WASHINGTON – President Bush says he would authorize the release of any records that remain to answer critics who question whether he skipped duty with the Air National Guard in Alabama during the Vietnam War.

“There may be no evidence, but I did report,” Bush said. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been honorably discharged … I did show up in Alabama.”

Bush discussed his military service during an hourlong interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” that was taped Saturday in the Oval Office and broadcast Sunday.

Dismissing renewed questions about his service as “politics,” Bush said they have been raised since he first ran for governor of Texas.

“I’m used to it,” he said. “What I don’t like is when people say serving in the guard is … not be a true service.”

The issue has been pushed in recent days by Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee. He has charged that Bush was absent without leave during a stint in 1972 with the Alabama Air National Guard.

Bush had requested and received a reassignment from Texas to Alabama so he could work on a Republican U.S. Senate campaign.

None of the records available so far, though, confirm that he reported to his various guard duties as a fighter pilot in Alabama, and no witnesses have come forward to report that they saw him on duty.

Bush said available records were released during the 2000 campaign and were “scoured” by reporters.

Deputy White House press secretary Claire Buchan said Sunday that Bush had previously authorized the release of his military records. “They released everything they had,” she said.

Bush, who was discharged on Oct. 1, 1973, said that he had “worked it out with the military” to leave eight months before his service contract expired to attend the Harvard Business School.

Asked if he had supported the war in Vietnam, Bush said, “I supported my government … And I would have gone had my unit been called up.”

His comments, though, didn’t stem the flow of criticism.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam veteran who is the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, said Sunday that Bush’s honorable discharge didn’t answer the lingering questions about his service in Alabama.

“Today’s Guard is a very different Guard from what existed in 1968, ’67, ’69,” he told reports in Virginia where he was campaigning for Tuesday’s primary. “Anybody who lived in those periods of time will tell you that there were many people who chose to go to the Guard because the odds of ending up going to Vietnam were very low.”

And former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean said he believed Bush’s military record should be scrutinized the same way his physical deferment has been.

“The question is: Had the president not been a son of a congressman, would he have been able to be honorably discharged under the circumstances?” Dean said on CNN’s “Late Edition” with Wolf Blitzer.

Bush’s father, the former president, served two terms in the U.S. House from Houston during the late 1960s.

In his interview with Russert, the president said that, looking back, he was troubled by the Vietnam War because “it was a political war.”

“We had politicians making military decisions,” he said. “And it is lessons that any president must learn – and that is to set the goal and the objective and allow the military to come up with the plans to achieve that objective.”

(c) 2004, The Dallas Morning News.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-02-08-04 2020EST

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