WASHINGTON — Before he was president, before he was governor, before he was an oilman or ran a professional baseball team, or was widely known as the drifting and carousing son of a famous father, George Walker Bush flew airplanes. He earned his pilot wings lifting F-102 interceptor jets off of a Texas Air National Guard tarmac in Houston.
Today, he is commander in chief in Washington and has sent U.S. troops to fight and die in Afghanistan and Iraq. Today, he has declared war against terrorists and, in speeches and highly publicized visits with the troops, has made that endeavor his battle cry for reelection.
Now, however, the 2004 presidential campaign has taken a detour, back 30 years to the Vietnam era. And the president faces new doubts about an old but nagging question: What did he do during that war?
The issue has been intensified by the likelihood that Bush will face a Democratic candidate who was a genuine war hero, who came home from a real war as a highly decorated Navy swift-boat commander in Vietnam and who has effectively used his military experience as an asset in building his political career.
In the long run, this election may be fought over what course the war on terror should take. But in recent weeks, Bush has found himself being measured against the military record of Democratic front-runner Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, amid sharper questioning about the president's service record.
Most immediately, the issue returned in the form of suggestions by Democrats that Bush shirked his obligations during a period from 1972 to 1973 when he was attached to the Alabama National Guard.
Beyond that narrow question lies the larger issue of whether Bush received preferential treatment when he was admitted to the Texas Guard and received a commission as a second lieutenant at a time when the Guard nationwide had 100,000 names on waiting lists and officer commissions were not given lightly.
The White House and Bush loyalists, as well as many of his fellow guardsmen, say he served with distinction. They say he gave nearly six years of his young life to combat readiness -- winning promotions and keeping himself prepared for call-up duty in Vietnam, if needed.
"He served honorably and he fulfilled all of his requirements," said retired Lt. Col. Albert C. Lloyd Jr., his personnel director in the Texas Air National Guard.
Some of Bush's critics have declared him AWOL or a deserter. They point to selected records released from his military files that suggest he was basically a no-show during his temporary gig in Alabama, that he was grounded and put on nonflying status for failing to accomplish a physical, and that he seemed to have frittered away his final year before taking an early discharge eight months shy of his six-year obligation.
They also complain that he was a rich kid with deep family political connections -- his father was congressman from Houston and his grandfather had been a U.S. senator from Connecticut -- for whom the Guard cut corners to make sure he was kept out of harm's way, specifically the Vietnam draft.
The White House released documents throughout last week that it said supported Bush's account -- including ones Friday night, which it said amounted to everything it had.
An examination of those documents, and nearly 200 pages of his service record obtained by The Times in 1999 as Bush was starting his first campaign for the White House, plus interviews with Guard officials, veterans and military experts, showed that while there was no evidence of illegality or regulations broken to accommodate Bush's entry or rise in the service, doors were opened and good fortune flowed to him at opportune times.
Retired Col. Charles C. Shoemake, an Air Force veteran who later joined the Texas Air National Guard, has told The Times, "We were flooded with applications back then. I'm not going to deny a lot of them turned to the Guard to get out of Vietnam." He added about Bush, "His name didn't hurt, obviously."
George W. Bush graduated from Yale University in 1968, soon to become eligible for the draft. Mindful of his father's World War II exploits as a bomber pilot, he showed up at the Texas Air National Guard office announcing he wanted to fly jets "just like Daddy."
The National Guard was a far different creature then than it is today.
Now, members of the Guard are being used in Afghanistan and Iraq, as they were in an earlier war, waged by Bush's father, in the Persian Gulf.
But in the late 1960s, the National Guard was a safe haven from the draft for young men who did not want to opt for Canada or the regular army. Instead, guardsmen ended up in a sort of nether land, not honored or denounced as Vietnam veterans, but also not considered hip or despised as draft dodgers.
During the Vietnam period, the rules were often relaxed, with commanders giving plenty of leeway for guardsmen to juggle their military duty around civilian lives.