By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
Photo by Joeff Davis
So President Bush went mano a mano with Tim Russert on Meet the Press and put to rest the claim that he went AWOL from the Texas Air National Guard. He was serving in the state of Alabama while working on a congressional campaign of one his father’s buddies in 1972. Bush said he left the Guard eight months early because he was accepted into Harvard Business School’s MBA program and “worked it out with the military.”
The AWOL claim had been resurrected when filmmaker-author Michael Moore called Bush a deserter. Then Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe started talking up a debate by suggesting that when war hero John Kerry stands next to George Bush, he is next “to a man who was AWOL in the Alabama National Guard.” Bush issued a “bring ’em on” challenge, urging reporters to take a hard look at his service record. The records the White House hastily released Monday are still full of holes.
Rather than only asking how a young George W. got out of the National Guard, we ought to ask how he got in when 350 American men were dying each week in Vietnam and 100,000 were on National Guard waiting lists across the country. For years the talk in Austin political circles had Bush using his father’s stroke as a Republican congressman from Houston to secure one of two or three rare open billets in an Air National Guard Unit — after scoring in the 25th percentile on the standard test given to flight-program candidates. There was also the story of a political contribution conveyed to the Democratic speaker of the Texas House to secure a slot for Bush. When Bush moved into the Governor’s Mansion, the stories dried up — as did two of the sources who circulated them in Austin bars frequented by the state’s political cognoscenti.
But there’s something about the risk of perjury in federal court that focuses the mind on the truth. In 1999, the former Democratic speaker of the House who secured Bush’s spot in the Texas Air National Guard was a witness in a lawsuit involving two seemingly unrelated subjects: the Texas lottery and George W. Bush’s military service. The story the former Texas politician told doesn’t square with what Bush père et fils told reporters at the same time. But neither of the Bushes told his version of the story under oath after a hard-ass federal judge (who recently jailed a former Democratic attorney general for lying in his courtroom) ordered a deposition.
Ben Barnes did.
Barnes was a Texas power politician from the other side of the state and the other side of the tracks from the River Oaks neighborhood that elected the senior Bush to Congress in the 1960s. He was a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman from Brownwood (a.k.a. Deadwood), Texas, elected to the Statehouse when he was 22. Three years later, he was elected speaker. By the time he was 30, he won his first statewide election and was the youngest lieutenant governor in the history of the state. Lyndon Johnson compared him to Thomas Jefferson and predicted he would be the next Texan elected president. The Texas Monthlycalled him the Golden Boy of Texas politics. He was a young man at the top of his game. Then a bank-stock scandal in the early-’70s got in the way of his next career move, and he came in third in the 1972 Democratic primary election for governor. (Republicans at the time were irrelevant.) He was never charged in the stock-fraud case that sent his successor in the Speaker’s Office to prison. But the throw-the-bastards-out election of 1972 ended Ben Barnes’ career. Or so it seemed.
By 1998, Barnes was on top again, as a millionaire lobbyist working for GTech, the company operating public lotteries in 37 states. But lottery revenues were plummeting, and lottery- commission chair Harriet Miers (who was also Bush’s personal lawyer and once was paid $19,000 to look into the National Guard story for a gubernatorial campaign) re-bid GTech’s contract. GTech sued, threatened to shut down the Texas lottery for a year, and hired a new lobbyist — after providing Barnes a $23 million severance package. Miers fired one lottery director who sued and settled. Then the second lottery director fired by Miers filed suit. He claimed he was taking the fall for GTech, which, he alleged, kept its contract and bought out Barnes because he had the story on Bush.
So in 1999, as George W. Bush was running for president, Barnes and the Bush military record were going to court. Barnes told his story in a five-hour deposition and then told the reporters what he had told the court. As speaker of the Texas House, he would sometimes find slots in the National Guard for the fortunate sons of friends and supporters. It had already been reported that two of his aides would take the names of the lucky young men who won the legislative lottery over to the commandant of the Guard, who would find space for them. In 1969, a Houston oil-service company executive called on Barnes and asked him to get George W. Bush into the National Guard.