WASHINGTON — Former President George Bush has quit the National Rifle Assn. to protest a fund-raising letter sent out by the organization that labeled federal agents as "jackbooted thugs" and could roil the waters of the Republican presidential race.
Bush described himself as "outraged" by the organization's failure to repudiate the letter, which points up the NRA's vulnerability in the wake of the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building. In a letter to NRA President Thomas Washington dated May 3 and made available by his office in Houston, the former GOP chief executive added: "To attack Secret Service agents or ATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms) people or any government law enforcement people as 'wearing Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms' wanting to 'attack law-abiding citizens' is a vicious slander on good people."
Bush was particularly irate because Wayne LaPierre, the NRA's chief lobbyist, defended the attack contained in the letter even after the Oklahoma City bombing. Asked if his language was excessive in view of the tragedy, LaPierre said: "That's like saying the weather report in Florida on the hurricane caused the damage rather than the hurricane."
In response to Bush's protest, the NRA released a letter from its president, Washington, to Bush, urging the former President to reconsider his resignation. The letter claimed that the gist of the NRA's attacks would be supported by further inquiry and complained that Bush had not sought a private explanation before making his resignation letter public. "Such a course of action, I believe, would have better served the country than what now will become a public disagreement that can only lead to more polarization in these troubled times," the NRA said.
Indeed, Bush's letter is likely to serve as a rallying point for opponents of NRA efforts to repeal last year's ban on 19 types of semiautomatic weapons and could help supporters of the ban in the contest for the GOP presidential nomination.
Until the Oklahoma City explosion, momentum seemed to be going the NRA's way, with Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), the GOP presidential front-runner, pledging to make repeal of the assault-weapons ban a top legislative priority. Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, regarded as Dole's strongest rival for the Republican nomination, will address the NRA's national convention this weekend in Phoenix.
But the explosion that wrecked the Oklahoma City federal building and has claimed 167 lives put the NRA on the defensive because of evidence linking the blast to people who believe that the federal government is an enemy. The harsh criticism of federal law enforcement agencies by the NRA and its supporters was viewed by some as an incitement to violence. Dole has appeared to retreat from his initially expressed urgency in repealing the assault-weapons ban, which was part of the anti-crime legislation enacted by Congress last year. And some analysts said they believe that the changed climate now offers a political advantage to two other Republican presidential candidates, Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar, who voted for the ban when it passed the Senate in November, 1993, and California Gov. Pete Wilson, who has supported the measure along with a similar California statute enacted under his predecessor, Gov. George Deukmejian.
In his letter to the NRA, Bush pointed out that Al Whicher, who served on his Secret Service detail when he was in the White House, was killed in Oklahoma City. "He was no Nazi," Bush wrote. "He was a kind man, a loving parent, a man dedicated to serving his country."
Bush also recalled that he had attended the wake for ATF Agent Steve Willis, who was slain in the Feb. 23, 1993, shootout with members of the Branch Davidian cult near Waco, Tex. "I can assure you that this honorable man, killed by weird cultists, was no Nazi," Bush wrote.
For his part, Washington wrote Bush that the "NRA never intended for its words to offend your sense of decency and honor or your concept of service to country."
He added: "I firmly believe that after a thorough congressional examination of BATF, you will agree that our words have been more truth than slander. I believe you will judge, too, much of what BATF had done to be inexcusable and deserving of your personal repudiation."