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Bush's Vietnam record released

EMBARRASSING: Growing signs of a conservative backlash against the Bush administration forced the White House into an uneasy defense of the president

Thursday, Feb 12, 2004,Page 6

White House spokesman Scott McClellan holds up a copy of US President George W. Bush's pay stub from the Air National Guard at the White House on Tuesday.
The White House was forced into an embarrassing defense of President George W. Bush's Vietnam record on Tuesday night amid growing signs of a conservative backlash against his administration and the conduct of the war in Iraq.

In an attempt to lay to rest growing controversy over the president's military service, the White House released 30-year-old personnel records which officials claim prove he had fulfilled his duties for his country.

However, the move appears to have merely stirred further questions over claims that he had failed to finish his service in the National Guard.

In a another blow to the president's credibility yesterday, Bill O'Reilly, Fox News Channel's leading anchor and White House ally, said that he had lost faith in Bush's pre-war claims on Iraq.

The president's predicament has been exacerbated by expectations of an election contest in November against John Kerry, a Vietnam war hero and Democratic frontrunner.

The White House released payroll and retirement records from Bush's Vietnam-era service in the Texas Air National Guard yesterday in an attempt to put to rest questions over a "lost year" in his military service, nearly 30 years ago.

Doubts about Bush's stint in the National Guard have been in circulation for 10 years, ever since his election as governor of Texas. Service in the National Guard was a highly desirable assignment because recruits were spared service in Vietnam, and it has been reported that Bush used his father's political connections to win his position.

The present controversy, which revolves around Bush's whereabouts for 12 months dating from May 1972, was given new life last Sunday when the president promised a television interviewer he would release his military records.

At a raucous press conference yesterday, the White House released the payroll and personnel documents. "These records clearly document that the president fulfilled his duty," said the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan.

The documents are the first evidence that Bush appeared for any duty between May 1972 and May 1973, a period when he left Texas to work on a Republican Senate race in Alabama.

"When you serve in the national guard you are specifically paid for the days that you serve," McClellan said.

However, the documents yesterday do not directly answer reports from two of Bush's commanding officers that they were unable to evaluate his performance because they did not observe him on duty.

A story in Tuesday's Boston Globe says that Bush received credit for attending drills despite notes from two commanding officers that he did not appear for duty at bases in Texas or Alabama.

But the White House claims may not carry much weight with a generation that recalls service in the National Guard as a way to avoid being shipped to Vietnam.

The Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen wrote yesterday that he barely turned up for his stint in the guard after six months' basic training.

"For two years or so, I played a perfectly legal form of hooky," he wrote. "To show you what a mess the Guard was at the time, I even got paid for all the meetings I missed."

Bush's present travails date from Jan. 20, when the president delivered a weak State of the Union address, but they have escalated since Sunday when he made his first appearance on a television chatshow to put forward his case on going to war.

The appearance was meant to showcase Bush's expertise in national security. He repeatedly referred to himself as a "war-time president." However, he also appeared tired and evasive -- a fact noted even by Republican stalwarts such as Peggy Noonan, a speechwriter for the first president Bush and for Ronald Reagan.

"The president seemed tired, unsure and often bumbling. His answers were repetitive, and when he tried to clarify them he tended to make them worse," she said.

Bush's evasions on the Vietnam war echo his statements on Iraq, and his use of pre-war intelligence on Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. The erosion of his credibility appeared to reach a critical point when O'Reilly appeared to be losing faith in the White House.

"I was wrong. I am not pleased about it at all and I think all Americans should be concerned about this," O'Reilly said.


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