Washington Prowler

One Last Smear

Bush better be on his Guard. Plus: Kerry better be careful. Clappers in Nashville.

By 9.2.04

BEN THERE
It's not October, but the Kerry campaign is playing perhaps its final card for a surprise with the help of Dan Rather and "60 Minutes." On Wednesday, stories began breaking that Ben Barnes, the former speaker of the Texas House of Representatives and former lieutenant governor, was breaking his off and on silence and telling how he pulled strings to get a then-young George W. Bush into the Texas National Guard.

Barnes has consistently told reporters for years that no Bush family member ever directly contacted him for assistance in getting the young Bush into the Guard, but that Sidney Adger, a Houston businessman and friend of the Bush family, made the request. Adger is now deceased. At the time, George H.W. Bush was a U.S. congressman. Barnes has said that he did for Bush what he had done for the sons of other well-connected Texas families.

Every senior Texas National Guard official has stated that no favoritism was shown for Bush, and that Bush served honorably during his time in the National Guard.

Today, Barnes is a major fundraiser for the Kerry campaign. According to a CBS News employee who has seen raw interview footage, CBS will attempt to put together a story that creates the impression that the Bush family attempted to appeal to Barnes directly and that Barnes for years suffered from undue pressure.

"Barnes goes into a lot of detail," says the CBS source. "He will make similar charges to those he's made in the last few weeks. But the story is going to make it appear that Barnes was personally lobbied by the Bush family and that the Bush family for decades has put pressure on Barnes to keep quiet and to sing from the same songbook."

If this is the case, Barnes has some explaining to do. Barnes has for years discussed his role in the National Guard controversy, at one point laying out in a formal court deposition that it was Bush family friends who made the request. At other times with reporters, he has consistently claimed that no Bush family member contacted him for assistance in recommending Bush for Guard duty.

"He has had opportunity after opportunity to reverse his story and he has never done so," says a longtime Bush associate. "Every time this story has been dredged up, Barnes has been forthright that he did what he did, but not at the direct behest of the Bush family."

Just recently, Barnes, at the request of the Kerry campaign, made a videotape at a fundraising event in Texas that was distributed to reporters by Kerry operatives. On it, Barnes explained that, as lieutenant governor, he had recommended Bush for National Guard service. One problem: Barnes wasn't lieutenant governor at the time. But this would be quibbling.

"Barnes comes off as very sympathetic," says the news producer. "This is a guy who has been under intense, brutal pressure from a family that is very powerful in Texas. You get the impression that he just can't take it anymore.

The CBS news source says that this Bush project is one that Dan Rather has been pushing for months. Former "60 Minutes" executive producer Don Hewitt had thought little of the project, claiming it was old news. Hewitt is now retired.

"This is clearly the Kerry campaign's response to the Swift Vets controversy, and we predicted that it would happen," says the Bush associate. "We've known it would come back at some point."

"Mr. Barnes is his own man. We have had nothing to do with his decision to go public about his role in helping President Bush avoid serving his country in Vietnam," says a Democratic operative in New York to help the DNC pushback on the GOP convention. "But Democrats for months, years, even have said the President Bush has not been forthcoming about his time or lack thereof in the National Guard. It would not be surprising if there were people who could add to the narrative."

WE'LL ALWAYS HAVE PARIS
The John Kerry camp should be careful about how much mud it flings. According to media sources in New York for the campaign, a number of national media outlets have already completed or close to completing several major investigations into possible Kerry fundraising irregularities, as well as what one media source calls "devastating" stories of Kerry's time in Paris when he was meeting with Communist Vietnamese officials.

"Americans have no idea what Kerry was doing during that time in Paris," says a journalist. "It makes the Swift Boat ads look lightweight by comparison."

FALLING ON DEAF CHEERS
Reports of the reception Sen. John Kerry received in Nashville at the American Legion convention were greatly exaggerated, and perhaps gave lie to how desperately some media covering the campaign want Kerry to bounce back against the momentum-laden Republicans.

True, Kerry received a standing ovation upon his entrance and exit from the stage, but both were started by Kerry campaign staffers seeded throughout the hall. Kerry's biggest applause lines occurred when he introduced former Sen. John Glenn. After that, virtually all of Kerry's applause lines were started by Kerry staff that mostly lined the right side of the convention hall.

"He kept looking over that way, as though he were looking for reassurance from someone," says a reporter on the ground at the speech. "He was clearly wary of coming here, given the reception the President got yesterday."

Kerry generally received polite applause, but ended up rolling through at least seven applause lines to avoid the uncomfortable lack of enthusiasm some of his early lines garnered.

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