Facebook Twitter Tumblr Close Skip to main content
A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Bush A Military ‘Deserter?’ Calm Down, Michael

Clark backer Michael Moore calls President Bush a 'deserter' for missing Air National Guard drills 31 years ago. Puh-lease!


This one has been around since Bush’s campaign against Al Gore, when a Boston Globe story appeared saying the newspaper could find no record of Bush attending required Air National Guard drills for a full year in 1972-73. Bush says he missed some weekend drills during the period in question, but attended others and later attended extra drills to make up for those he missed. Several news organizations looked into the matter and reached mixed conclusions.

Web sites devoted to criticizing Bush have kept the matter under discussion on the Internet ever since. It surfaced again when Michael Moore, the populist author and movie and TV producer, called Bush a “deserter” at a rally supporting retired Gen. Wesley Clark in New Hampshire. Clark then said during a debate that “I think Michael Moore has the right to say whatever he feels about this.”

The fact is Bush was honorably discharged without ever being officially accused of desertion or being away without official leave.

(Note: On Feb. 10 Bush released previously undisclosed payroll and personnel records covering his service in 1973-73. See our separate article.)


‘The Top 5%’

After graduating from Yale in 1968, Bush escaped conscription and possible combat duty in the then-raging Vietnam War by getting into the Texas Air National Guard. During the next four years Bush served the equivalent of 21 months on active duty, according to the Globe account, including more than a year of flight training. The Globe quoted Bush’s flight instructor, retired Col. Maurice H. Udell, as saying “I would rank him in the top 5 percent of pilots I knew.”

The Globe also said:

Those who trained and flew with Bush . . . said he was among the best pilots in the 111th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron. In the 22-month period between the end of his flight training and his move to Alabama, Bush logged numerous hours of duty, well above the minimum requirements for so-called “weekend warriors.”

‘Began to Disappear’

But the Globe said Bush “began to disappear from the Guard’s radar screen” with two years still to run on his six-year commitment, giving up flying for good in 1972. Bush moved from Houston to Alabama in May of 1972 to take part in the unsuccessful Senate campaign of Republican Winton Blount. Bush was supposed to report for duty at the 187th Tactical Recon Group in Montgomery Alabama. But the unit’s commander at the time, retired Gen. William Turnipseed, was quoted by several news organizations as saying he had no recollection of Bush showing up. “I had been in Texas, done my  flight training there. If we had had a first lieutenant from Texas, I would have remembered,” the Globe quoted him saying.

The Globe quoted Bush as saying through his spokesman Dan Bartlett that he did recall reporting for non-flying duty in Alabama, performing “odds and ends” under supervisors whose names he could not recall.

‘I Fulfilled My Obligations’

Bush himself later was quoted directly by the Dallas Morning News as admitting he missed some weekend drills while in Alabama, but saying he made them up afterward:

Bush: “I was there on a temporary assignment and fulfilled my weekends at one period of time,” he said. “I made up some missed weekends.”

“I can’t remember what I did, but I wasn’t flying because they didn’t have the same airplanes. I fulfilled my obligations.”

Records are lacking for that period. However, The Associated Press  quoted two friends who worked with Bush in the Blount campaign as saying they recall him attending Air National Guard drills in Alabama. Joe Holcombe, described as a former Republican county chairman in Alabama, was quoted as saying, “It was pretty well-known that he was in the Guard while we worked on the campaign.” And Emily Marks, who said she had dated Bush during the campaign, was quoted saying, “He told us that he was having to do his Guard duty in Alabama while he worked on the campaign.” (Note: The AP originally gave the woman’s name as Emily Martin, but later corrected that to Emily Marks.)

Bush returned to Houston after the campaign, but never resumed flying. He spent 36 days on duty back in Houston in May, June and July of 1973, the Globe reported. Spokesman Bartlett told FactCheck.org that Bush made up for weekend drills he was too busy to attend in Alabama. “The bottom line is he met his minimum requirements for that year,” Bartlett said.

Bush requested and was granted special permission to end his six-year hitch eight months early. He was released in October 1973 to to allow him to attend Harvard Business School.

