Bush camp tries to prove 'he did his duty'

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The Independent US

The White House tried to defuse the controversy over President Bush's National Guard service during the Vietnam war yesterday by promising to release payroll and other records which it said proved that Mr Bush had "done his duty."

"These documents show he fulfilled his duty and met his requirements," Scott McClellan, the White House spokesman, repeated several times at a contentious press briefing.

But he refused to enter into details on whether the President skipped training sessions in 1972, when he was transferred from the Texas Air National Guard to the Alabama guard, while he was working on an Alabama political campaign.

The documents "clearly reflect" he served in Alabama as well, Mr McClellan said, but "I don't have a minute-by-minute breakdown of what he did back then." The issue of whether Mr Bush shirked the Vietnam war arose during the 2000 campaign but failed to make much impact, mainly because his opponent Al Gore had not fought in the war although he was in Vietnam as an Army journalist.

But Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, currently Mr Bush's most likely challenger in November, is a decorated war hero, whose military service has become one of the most compelling aspects of his candidacy.

Mr Bush's aides have reacted furiously to the renewed charges - most notably from Terry McCauliffe, the Democratic party chairman, that the President "went Awol" -- calling them "outrageous" and "shameful".

In a television interview on Sunday, Mr Bush replied by insisting that he had been honourably discharged in 1973, and that any who suggested otherwise was "wrong." The most contentious aspect of his service is the six-month Alabama interlude. Even Mr Bush acknowledged in his NBC inter- view that "there may be no evidence" he specifically attended required training sessions.

The spokesman visibly bristled when a reporter suggested that at a time when Mr Bush was sending men to risk their lives in Iraq, he owed the country a fuller explanation than a semi-legible set of records.

But the war service issue may ultimately have a limited impact. As Bob Dole, a former Republican presidential nominee, wrote in the Wall Street Journal last week: "Senator Kerry is a war hero, but if campaigns were about war records, I would have won easily in 1996." That year, Mr Dole, who was almost killed while fighting the Germans in Italy in 1945, was defeated by Bill Clinton, who managed to avoid the Vietnam draft in 1968.

Instead the White House hopes to turn Mr Kerry's later national security record against him, by highlighting his past advocacy of cuts in defence and intelligence spending, and his opposition to the 1991 Gulf war.