Spinning the Guard

September 16, 2004

IF POLITICS were logical, President Bush might be expected to steer clear of any assemblage of National Guard members.

After all, he's ordered the largest overseas deployment of Guard troops since World War II -- they now constitute one-third of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and he's extended their tours so often that guardsmen and women have been subject to a de facto draft.

Further, the administration stoutly resisted congressional efforts to expand military health care benefits for Guard members and their families.

Then there's that murky business about Mr. Bush's own days in the National Guard. The current flap about related memos notwithstanding, there's no dispute that Mr. Bush was able to avoid service in Vietnam by landing what was then a coveted spot in the Guard, and that his attendance record was spotty.

But in an arena where style matters more than substance, Mr. Bush didn't dodge this record. He marched right into a conference of the National Guard Association this week and boasted about it.

He was proud, he said, to be one of 19 presidents who served in the Guard; he sympathized with the hardships of call-ups, alerts and mobilizations; and he claimed credit for extending military health benefits to Guard families 90 days before and six months after active-duty service -- though Congress all but shoved the provision down his throat.

You've got to admire the guy's nerve. He's clearly calculated that if he acts like he's got nothing to feel guilty about, people will assume that's the case. Certainly, he got no complaints from the audience, which cheered him heartily.

In fact, polls show Mr. Bush has a large and growing lead among veterans in his contest with Democratic nominee John Kerry, a decorated veteran who volunteered for combat duty in Vietnam.

Mr. Kerry is expected to address the National Guard conference today, focusing on Mr. Bush's "go it alone" war in Iraq, which he calls a "catastrophic" decision that has resulted in the loss of more than 1,000 U.S. troops and has needlessly overextended Guard and Reserve forces. The challenger is supported in that view by a group called Military Families Speak Out, which argues that Guard members who signed up to "stay at home and serve their country" should never have been sent overseas.

But in the through-the-looking-glass world of politics, Mr. Kerry has been unable to strike a chord with most of the military folks who should be a natural constituency. They've been more receptive to attacks on his combat heroism than to questions about Mr. Bush's stateside service, and tell pollsters they are more comfortable with Mr. Bush as commander in chief.

Seems like acting the part shouldn't be more important than living it, but perhaps that makes too much sense.

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