Austin, Texas President Bush's Air National Guard commander said he felt pressured by higher-ups to "sugarcoat" his evaluations of the young pilot after grounding Bush in 1972 in part for failing to perform up to standards, according to military memos disclosed Wednesday.
The documents, presented on the CBS News program "60 Minutes," appeared to contradict Bush's and the White House's longtime contention that the future president was voluntarily grounded in August 1972 because he took on nonflying duties while helping to run a political campaign in Alabama.
A spokesman for Bush did not challenge the authenticity of the documents but dismissed the new information as "dirty politics."
"The facts are President Bush served," said Dan Bartlett, White House communications director. "He served honorably. And that's why he was honorably discharged."
Bush has faced questions on whether he got special treatment in his admission to and service with the Guard during the Vietnam War. The memos, and a flurry of other news accounts this week about his service record, could shift focus in the presidential race, which has substantially churned around Democrat John Kerry's service in Vietnam.
Supporters of Bush and Kerry are attacking each candidate's Vietnam War records. Republicans have accused Kerry, a decorated Vietnam combat veteran, of fabricating the events which led to his five medals. Democrats point to gaps in Bush's stateside Air National Guard service in 1972 and 1973 to say Bush shirked his duty.
Democrats seized on Pentagon records released this week suggesting that Bush may not have met his full obligations in the National Guard. Party leaders accused the president of skirting his duty during the war, and also lying about it.
"We didn't want to spend our time in this campaign talking about a war 35 years ago, but it's George Bush's activity 35 years ago that speaks to his credibility today," said Democratic National Committee Chairman Terry McAuliffe. "He is running as a wartime president, but there are serious questions that need to be asked about his credibility."
A group called Texans for Truth, financed by the Democratic-leaning organization MoveOn.org, began airing ads in five battleground states Wednesday in which a retired lieutenant colonel in the Alabama Guard questioned whether Bush had served in that state. The ad asks, "Was George W. Bush AWOL in Alabama?" before demanding: "Tell us whom you served with, Mr. President."
The group said it invested only $110,000 in the initial advertising volley, giving it a small reach compared with the multimillion-dollar flood of political ads. But like a similar ad aired last month by Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, the commercial has a far wider reach because of media coverage and the Internet.
Revelation, or old news?
On the CBS program, former Texas House Speaker Ben Barnes -- a Kerry supporter -- gave his first interview about his role in securing Bush his spot in the Texas Air National Guard and expressed remorse for his actions.
Democrats hailed the appearance as a revelation, and Republicans dismissed it as old news from a proven partisan.
Bush said in February that he would make all his military records available. But the documents on the CBS program were not among those the White House previously released.
The four memos were written by Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, Bush's commander at Ellington Air Force Base in Houston who died in 1984. They were in Killian's personal file and suggest his growing frustration at Bush's attitude toward fulfilling his Guard duty:
The first memo was Killian's May 4, 1972, order to Bush in Houston to take the physical required of all pilots within 10 days.
The second memo, dated May 19 -- five days after the deadline expired for the physical -- contains Killian's notations of a phone call from Bush, in which Bush inquired about options of how he could "get out of coming to drill" through November, when the political campaign in Alabama would conclude. Bush expressed his desire to transfer to an Alabama Guard unit -- a later source of contention over whether he actually reported for duty there.
In the same memo, Killian said Bush told him he would complete his flight physical in Alabama if he took a flying slot there, but the colonel said he suspected Bush also was "talking to someone upstairs."
"He has this campaign to do and other things that will follow and may not have the time," Killian wrote. "I advised him of our investment in him and his commitment."
The third memo, dated Aug. 1, 1972, contains Killian's order suspending Bush from flying status for failure to take his physical and "failure to perform" to Air Force and Texas Air National Guard standards, which were not described in the memo.
There is no mention of a phasing out of the aircraft Bush was trained to fly -- one of the reasons previously cited by the White House for the grounding.
The fourth memo, a year after Bush's suspension from flying, had the subject "CYA." Killian cited pressure from Walter "Buck" Staudt, the top officer at Ellington who has since denied Bush got any special treatment.
After the broadcast, the White House, without comment, released to the news media two of the memos, one ordering Bush to report for his physical exam and the other suspending him from flight status.
The Dallas Morning News reported in 1999 that Staudt was a close friend of Houston oilman Sid Adger, the Bush family friend who asked Barnes to help Bush get in the Guard during Vietnam.
Bartlett, the White House spokesman, cautioned against reading too much into the documents. "For anybody to try to interpret or presume they know what somebody who is now dead was thinking in any of these memos, I think is very difficult to do," he said.
Barnes' appearance was a high-profile reprise of what he has previously said about Bush and the Guard.
As speaker, Barnes -- at the request of Adger -- asked the top Guard general in 1968 to let Bush join. At that time, Bush's father was a Houston congressman.
Bush and his father have always insisted that they didn't know of or need Adger's or Barnes' help to secure a pilot's spot for the younger Bush.
Barnes' first public statements of regret were at a rally in May for Kerry in Austin. After a videotape of that recently began circulating on the Internet, Barnes spoke with CBS News anchor Dan Rather.
"It would be very easy for me to sit here and tell you, Dan, that I had wrestled with this and lost a lot of sleep at night, but I wouldn't be telling you the truth," he said of helping Bush and others into the Guard. "I ... not eagerly, but readily, was willing to call and get those young men into the National Guard that were friends of mine and supporters of mine."
At another point, Barnes, 66, described walking past the Vietnam Memorial in Washington and his regrets at the blitheness of his youthful influence wielding.
"I don't think that I had any right to have the power that I had to choose who was going to Vietnam and who was not going to Vietnam," he said. "That's power. In some instances, when I looked at those names, I was maybe determining life or death, and that's not a power that I want to have."