Ben Barnes in Heavy Rotation

Old stories become big news in the presidential race

There's no news like old news. Thanks to the Web, the Ben Barnes/George W. Bush/GTech tale is circulating once again, after the Austin for Kerry Web site posted a brief video clip of Barnes recalling – and deeply regretting – his long-ago (1968) assistance in helping young Dubya escape the Vietnam-era draft by arranging his entry into the Texas Air National Guard. Last May 27, Barnes told a crowd of Kerry supporters at a Mother Egan's "MeetUp" that, "I got a young man named George W. Bush into the Texas National Guard when I was lieutenant governor [actually Texas House Speaker]. "Barnes said that he was moved to remorse by a visit to the Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in D.C., and continued, "It was the worst thing I did, was help a lot of wealthy supporters and a lot of people who had family names of importance get into the National Guard. And I'm very sorry of that and I'm very ashamed, and I apologize to you as the voters of Texas."

Three months later, the story got nationwide replay over the weekend, boosted by an e-mail from Bush's Brain co-author James Moore tipping news organizations to the Barnes video – and perhaps because reporters had tired of endlessly rehashing Kerry's war record. (Subsequent "overwhelming" traffic brought down the Austin4Kerry.org site; the Barnes video was at press time being mirrored at media.greaterdemocracy.org.) But the Barnes story was not really "news" back in May; it last made the Texas headlines back in 1999, when Barnes testified to it in a lawsuit brought against GTech, the contractor that operates the Texas Lottery. At the time, the widespread rumor was that GTech, for whom Barnes was lobbying in 1998, got favorable treatment from the state in return for Barnes' keeping quiet about the National Guard story. In one unsubstantiated version, relentlessly flogged by reporter Greg Palast (The Best Democracy Money Can Buy), Barnes' subsequent $23 million severance package from GTech was in fact a payoff for his silence.

The original rumors also held that then-U.S. Rep. George H.W. Bush himself had asked Barnes to get his son into the Guard. However, Barnes testified instead that the late Houston oilman (and Bush buddy) Sidney Adger, not Bush's family, had interceded on young George's behalf – a loophole that allowed the then governor (already a presidential hopeful) to claim (as he does still) that he knew nothing about it.

Barnes (on tap for 60 Minutes Sunday) did not return a call requesting comment, but the real news in his May confession was his frankness on politics-as-usual in Texas: "I got a lot of other people in the National Guard because I thought that was what people should do when you're in office. You help a lot of rich people." The Adger cut-out to Barnes only confirms the discreet good-ol'-boy approach to bidness: George H.W. Bush didn't need to make the request personally on behalf of his soon-to-be draft-eligible son because Adger (a Barnes contributor known in Houston as "The King," whose own sons received similar favors) would do it for him. "It was a commonplace story," wrote former Chronicle news editor Louis Dubose in the Feb. 13 LA Weekly. "A young man of privilege ends up in a National Guard unit that looks like a polo team without horses." (See "George and the Guard," www.laweekly.com/ink/04/12/news-dubose.php.)

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Election 2004, Ben Barnes, GTech, George W. Bush, Sidney Adger, George H.W. Bush, Louis Dubose

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