The Bush-Dean chutzpah war.

The Bush-Dean chutzpah war.

The Bush-Dean chutzpah war.

Politics and policy.
Dec. 2 2003 5:16 PM

Takes One To Know One

In the chutzpah war, Dean has Bush's draft number.

Defensive move on defense
Defensive move on defense

Is Howard Dean nuts?

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

According to the Washington Post, here's what Dean said about President Bush in New Hampshire Sunday:

1) Bush has "no understanding of defense." "Mr. President, if you'll pardon me, I'll teach you a little about defense."

2) "He's made us weaker. He doesn't understand what it takes to defend this country, that you have to have high moral purpose. He doesn't understand that you better keep troop morale high rather than just flying over for Thanksgiving."

3) Bush lacks "the backbone to stand up against the Saudis," who are funding radical Muslim schools "to train the next generation of suicide bombers."

4) "The president is about to let North Korea become a nuclear power."

5) Bush "cut 164,000 veterans off" from medical benefits and at one point said "he was going to cut the combat pay" for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Here's how the Concord Monitor described Dean's comment at one of Sunday's events: "While Dean likes to listen to knowledgeable advisers, he said, the current administration waged war in Iraq on the basis of decision-makers who either never served in a foreign conflict or served in the National Guard. Meanwhile, Dean said, the one adviser 'who actually ever experienced combat abroad,' U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, was ignored."

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Let's recap. A guy who has no foreign policy experience, opposed the war in Iraq, and went skiing after he escaped the Vietnam draft because of a bad back is calling a wartime president soft on defense. And despite cries of outrage from Republican pundits, luminaries, and party organs, he isn't letting up. Monday on Hardball, Dean said, "This president, I don't believe, has any idea how to fight terror. …  This president has wasted 15 months or more doing nothing about the fact that North Korea is almost certainly a nuclear power, [and] we can't tolerate North Korea as a nuclear power." On Crossfire, Dean adviser Steve McMahon reiterated that Bush had tried to cut veterans' benefits. Coming to McMahon's aid, Democratic pugilist James Carville charged that Bush has "stretched our military to the point that we're weaker today. And he's created terror."

Where did Dean and his lieutenants get this kind of gall? Maybe from the guy they're attacking. In February 2000, Bush, a governor with no foreign policy experience, faced ex-POW John McCain in the do-or-die South Carolina Republican presidential primary. What was Bush's military record? He had joined the Texas Air National Guard to escape the Vietnam draft. A former speaker of the Texas House had sworn in an affidavit that he had made phone calls, at the behest of a friend of Bush's father, to get Bush into the Guard. As the Boston Globe later discovered from interviews and government documents, Bush "was all but unaccounted for" during the latter part of his Guard service. "For a full year, there is no record that he showed up for the periodic drills required of part-time guardsmen," the Globe reported.

From May to November 1972, Bush was in Alabama working in a US Senate campaign, and was required to attend drills at an Air National Guard unit in Montgomery. But there is no evidence in his record that he did so. And William Turnipseed, the retired general who commanded the Alabama unit back then, said in an interview last week that Bush never appeared for duty there. …  After the election, Bush returned to Houston. But seven months later, in May 1973, his two superior officers at Ellington Air Force Base could not perform his annual evaluation covering the year from May 1, 1972 to April 30, 1973 because, they wrote, "Lt. Bush has not been observed at this unit during the period of this report."

Ultimately, Bush requested and received an early discharge to attend Harvard Business School.

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Was Bush chastened by his embarrassing history? Not a bit. On Feb. 3, 2000, he staged a rally in Sumter, S.C., to trumpet his support from veterans' groups. According to firsthand reports, Bush stood by smiling as Tom Burch, the head of the National Vietnam and Gulf War Veterans Coalition, accused McCain of opposing health care for Gulf War veterans and efforts to locate POW-MIAs in Vietnam. Bush followed with a speech in which he warned, "We must have a commander-in-chief who understands the role of the military." The Los Angeles Times reported that "Bush, continuing his offensive at a news conference … then accused McCain of not doing enough for veterans suffering from ailments related to military service, such as Gulf War Syndrome." When he was asked about Burch's comments, Bush replied that the veterans who had spoken at the rally "looked at both of us and they have chosen me to be the nominee. I'm proud of that."

Three days later on Face the Nation, Bush adviser Karl Rove bragged, "Gov. Bush has drawn the support of veterans in South Carolina because he's strong on national defense and because there's a big difference between the two candidates: One believes there ought to be an overall increase in the defense budget, and the other candidate, Sen. McCain, says he does not believe that we need to increase the defense budget." Bush then brought in a new surrogate, Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Texas, who told the crowd at another South Carolina rally, "I happened to be with McCain for the last year and a half in the prison camp over there in Vietnam and I know him pretty well. And I know him pretty well from the Congress too. And I can tell you, he cannot hold a candle to George Bush."

McCain's supporters derided these attacks, joked about Bush's draft avoidance, and predicted that at least 60 percent of South Carolina veterans would cast their ballots for McCain. They were wrong. McCain got 48 percent of the veterans' vote. Bush got 47 percent and won the primary, dooming McCain's candidacy.

But Bush was just getting warmed up. In 2002, he captured the Senate by staging a fight over the role of labor unions in the Department of Homeland Security—and accusing Democrats who opposed him on that issue of endangering the nation. In the 2004 campaign, he's at it again. Last week, the GOP aired a TV ad that accused Bush's opponents of "attacking the President for attacking the terrorists." Never mind that two of the ad's implicit targets, John Kerry and Wesley Clark, took bullets in Vietnam while Bush was guarding the Mexican border, or licking campaign envelopes in Alabama, or doing whatever he was doing when he wasn't where he was supposed to be. Never mind that Max Cleland, one of the senators Bush ousted with his "homeland security" ruse in 2002, lost three limbs in the war Bush ducked. Now Republicans go around quoting Cleland on how Dean "weaseled out" of Vietnam. And they accuse Dean of chutzpah.

It's been said before that Dean and Bush share an aristocratic Yankee heritage. To the unwary, this means they're soft. Democrats learned the hard way that when it comes to politics, if not war, Bush has no shame and takes no prisoners. Now Republicans will learn the same about Dean.