Just when you start to wonder why and how much President Bush's Texas Air National Guard service record should be an issue in the 2004 campaign, a light goes on over your head. Why? Because he and his surrogates and spokesmen simply won't stop lying about it.
The latest example came on National Public Radio, when Juan Williams was interviewing the president's campaign chairman and chief election spokesman, former Montana Gov. Marc Racicot.
The president's surrogates know enough to avoid attacking John Kerry's service record. Instead, they train their fire on his voting record in the Senate. But Racicot surprised a lot of people when he told Williams that the president's own service record compared rather nicely to Kerry's.
The president's and Kerry's service records, “compare very favorably,” said Racicot.
The president “signed up for dangerous duty,” he said. “He volunteered to go to Vietnam. He wasn't selected to go but nonetheless served his country very well.”
You didn't know the president volunteered to go to Vietnam? If this is news to you, it's probably because it's simply not true.
Let's not even waste our time by belaboring the obvious point that getting your father to pull strings so that you can jump ahead of hundreds of other applicants for a spot in the Guard at the height of the Vietnam War is about as far as you can get from “volunteering” to go to Vietnam.
It's more like moving heaven and Earth to stay out of Vietnam. But actually we can be even more specific. When the president filled out his enlistment papers, those forms included a checkbox asking whether he wanted to serve overseas or not. The president checked off the box labeled “I Do Not” volunteer to serve overseas.
In recent years, the president and his aides have had different explanations for how that checkmark got there. Some have speculated that some other, unknown person checked off that box without the president's knowledge. Somewhat more plausibly, they've suggested that he was instructed to check off that box since obviously what he was really trying to do was sign up for service in Texas, not Vietnam.
However that check got there, the fact that the president filled out a form stating explicitly that he did not volunteer for service in Vietnam would seem to create at least a few credibility problems for Racicot when he claims the president did just the opposite.
Indeed, the president himself doesn't even agree with Racicot.
Several weeks ago, when Tim Russert on “Meet the Press” asked point-blank whether Bush “volunteer[ed] or enlist[ed] to go” to Vietnam, the president responded, “No, I didn't. You're right.” So what in the world is Racicot talking about?
Monday afternoon, Racicot's aides quickly pulled together a conference call with reporters for a little more Kerry-bashing.
But one intrepid reporter on the call asked the obvious question: What on Earth was Racicot talking about when he said the president volunteered to go to Vietnam?
Racicot said that he'd heard about it in a story in a ’'national publication,” but couldn't remember which one. Later, one of his aides provided the article and publication in question: a Feb. 19 column by Jed Babbin (“Dubya's Wing Men”) for National Review Online.
In one paragraph in that piece, Babbin recounts the story of Fred Bradley, one of the president's friends from those days, who says that he remembers he and the president once inquired about getting into something called the Palace Alert program.
The program, in the words of The Washington Post, “dispatched qualified F-102 pilots in the Guard to Europe and the Far East, occasionally to Vietnam, on three- to six-month assignments.”
Bradley told Babbin that he and Bush were told they weren't experienced enough and that was the end of it.
So did this really happen? It's a little hard to figure that after the president and his family pulled so many strings to keep him out of Vietnam he'd go and sign up to get in the first chance he got. And of course there's no evidence for this in the president's service records.
The president himself floated the Palace Alert story in the past, too. But one reason he stopped may be because of what the Post discovered in 1999. The program was shut down just one week after the president got out of flight school—making it a suspiciously ineffective way to end up actually going to Vietnam.
Now, obviously, there's no way to know the substance of every conversation that the president had with his base commander or whether he and his Guard buddies once talked about signing up for Palace Alert. And really there's no point in trying. But why is the president's campaign manager peddling an unsubstantiated claim from a column for National Review Online that the president himself doesn't even seem to stand by?
It just seems like another cynical effort by Bush's supporters to rewrite the story of his service record the first chance the press wasn't paying close attention. They're incorrigible.
Originally published in The Hill, a weekly covering congressional and White House affairs.