorably discharged. So, if he was drunk one night or didn’t obey an order or he didn’t salute properly or whatever, just give me the bottom line here, OK?’ ”

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