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Friday, February 27, 2004

more aWol

The few who continued to dog Mr. Bush about his military service � most notably reporters at The Dallas Morning News � found their paths blocked in myriad ways. This time, it was Al Gore's handlers, not Ms. Richards's, who lacked enthusiasm for this particular avenue of attack. The vice president had served in Vietnam, but he couldn't claim war hero status, and any talk of military service inevitably reminded voters of Bill Clinton, who hadn't served at all.

�What's more, Mr. Bush's military service file remained incomplete � as it had in 1994. Some reporters got their information from time-consuming Freedom of Information Act requests, others took what they were handed by opposition researchers � in my experience, the unfortunate norm in most modern campaigns. If there was a release of documents comparable to the one made by the administration earlier this month, no one around here recalls it.

What journalists had in the way of a paper trail led to suspicions that Mr. Bush's military record had been altered in preparation for a presidential bid � something that James Moore, the reporter who asked the Vietnam question in the 1994 governor's debate, suggests in a forthcoming book. Also, many people who were chatty in 1994 clammed up in 2000, perhaps fearful that they would alienate the future president or his famously long-memoried family. Without conclusive documentation or an attributable source, most reporters were stymied.

It took Walter Robinson of The Boston Globe to look at Mr. Bush's file with a fresh eye; Mr. Robinson was the first to report, in May 2000, that Mr. Bush did not perform flight drills while in Alabama, and that the commander of the Alabama unit didn't remember him showing up for duty. But even that story was soon eclipsed by others in the heat of the campaign, most notably the revelation, late in the game, that Mr. Bush had been arrested in 1976 for driving under the influence. The issues surrounding his military service disappeared for another four years.

In some ways, then, the president is right: questions about his military service have been raised every time he's run for office. But it's also true that the story still seems woefully incomplete and that there have been clear inconsistencies in the answers Mr. Bush and his associates have given about his time in the Guard. (Mr. Bush's associates said that he didn't take his 1972 military physical because his doctor in Houston was unavailable and that he lost his flight status because the plane he was training on was phased out � statements that have been shown to be debatable at best.) It's also disconcerting that each election cycle comes with a new set of "complete" documents.

Perhaps 2004 will be the year that details of George W. Bush's time in the National Guard � indeed, his life in the early 1970's � finally get filled in. This time around, there are certain factors that might put added pressure on reporters, editors and news organizations to complete the story. After all, the questions about Mr. Bush's service are being raised while we are at war and while the president is facing a genuine war hero as a potential opponent. Maybe this year, 10 years after Mr. Bush's first political victory, the lingering questions will finally disappear.

Mimi Swartz, an executive editor of Texas Monthly, is the author, with Sherron Watkins, of "Power Failure: The Inside Story of the Collapse of Enron."


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