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 Monthly called 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.
Sid Adger was a Houston-centric whom the boys at the Petroleum Club called “The King.” He was the vice president of an oil-field mud company, a former Air Force and Pan American Airlines pilot, a hunting guide for petro-politicians from Texas and Louisiana, and a friend of George H.W. Bush. He lived in the same neighborhood as the Bush family. His children attended the same private schools as the Bush kids. He belonged to the same downtown social clubs. Poppy Bush loved “The King,” the first President Bush’s secretary told the Dallas Morning News.
Shortly before George W. Bush graduated from Yale, Adger called on Speaker of the House Barnes and asked him to get the son of then-Congressman George H.W. Bush into the Air National Guard. It was a commonplace story: A young man of privilege ends up in a National Guard unit that looks like a polo team without horses. Senator Lloyd Bentsen’s son was there, as was a relative of Nixon Treasury Secretary John Connally, along with the Adger kids (but not in the flying unit.) There were even a couple of Dallas Cowboys. (Despite the many prospects, a clumsy recruiting effort attempted to turn our high-flying F-102 pilot into the Guard’s anti-drug poster boy. “George Walker Bush is one member of the younger generation who doesn’t get his kicks from pot or hashish or speed,” reads a 1970 Guard press release. “Oh, he gets high, all right. But not from narcotics.” The Reefer Madness tone of the ad suggests just how out of touch the Guard’s PR shop was. As does the content, considering the persistent rumors about Bush’s cocaine use.)
A history of service to country in a country-club Guard unit was acceptable while Bush was managing partner of the Texas Rangers and governor of Texas. But it was a problem for a presidential candidate. And the problem would only get worse if it looked like he got preferential treatment. Long before Bush announced he was a candidate, he sent Commerce Secretary Donnie Evans to Austin to find out what Barnes might say if reporters asked. Evans was one of W. Bush’s oil-field cronies from Midland, where the two men had found Jesus together in an intense, all-male, Bible-study group. He was also the finance director for Bush’s presidential campaign.
“The Bushies got to Barnes first,” an Austin political consultant told me at the time. Barnes put Evans’ fears to rest, and Governor Bush personally thanked the former speaker: “Dear Ben: Don Evans reported your conversation. Thank you for your candor and for killing the rumor about you and dad ever discussing my status. Like you, he never remembered any conversation. I appreciate your help.” (The simple syntax in the September 1998 note obtained by The Washington Post is signature-mark G.W. Bush.)
In 1999, Barnes reluctantly gave his deposition (which was sealed when the case was settled), telling lawyers the story of Adger asking him 30 years earlier to help the son of a Republican congressman get into the National Guard. Barnes also provided reporters a brief summary of what he had said under oath.
The Bush campaign claimed their hands were clean because there was no direct appeal from the Bushes. Again, the story was advanced through the queer syntax of George W. Bush. “All I know is that anybody named George Bush did not ask him for help,” Governor Bush said at the time. His father wasn’t so cocksure, saying he was “almost positive” he hadn’t discussed his son’s draft status with Adger. Then both Bushes began to argue that Adger’s appeal to Barnes was done without their “knowledge or consent.” Adger wasn’t talking because he had died three years earlier.
So this is what we’re supposed to swallow:
A close friend of the Bush family took it upon himself to get G.W. Bush a billet in the Air National Guard. A Democratic House Speaker who had nothing to gain from helping a two-term Republican from Houston did so because it was the right thing to do — while he was, in the Wild West of campaign finance, raising money to run for statewide office. And the younger Bush, after scoring the absolute minimum on his flight test, was moved to the top of the recruiter’s list by Guard officers who recognized his potential as a flyer.
If you buy that, then you’ll buy my Enron stock. And the former speaker of the Texas House filled one hole in the story on Monday. When I asked him how well he knew Adger, he said he had been a political contributor.
Ben Barnes has made his millions, endowed a lecture series at the University of Texas, and last time I interviewed him said he was appalled by the Bushies’ savaging of the Texas state treasury in order to provide tax breaks for the rich — in particular the harm they did to the education and health budgets. He’s the rare big-business lobbyist who genuinely cares about such things. Maybe he’ll have more to say about his discussion with Sid Adger. As speaker and lieutenant governor, he was in constant contact with the brass at the Texas National Guard headquarters. In a presidential election that might be determined by which candidate has the longest service record, these little things matter.