February 12, 2004 | Broadcast

CNN News

And here to talk about it, Cliff May, of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and Peter Beinart, editor of “The New Republic.”

Good afternoon, gentlemen.



LIN: Cliff, what does President Bush have to do, you think, to put this whole National Guard service issue to rest?

MAY: I sometimes wonder if there is anything he can do. I mean, we now know that from his dental records that his teeth, at least, were in Alabama in that time frame. I suppose it’s up to him to prove that the rest of his body accompanied those teeth.

LIN: Peter, why is that not enough?

BEINART: Well, I think it’s partly not enough because Bush said in his “Meet the Press” interview that they were going to release all the records. And they haven’t. They’ve released some of the records. And I think that has led the press to wonder what else there may be.

And now there’s a story in USA Today — in The New York Times today that, in fact, people may have gone through those records in the 1990s and cleansed them. At least that’s the allegation. The Bush administration is denying it. We don’t know. I think the press recognizes that they didn’t follow up on this story in 2000, even though there were many unanswered questions, and they’re making up for lost time.

MAY: Carol, I don’t understand what the purpose and the point of this story is. Is it to say that he is, as some people have said, a traitor? That he betrayed the nation, that he should be taken out and shot? Is it to say — because, after all, he flew fighter planes. He must have shown up for class a little bit or he wouldn’t have been able to land as safely as he did.

LIN: Well, let me throw this e-mail out to Cliff, first of all. It’s Jim from Pennsylvania and he writes, Cliff, “I spent three years in the Army, two of them in Vietnam. I can remember people I served with in basic training and Vietnam. Why can’t Bush find one person he served with to prove he was where he was supposed to be?”

MAY: Well, again, we know that he served. We know that he flew planes. I don’t think that’s in doubt, anyone’s saying that.

Is the question whether or not he showed up for work? And are we saying maybe he doesn’t have a good work ethic? We know his work ethic from the past three years in the White House. I really think this is both silly and it’s muddy, this kind of thing.

You know, John Kerry said, when people were questioning Clinton and the fact he didn’t want to go into the military, that that really isn’t pertinent nowadays. And I think Kerry was right then and I think he is wrong now to be trying say, ah, OK, you found his dental records, but maybe he wasn’t in Alabama on one Tuesday in 1972.

BEINART: With all due respect, Cliff has completely evaded what is Jim’s very, very good question, is that we do not know that George W. Bush served. We know that there were some pay records. We don’t know whether he actually showed up for things that he was paid for. There are still very, very large significant gaps, and it is striking…

LIN: So what was he doing on base in Alabama other than getting his teeth checked?

BEINART: Well, we know that the person who was — that was one particular day over a very — over a yearlong period. We know that the Bush administration has not been able to produce one person who said that they served with him. And, in fact, his superior officer said that he doesn’t think he was there.

This is not the most important issue in the campaign, of course not. But it does go to his character, which has been one of his chief selling points ever since 2000.

LIN: All right. Peter, answer Ollie, then, in Colorado, who writes: “I am so tired of people talking about our president’s military background” — those are his words — “especially since they don’t have the foggiest idea of what they’re talking about. President Bush has an honorable discharge from the military, and that says more than what most people can understand.”

Agreeing with Cliff’s point.

BEINART: You know who else has an honorable discharge? John Muhammad. The truth is, we have a story on our Web site, www.tnr.com (ph) right now. It’s not that hard to get an honorable discharge from the military. A great many people do, even those who have a very, very checkered — even those who were AWOL. Many of those people have honorable discharges.

That does not put this issue to rest. The Bush administration should release the records so we can find out what they are.

MAY: You’re not really charging seriously that Bush was AWOL or a deserter or betrayed the country?


MAY: Some Democrats have. And I wish John Kerry…

BEINART: Democrats are not saying deserter; they’re not saying betrayed the country.

MAY: Al Gore…

BEINART: They are saying there are serious questions about whether he showed up.

MAY: Peter, Al Gore used the word “betrayed.” AWOL has been used by other Democrats.

BEINART: But he was not talking about this. He was talking about the Iraq war, which is a totally different subject.

MAY: It all conflates.

BEINART: So don’t confuse the two.

MAY: It all — it does conflate.

