White House releases National Guard documents

President Bush on Tuesday released payroll records and other documents tracking his service in the National Guard, but the paper trail didn’t close all the gaps in his military record.

White House officials acknowledged that the records provide little information about Bush’s activities in 1972, when he transferred from his Texas Air National Guard unit to an Alabama unit to work in a political campaign there. Critics contend that he shirked his duties and essentially went AWOL, or absent without leave.

The payroll records include a six-month gap – from April 16, 1972, to Oct. 28, 1972 – when Bush didn’t get paid. The gap roughly corresponds with his stay in Alabama, from May 1972 until November of that year.

Whatever Bush did in Alabama, it didn’t derail his military career. Retired Col. Albert Lloyd Jr., an expert in military personnel issues who examined the records for the White House, said Bush “completed his military obligation in a satisfactory manner.” Bush was honorably discharged in 1973.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said he couldn’t explain the pay gap or other seeming contradictions in the records. Although Bush said he returned to Ellington Air Force Base in Texas in late 1972, two commanders there reported in May 1973 that they couldn’t evaluate his performance because they hadn’t seen him for 12 months.

“The president recalls serving both when he was in Texas and when he was in Alabama,” McClellan said. “I don’t have an hour-by-hour itemization of everything he was doing 30 years ago.”

Terry McAuliffe, the chairman of the Democratic Party, said the newly released records didn’t resolve the questions about Bush’s military service.

“There is still no evidence that George W. Bush showed up for duty as ordered while in Alabama,” McAuliffe said.

Questions about Bush’s National Guard service arose during the 2000 presidential campaign after the Boston Globe reported that it could find no evidence that he reported for duty in Alabama. William Turnipseed, the commander of the Alabama unit, told the newspaper he didn’t remember seeing Bush.

Turnipseed, now 75, has since become less certain, saying he may have been away on other duties when Bush showed up.

The issue flared up again in this year’s presidential campaign when filmmaker Michael Moore branded the president “a deserter” during an appearance with Democratic candidate and former Gen. Wesley Clark. McAuliffe later accused Bush of going AWOL.

“There may be no evidence, but I did report,” Bush said in a weekend interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been honorably discharged.”

On Monday, White House aides launched a new search for Bush’s military records, which were retrieved later in the day from archives in Denver.

“It was really a shame that it came up four years ago, and it’s really a shame that it’s being brought up again this year,” McClellan said. “The facts are clear.”

Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the front-runner for the Democratic nomination, declined to comment Tuesday on the release of the records after observing last weekend that the National Guard had been a haven for draft-age men who were trying to avoid Vietnam.

“I’ve said all I’m going to say about it,” Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran, said Tuesday during a campaign trip to Virginia. “It’s not an issue that I’ve chosen to create. It’s not my record that’s at issue.”

Some Democrats think it’s time to drop the issue.

“Democrats did not raise it initially in 2000. The media raised it,” said Donna Brazile, who ran Al Gore’s presidential campaign. “We did not pursue this line of questioning then and I do not believe it should be part of our playbook now, with millions of Americans out of work, losing their health care and veterans returning home to fend for themselves. “