Bernard Goldberg was on The O'Reilly Factor last night touting his hot new scoop in the long-running controversy over George W. Bush's military service in the Texas Air National Guard:
Until now, the controversy over the Rather/Mapes story has centered almost entirely on one issue: the legitimacy of the documents – a very important issue, indeed. But it turns out that there was another very important issue, one that goes to the very heart of what the story was about – and one that has gone virtually unnoticed. This is it: Mary Mapes knew before she put the story on the air that George W. Bush, the alleged slacker, had in fact volunteered to go to Vietnam.
Who says? The outside panel CBS brought into to get to the bottom of the so-called “Rathergate” mess says. I recently re-examined the panel’s report after a source, Deep Throat style, told me to “Go to page 130.” When I did, here’s the startling piece of information I found:
Mapes had information prior to the airing of the September 8  Segment that President Bush, while in the TexANG [Texas Air National Guard] did volunteer for service in Vietnam but was turned down in favor of more experienced pilots. For example, a flight instructor who served in the TexANG with Lieutenant Bush advised Mapes in 1999 that Lieutenant Bush “did want to go to Vietnam but others went first.” Similarly, several others advised Mapes in 1999, and again in 2004 before September 8, that Lieutenant Bush had volunteered to go to Vietnam but did not have enough flight hours to qualify.
This information, despite the fact that it has been available since the CBS report came out four years ago, has remained a secret to almost everybody both in and out of the media — one lonely fact in a 234- page report loaded with thousands of facts, and overshadowed by the controversy surrounding the documents.
There's only one problem with this: These claims were nothing new. In fact, it had been reported by the Washington Post back in 1999 -- in a story that Goldberg in fact cites in his piece. Here are the relevant grafs:
Four months before enlisting, Bush reported at Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts to take the Air Force Officers Qualification Test. While scoring 25 percent for pilot aptitude – "about as low as you could get and be accepted," according to Martin – and 50 percent for navigator aptitude in his initial testing, he scored 95 percent on questions designed to reflect "officer quality," compared with a current-day average of 88 percent.
Among the questions Bush had to answer on his application forms was whether he wanted to go overseas. Bush checked the box that said: "do not volunteer."
Bush said in an interview that he did not recall checking the box. Two weeks later, his office provided a statement from a former, state-level Air Guard personnel officer, asserting that since Bush "was applying for a specific position with the 147th Fighter Group, it would have been inappropriate for him to have volunteered for an overseas assignment and he probably was so advised by the military personnel clerk assisting him in completing the form."
During a second interview, Bush himself raised the issue.
"Had my unit been called up, I'd have gone . . . to Vietnam," Bush said. "I was prepared to go."
But there was no chance Bush's unit would be ordered overseas. Bush says that toward the end of his training in 1970, he tried to volunteer for overseas duty, asking a commander to put his name on the list for a "Palace Alert" program, which dispatched qualified F-102 pilots in the Guard to the Europe and the Far East, occasionally to Vietnam, on three- to six-month assignments.
He was turned down on the spot. "I did [ask] – and I was told, 'You're not going,' " Bush said.
Only pilots with extensive flying time – at the outset, 1,000 hours were required – were sent overseas under the voluntary program. The Air Force, moreover, was retiring the aging F-102s and had ordered all overseas F-102 units closed down as of June 30, 1970.
In other words, if Bush actually did volunteer for Vietnam duty, he did so secure in the knowledge there was no chance he'd actually be called upon. That is, he was talking big talk, once again, knowing full well he'd never have to back it up.
This is especially so considering what followed -- namely, that Bush wound up failing to fulfill his obligations to the Texas Air National Guard, precisely because he failed to maintain even the most basic, fundamental components if his TANG pilot's status beginning in the summer of 1972.
Indeed, there is a set of facts about Bush's service that is irrefutable: Lt. Bush did refuse an order to take a required physical, and he was suspended for "failing to perform up to standards". Moreover, the sequence of events that failure set in motion eventually ensured that Bush did not fulfill the entirety of his military obligation.
In the military-flying world, failure to take your flight exam is a big honking deal. As the Boston Globe reported at the time:
Two retired National Guard generals, in interviews yesterday, said they were surprised that Bush -- or any military pilot -- would forgo a required annual flight physical and take no apparent steps to rectify the problem and return to flying. "There is no excuse for that. Aviators just don't miss their flight physicals," said Major General Paul A. Weaver Jr., who retired in 2002 as the Pentagon's director of the Air National Guard, in an interview.
Brigadier General David L. McGinnis, a former top aide to the assistant secretary of Defense for Reserve Affairs, said in an interview that Bush's failure to remain on flying status amounts to a violation of the signed pledge by Bush that he would fly for at least five years after he completed flight school in November 1969.
"Failure to take your flight physical is like a failure to show up for duty. It is an obligation you can't blow off," McGinnis said.
What's more, Goldberg's big "scoop" was actually one of the Bush team's talking points when trying to deal with the TANG questions. On NPR's Morning Edition Feb. 23, 2004, Bush campaign chairman Marc Racicot said:
"John Kerry served his country very honorably, and we salute his service. We would never, for a moment, diminish his service to the country. At the same point in time, the President served his country very honorably too. He signed up for dangerous duty, he volunteered to go to Vietnam, uh, he wasn't selected to go, but nonetheless, served his country very well."
It was a bogus claim then, and it remains a bogus claim now. Bush may have had a hankering to go to Vietnam in 1970, as he and those lieutenants who talked to Mary Mapes may have claimed.
But by 1972-73 -- which is the time frame that's relevant here -- he couldn't even be bothered to maintain his flying status or keep up with his TANG training time requirements. That is hardly indicative of someone intent on serving in combat missions. And it completely nullifies Goldberg's claim that Bush really wanted to serve in Vietnam.