BEINART: No, it’s not. The truth is, there are serious questions. They have not released the records, as Bush said he was going to do. Why don’t they just do it so we can stop talking about this and get it sorted out?

MAY: This is a political branding exercise, and it’s kind of smart (ph).

LIN: All right.

BEINART: That’s what Republicans say when you don’t want to talk about the substance.

LIN: Speaking of someone who clearly showed up for the war, John Kerry, obviously a decorated war hero in Vietnam. A photograph came out today. John Kerry at an anti-war rally, and lo and behold, there you see him in the background.

And the young lady in front of him with the glasses in the middle, Jane Fonda. Jane Fonda says, “Whoa. He and I did not know each other. We weren’t in agreement on this issue.” Obviously her controversy was she went to go visit North Vietnam at the height of the war.

Jim, Peter, from South Carolina writes: “Forget Jane Fonda. Kerry gave up his hero status when he accused American servicemen of the most outrageous atrocities in his comments before the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. To oppose the war is one thing, but to back stab men serving their country is unforgivable.”

What do you make of his remarks?

BEINART: Jim is just plain wrong. What Kerry did in that testimony was he quoted — he cited other Vietnam veterans who had said that about themselves. He did not back stab or slur those people.

He said — he repeated what  they had been saying about what they themselves had done. So it is completely unfair to say that he slurred or mischaracterized what American troops had done.

Look, Kerry was passionately against the war. We can debate whether he was right or wrong. But he did not do anything outrageous. And the Jane Fonda thing is just ridiculous.

MAY: Well, what he did say — and I think he just needs to talk about this — in his 1971 testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, he talked about — and these were his words — that his fellow soldiers “acted in a fashion reminiscent of Genghis Khan. They shot at cattle and dogs for fun. They poisoned food stock. They generally ravaged the countryside of South Vietnam, in addition to the normal ravage of war.”

I mean, he goes on and on like that. I think he just needs to say, look, I thought that then, I believed that then. I don’t think my fellow soldiers were terrorists who committed atrocities on a routine basis. I don’t believe that anymore.

Also, more substantively, he — at one point, he said he virtually wanted to eliminate the CIA. And he’s complained since 9/11 that the CIA didn’t do a good enough job.

Again, it’s fine for him to change his views. I hope he has. But I think it would be wise for him to say, I’ve changed my views, we need the best intelligence agency the world has ever seen. And I think we need a stronger military. He needs to show what — how his thinking has changed, at least after 9/11, if not from also 1971 and that whole period.

LIN: Cliff, are you saying he’s a hypocrite?.

BEINART: Cliff has just done exactly what I said…

MAY: I think he needs to explain how his thinking has changed, assuming that it has changed. And I certainly hope that it has.

BEINART: The statements that Cliff is talking about — I just said this a minute ago — are statements that Vietnam veterans themselves have made about — there was a big conference of Vietnam veterans — conservatives never talk about this — that, in fact, where Vietnam veterans came forward and said, these are atrocities I committed.

Kerry was referring to those things they had said. He was not accusing them himself. And conservatives never mention that when they bring up this story. It’s not honest.

LIN: Well, Richard in Florida, Cliff, writes: “The idea of trying to make Kerry look like a Jane Fonda follower is nothing but a ploy to turn attention away from AWOL George Bush and his failure to give an adequate explanation for 18 months of not reporting to the National Guard. Payroll receipts won’t do it, and even the ‘evidence’ is suspect.”

“Kerry has never denied his opposition to the Vietnam War. In fact, he is proud of it, as he should be.”

MAY: I think there is nothing wrong with being opposed to the Vietnam War. I was opposed to the Vietnam War at that time. But some of the things he said and some of the things he repeated, saying that these people relive their experience in Vietnam, the absolute horror of what this country, in a sense, made them do, I do think he ought to discuss — it’s not necessarily hypocrisy. People do change their mind.

Look, at one point he said he threw his medals away. And it turns out he may have thrown someone else’s medals away incase he needed them. I do think those things are worth exploring just to understand the evolution of his thinking. And again, I hope that his thinking has evolved a great deal from those days.

LIN: You guys have made this an interesting hour. And I want to thank both of you, Peter Beinart of “The New Republic,” and Clifford May, Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. Obviously the debate continues on all of these issues.

Thanks much.