Wednesday night's 60 Minutes segment on the controversy over how George Bush got a coveted slot in the Texas National Guard's "Champagne Unit," and what he did during his time in uniform, took those of us old enough to remember back in time to 1972.
It was a time when the country was already sharply divided. Nearly half of Americans had already concluded that the war in Vietnam was dirty, immoral and a hopeless quagmire. It was four years after the CBS news anchor called "the most trusted man in America," Walter Cronkite, had used his broadcast to tell the country that the war could not be won – a declaration that helped drive war president Lyndon Johnson to his decision not to seek another term as a result of the war's unpopularity.
And it was a time when a large number of draft-age males were gaming the system to avoid being sent to Vietnam if they could. Bill Clinton was one. Dubya was another. While college deferments saved many of those who could afford a university education from going, the sons of the working class and the poor were being shipped to the killing fields to decimate a country that had never done us harm – as Muhammad Ali famously put it in refusing induction, "No Viet Cong ever called me nigger." Many of those draftees came home in body bags. Schemers like Clinton and the sons of privilege like Bush avoided those plasticized tombs.
It has been a matter of record for years, after his court testimony on the subject, that Ben Barnes was the enabler of Bush's escape from Vietnam. State legislatures have long been sewers of corruption, and none more so than the Texas legislature of which Barnes was the speaker. An ambitious, equal opportunity suckup and a poster boy for Texas sleaze, by his own admission Speaker Barnes helped not just Bush but the offspring of influential fat-cats and politicians from both major parties find safe refuge from Vietnam in that Texas Guard unit where, as we proles would say, no heavy lifting was required.
On 60 Minutes, Barnes – he of the checkered and scandal-plagued political career – announced he is now "ashamed" of what he did, of the way he misused the power of "determining life and death" in his hands. Is his remorse genuine? Or is it an attempt by Barnes – now a corporate lobbyist and influence-buyer who is still working both sides of the street, and who has bundled over $100,000 in fat-cat contributions to the Kerry campaign – to cloak his televised "confession" in noble terms? I'm sure I'm not the only Baby Boomer with a memory of that bloody era who finds a creature like Barnes distasteful, and his mea culpa an attempt to curry favor with a future Kerry presidency (he agreed to the 60 Minutes interview before Kerry's meltdown in the polls).
What was really new and interesting in the CBS broadcast were the revelations of four hitherto-unpublished documents from Bush's squadron commander, the late Col. Jerry Killian, revealing that Bush disobeyed a direct order to take a physical examination, and tried to sweet-talk Killian into finding a way for him to "get out of coming to drill from now through November" because "he may not have time." Then there's the Killian memo revealing he's being pressured by higher-ups to sugar-coat his review of Bush's absenteeism, a memo entitled "CYA," which – CBS was too prudish to tell us this – is the military abbreviation for "Cover Your Ass." CBS also failed to mention that young Bush's father was Richard Nixon's UN Ambassador at the time.
Just what was Lt. Bush doing during those long months he shirked his duties and ducked orders? He was serving his political apprenticeship as the political director for the U.S. Senate campaign of Winton "Red" Blount, the wealthy head of an engineering and construction firm who was president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce before being appointed Nixon's Postmaster General (where he promptly fired some 33,000 employees as the postal service was put on for-profit basis). Blount was running against veteran Senator John Sparkman, a conservative Southern Democrat who had been Adlai Stevenson 's running mate on the national ticket in 1952.
Blount ran a filthy, race-baiting campaign against Sparkman, focused in part on the issue of busing to achieve school integration. Even though Sparkman had co-sponsored the "anti-forced busing" bill in the Senate, the Blount campaign covered the state with billboards proclaiming, "A vote for Red Blount is a vote against forced busing ... against coddling criminals ... against welfare freeloaders."
Blount was also a ferocious supporter of the Vietnam war (which Lt. Bush's daddy was vigorously defending at the UN), and young Bush was in charge of distributing the smear campaign literature that linked the conservative Sparkman (whom Blount labeled a "liberal" – sound familiar?) to the head of the Democrats' national ticket that year, the anti-war George McGovern. The smear pamphlets accused Sparkman of favoring drastic cuts in the military budget, of abandoning American POWs in Vietnam, and of supporting "amnesty for draft-dodgers" – none of which, of course, was true.
So, while Lt. Bush was avoiding Vietnam through cushy service in the National Guard, then not even fulfilling the duties which his uniform obliged him to perform, and while his commandant was getting pressure from "higher-ups" in the Nixon administration's military machine to let him off the hook, he was learning how to run a pro-war, dirty tricks, mud-slinging campaign. If 60 Minutes had bothered to tell us what Lt. Bush was doing while he was dodging his military commitments – namely, serving a political apprenticeship in sewer politics that included tarring an opponent with sympathy for those who didn't want to go to Vietnam – the odiferous hypocrisy of Bush's time in the Guard would have been startlingly apparent.
The "soft-on-terrorism" charges against this year's national Democratic ticket which were trumpeted at President Bush's Madison Square Garden coronation at the end of August echo the smears of the 1972 Senate campaign on which Bush cut his political eye-teeth. It was mendacious deceit that Bush practiced 32 years ago – as it is today. And that is the real meaning of Bush's time in the National Guard.