CATEGORIES Features
Better late than never?

A decade after it first surfaced as an issue in George W. Bush's first presidential campaign, his Vietnam-era military service in the Texas Air National Guard is going to be the subject of a documentary feature, the New York Observer reports. The filmmaker is Meghan O'Hara, who has worked as a producer on such Michael Moore movies as 'Sicko,' 'Bowling for Columbine,' and the Bush-centric 'Fahrenheit 9/11.' Better late than never?

A decade after it first surfaced as an issue in George W. Bush's first presidential campaign, his Vietnam-era military service in the Texas Air National Guard is going to be the subject of a documentary feature, the New York Observer reports. The filmmaker is Meghan O'Hara, who has worked as a producer on such Michael Moore movies as 'Sicko,' 'Bowling for Columbine,' and the Bush-centric 'Fahrenheit 9/11.'

O'Hara, who directed the award-winning Cinemax documentary 'Roe vs. Roe: Baptism by Fire' (about Norma McCorvey's complicated ideological journey from serving as the pseudonymous plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that legalized abortion to becoming a born-again Christian and anti-abortion advocate), has shot enough footage so far to compile a trailer.

The Observer reports that she is shopping the incomplete film to such outlets as HBO and the Weinstein Company, whose founders, Harvey and Bob Weinstein, have released Moore's last three films.

The story of Bush's military service remains (depending on your political persuasion) either a long-settled story or a frustratingly incomplete one. In the late 1960s, when many college-aged men feared being drafted and sent to fight in Vietnam, pilot training and light weekend duty in the Texas Air National Guard was a coveted alternative. Former Texas Lt. Governor Ben Barnes has said he tried to pull strings to shortlist admission into the Guard for many young men from well-connected families, including the young Bush, whose father was then a Congressman.
The Bush family, however, has said they never asked Barnes to do so (he said he was asked by a Bush family friend), and Walter Staudt, Bush's commanding officer, said Bush's admission was not a response to political pressure.

Bush signed on to serve for six years, from May 1968 to May 1974. In mid-1972, however, he declined to take a required physical exam and was permanently grounded from flight status. He requested a transfer to Alabama, where he worked on a political campaign in late 1972, but there is no record that he performed any drills there and only scant payroll documentation suggesting that he showed up on any days at all. In May 1973, his superiors gave him an incomplete on his performance review, noting that they hadn't seen him at all in the previous 12 months.

In the fall of 1973, Bush moved to Cambridge, Mass., to attend Harvard Business School. Guard regulations required him to find a local unit to report to, but he did not. Instead, he was discharged in October 1973, several months shy of his six-year commitment.

Years later, the Bush White House would cite his honorable discharge as proof that he completed all his requirements, but Lawrence Korb, a former assistant defense secretary under Ronald Reagan, reviewed the service documents released by the White House and concluded that Bush "had not fulfilled his obligation," even though he had not been disciplined or transferred to active duty as a result of that unfulfilled obligation.

The story became a major issue during the 2004 campaign, when Dan Rather anchored a report on '60 Minutes II' on Bush's Guard stint that included on-camera statements from Barnes and other officials, as well as some memos, purportedly written by Bush's commanding officer, Lt. Col. Jerry Killian, that were critical of Bush's service.

Conservative bloggers immediately pounced on the memos, attacking them as forgeries. CBS stood by the story for two weeks until, under mounting pressure, it acknowledged that the memos couldn't be authenticated. (Killian had died in 1984, and CBS' source, former Texas Guard Lt. Col. Bill Burkett, said he had destroyed the originals.) Dan Rather was forced to make a public apology, four top CBS News staffers were fired, and Rather announced his early retirement from the CBS Evening News chair he'd held for 24 years.

CBS hired a commission of outsiders, chaired by Dick Thornburgh (who'd served as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush), to investigate what went wrong. The commission chided CBS News for sloppy reporting and for standing by the disputed story despite doubts outsiders had raised about the documents. The commission did not take a position, however, on whether or not the memos were authentic or forgeries.

Rather insists to this day that, memos or no memos, the underlying story was true. He continues to keep the dispute alive via a $70 million lawsuit he filed against CBS in 2007, arguing that the network threw him under the bus, made him a scapegoat for the whole affair, and severely damaged his reputation and future earning potential. In September of this year, a New York court threw out Rather's lawsuit; his lawyer said he would appeal.

To this day, the "Memogate" scandal is seen (again, depending on your political persuasion) either as the most blatant example in recent years of liberal media bias, or as an example of how easy it is to get a corporate news organization to fold when it's accused of liberal media bias. In any case, the documents' critics in the blogosphere successfully changed the focus from whether Bush had fulfilled his duty to whether Bush was the victim of a media smear.

Perhaps O'Hara can go back, beyond the media frenzy surrounding the story, to the original sources and determine what really happened during Bush's Guard years. But whether there's still fresh information to be found after 40 years -- and whether anyone will still care, now that Bush is long gone from the White House -- is another story.