"All Things Considered (8:00 PM ET) - NPR ©

March 30, 2004 Tuesday

This campaign season, there have been questions about whether George W. Bush fulfilled his obligations to the National Guard as a young lieutenant in the early 1970s. For weeks, reporters scoured Alabama in search of pilots or anyone who might have remembered seeing Mr. Bush at the time he was serving in the National Guard there. There is one place in Alabama where Mr. Bush was present nearly every day: the headquarters in Montgomery of US Senate candidate Winton "Red" Blount. President Bush has always said that working for Blount was the reason he transferred to the Alabama Air National Guard. NPR's Wade Goodwyn has this report about Mr. Bush's time on that campaign.

WADE GOODWYN reporting:

In 1972, Baba Groom was a smart, funny young woman smack-dab in the middle of an exciting US Senate campaign. Groom was Republican Red Blount's scheduler, and in that job, she was the hub in the campaign wheel. Ask her about the handsome young man from Texas, and she remembers him 32 years later like it was yesterday.

Ms. BABA GROOM (Former Campaign Worker): He would wear khaki trousers and some old jacket. He was always ready to go out on the road. On the phone, you could hear his accent. It was a Texas accent. But he just melded with everybody.

GOODWYN: The candidate Mr. Bush was working for, Red Blount, had gotten rich in Alabama in the construction business. Prominent Southern Republicans were something of a rare breed in those days. Blount's support of the party led him to be appointed Richard Nixon's postmaster general. In Washington, Blount became friends and tennis partners with Mr. Bush's father, then Congressman Bush. That was how 26-year-old Lieutenant Bush came to Montgomery, at his father's urging . . . It was Mr. Bush's job to organize the Republican county chairpersons in the 67 Alabama counties. Back in 1972 in the Deep South, many rural counties didn't have much in the way of official Republican Party apparatus. But throughout Alabama, there were Republicans and Democrats who wanted to help Red Blount. It was the young Texan's job to find out what each county leader needed in the way of campaign supplies and get those supplies to them. Groom says this job helped Mr. Bush understand how even in a statewide Senate campaign, politics are local.

. . . Murph Archibald is Red Blount's nephew by marriage, and in 1972, he was coming off a 15-month tour in Vietnam in the infantry. Archibald says that in a campaign full of dedicated workers, Mr. Bush was not one of them.

Mr. MURPH ARCHIBALD (Nephew of Red Blount): Well, I was coming in early in the morning and leaving in mid-evenings. Ordinarily, George would come in around noon; he would ordinarily leave around 5:30 or 6:00 in the evening.

GOODWYN: Archibald says that two months before the election, in September of '72, Red Blount's campaign manager came to him and asked that he quietly take over Mr. Bush's job because the campaign materials were not getting out to the counties.

Mr. ARCHIBALD: George certainly didn't seem to have any concerns about my taking over this work with the campaign workers there. My overall impression was that he didn't seem as interested in the campaign as the other people who were working at the state headquarters.

GOODWYN: Murph Archibald says that at first, he didn't know that Mr. Bush was serving in the Air National Guard. After he found out from somebody else, Archibald attempted to talk to Mr. Bush about it. The president was a lieutenant and Archibald had been a lieutenant, too; he figured they had something to talk about.

Mr. ARCHIBALD: George didn't have any interest at all in talking about the military. In fact, when I broached the subject with him, he simply changed the subject. He wasn't unpleasant about it, but he just changed the subject and wouldn't talk about it.

GOODWYN: Far from Texas and Washington, DC, Mr. Bush enjoyed his freedom. He dated a beautiful young woman working on the campaign. He went out in the evenings and had a good time. In fact, he left the house he rented in such disrepair--with damage to the walls and a chandelier destroyed--that the Montgomery family who owned it still grumble about the unpaid repair bill. Archibald says Mr. Bush would come into the office and, in a friendly way, offer up stories about the drinking he'd done the night before, kind of as a conversation starter.

Mr. ARCHIBALD: People have different ways of starting the days in any office. They're going to talk about their kids, they're going to talk about football, they're going to talk about the weather. And this was simply his opening gambit; he would start talking about that he had been out late the night before drinking.

GOODWYN: Archibald says the frequency with which Mr. Bush discussed the subject was off-putting to him.

Mr. ARCHIBALD: I mean, at that time, I was 28; George would have been 25 or 26. And I thought it was really unusual that someone in their mid-20s would initiate conversations, particularly in the context of something as serious as a US senatorial campaign, by talking about their drinking the night before. I thought it unusual and, frankly, inappropriate.

GOODWYN: According to Archibald, Mr. Bush would also sometimes tell stories about his days at Yale in New Haven, and how whenever he got pulled over for erratic driving, he was let go after the officers discovered he was the grandson of a Connecticut US senator. Archibald, a middle-class Alabama boy--who, by the way, is now a registered Democrat--didn't like that story.

Mr. ARCHIBALD: He told us whenever he was stopped, as soon as the law enforcement found out that he was the grandson of Prescott Bush, they would let him go. And he would always laugh about that. "