Reporters Dig In

After the Globe story, partisan Web sites denounced Bush as “AWOL” and worse. One is even named AwolBush.com. But other news organizations dug in and came to much milder conclusions.

George Magazine reported in October of 2000:

It’s time to set the record straight . . . . Bush may have received favorable treatment to get into the Guard, served irregularly after the spring of 1972 and got an expedited discharge, but he did accumulate the days of service required of him for his ultimate honorable discharge.

The New York Times reported Nov. 3, 2000:

But a review of records by The New York Times indicated that some of those concerns (about Bush’s absence) may be unfounded . . . . A review by The Times showed that after a seven-month gap, he appeared for duty in late November 1972 at least through July 1973.

The Washington Post also reviewed records and concluded:

It is safe to say that Bush did very light duty in his last two years in the Guard and that his superiors made it easy for him.

Some Democratic partisans have taken a much harsher view.

Democrats.com, a Web site that sells “Impeach Bush Now” bumper stickers, posted a rebuttal to the George Magazine piece saying “There is no credible evidence that Bush ever reported for duty for the last two years of his military obligation” and suggested “substance abuse as the most likely explanation.”

Michael Moore: ‘General vs. Deserter’

Michael Moore, in his bestselling book Stupid White Men, included an open letter to President Bush calling him “a possible felon, an unconvicted deserter, and a crybaby.”

Moore took it even further during a New Hampshire rally for Clark Jan. 17, predicting Clark would face Bush in the general election. “I want to see that debate, the general versus the deserter,” Moore said with Clark looking on.

Moore ’s “deserter” remark prompted ABC News Anchor Peter Jennings to confront Clark at a Democratic candidates debate Jan. 22:

Jennings: Now, that’s a reckless charge not supported by the facts. And I was curious to know why you didn’t contradict him . . .

Clark:  Well, I think Michael Moore has the right to say whatever he feels about this.I don’t know whether this is supported by the facts or not. I’ve never looked at it. I’ve seen this charge bandied about a lot. But to me it wasn’t material . . .

Jennings: Since this question and answer in which you and Mr. Moore was involved in, you’ve had a chance to look at the facts. Do you still feel comfortable with the fact that someone should be standing up in your presence and calling the president of the United States a deserter?

Clark: To be honest with you, I did not look at the facts, Peter. You know, that’s Michael Moore’s opinion. He’s entitled to say that. I’ve seen — he’s not the only person who’s said that. I’ve not followed up on those facts. And frankly, it’s not relevant to me and why I’m in this campaign.

Clark’s reluctance to contradict Moore was criticized the next day by the newspaper that started it all, the Boston Globe, which said in an editorial:

News reports, including some in the Globe , have questioned Bush’s constancy as a National Guard airman at the time, but he has not been credibly accused of desertion, a serious charge. Clark should have distanced himself from the remark.


Walter V. Robinson “One-year gap in Bush’s Guard duty : No records of airman at drills in 1972-73,” Boston Globe 23 May 2000: A1.

Wayne Slater “Records of Bush’s Ala. Military Service Can’t Be Found,” Dallas Morning News 26 June 2000: A6.

The Associated Press “Friends from Alabama days back Bush’s military claims,” Houston Chronicle 5 July 2000: A17.

Peter Keating and Karthik Thyagarajan “The Real Military Record of George W. Bush: Not Heroic, but Not AWOL, Either ,” George Magazine October 2000.

Jo Thomas “The 2000 Campaign: Military Service; Bush’s Guard attendance is Questioned and Defended,” New York Times 3 Nov. 2000: A27.

Bob Fertik “George Magazine is Wrong,” Democrats.com Web site, no date given.

George Lardner Jr.; Howard Kurtz “2 Democrats: Bush Let Guard Down; Gore Surrogates Revive Issue of Apparent Laxity in Candidate’s Military Service,” The Washington Post 3 Nov. 2000 : A22.

Eric Slater, “Clark Showcases Mixed Bag of Backers in New Hampshire; Filmmakers, former Clinton advisors and others stump for the Democratic hopeful” Los Angeles Times 18 Jan. 2004: A23.

“Answers Beat Questions,” Boston Globe editorial 23 Jan. 2004.