A Bush Mystery In Alabama

As he barnstormed through Alabama in late June, Texas Gov. George W. Bush wanted the press to pick up on his issue du jour, soaring gasoline prices. But in Tuscaloosa he was blindsided by reporters asking picky questions about a little-known chapter in his past--three months of reserve duty with an Air National Guard unit in Montgomery, Ala., in 1972. The crux of the matter was that no one could find any record that Lieutenant Bush had reported for duty. On the defensive, Bush insisted he was "proud of my service in the National Guard" but stumbled when pressed for details. "I can't remember what I did," he said. "I just--I fulfilled my obligation."

Bush's advisers had anticipated that his military record would be scrutinized closely, but they didn't foresee this curve ball. More than two years ago the Bush camp launched a secretive research operation designed to scour all records relating to his Vietnam-era service as a pilot in the 111th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron of the Texas Air National Guard. The goal was to identify potential vulnerabilities early on and deflect any charges that Bush got favorable treatment. Until recently, the campaign was confident that this worked. But as the latest flap shows, questions about Bush's military service haven't entirely disappeared.

The Bushies' concern began while he was running for a second term as governor. A hard-nosed Dallas lawyer named Harriet Miers was retained to investigate the issue; state records show Miers was paid $19,000 by the Bush gubernatorial campaign. She and other aides quickly identified a problem--rumors that Bush had help from his father in getting into the National Guard back in 1968. Ben Barnes, a prominent Texas Democrat and a former speaker of the House in the state legislature, told friends he used his influence to get George W a guard slot after receiving a request from Houston oilman Sid Adger. Barnes said Adger told him he was calling on behalf of the elder George Bush, then a Texas congressman. Both Bushes deny seeking any help from Barnes or Adger, who has since passed away. Concerned that Barnes might go public with his allegations, the Bush campaign sent Don Evans, a friend of W's, to hear Barnes's story. Barnes acknowledged that he hadn't actually spoken directly to Bush Sr. and had no documents to back up his story. As the Bush campaign saw it, that let both Bushes off the hook. And the National Guard question seemed under control.

It cropped up again with the Alabama controversy, which dates back to May 1972. That's when George W went to work on the campaign of a Republican Senate candidate in Alabama. Because he was still obligated to serve weekend duty with the Air National Guard, Bush had to arrange a temporary assignment to a guard unit in Alabama. He was accepted by the 187th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron based outside Montgomery. On Sept. 5 Lieutenant Bush asked his guard unit to approve "equivalent duty" with the 187th for the months of September, October and November. His commander agreed.

That's where the mystery begins. According to The Boston Globe, which recently dug into the matter, there is no record that Bush ever served with the 187th--and the Bush campaign has been unable to locate any former officers who remember encountering Bush. Kenneth K. Lott, the personnel officer who signed the orders directing Bush to report, told NEWSWEEK: "I don't recall ever seeing the guy." A Bush aide, Dan Bartlett, conceded that the records "were either lost or misplaced... we are not sure." Bush told aides he did office work at the 187th on "several occasions." "The governor specifically recalls it," Bartlett said.

Eager to dispel suspicions, the Bush campaign last week produced someone to stand by the governor's version of events--an old girlfriend, Emily Marks, who got to know Bush in Alabama. Marks said Bush told her he had to go back to Montgomery after the election to make up some reserve requirements. "This corroborates what the governor has been saying," Bartlett said, adding that National Guard records show Bush fulfilled his duty requirements for the year. "The American people have seen the facts, and they understand that Governor Bush was a good pilot and served admirably." For the moment, at least, it seemed that Bush's damage-control team had gotten matters under control again.