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Rep. Bartlett's war stories aren't getting better with age

November 20, 2005|By Tim Rowland

This weekend, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett took his third, fourth and fifth stabs at explaining his record of military service, or lack of same, after a contributor to the paper's letters-to-the-editor section lumped him in with other hawkish Republicans who are big on war - so long as someone else is doing the fighting.

This was a highly contentious issue back when Bartlett first ran for office in 1992, and it is one sleeping dog he should have left undisturbed.

The letter in question, authored by Rick Rottman of Hagerstown, makes this point: Those who have weaseled their way out of military service have no business banging the drums for war, thereby putting young men and women in the face of dangers that these warmongers were too chicken to face themselves.

"If an enlistment in the military was not something for any of these pro-war Americans, why should your son or daughter be any different?" Rottman wrote.

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Bartlett wrote in to "correct" the letter.

In his race against Tom Hattery, Bartlett's first explanation for his lack of military service - given at a public forum in front of 100 Chamber of Commerce members - was that he was too young to fight in World War II. But after an investigation that took all of 10 minutes, it turned out that Bartlett had turned 18 in June of 1944. Plenty of 18-year-olds younger than Bartlett were drafted and served.

Further digging revealed that Bartlett had sought and received a rare military deferral known as a 4-D - he wanted to become a minister, a pursuit that he dropped as soon as the war was over.

Flash forward 13 years to Rottman's letter and Bartlett's letter of "correction." In the first version he sent to The Herald-Mail, Bartlett contended that he was eligible to be drafted and expected to be drafted and planned to become a medic, since his religious views shunned actual combat.

To those involved in the 1992 campaign, this was the first anyone had heard of the medic defense. Besides, it just wasn't true. Bartlett wasn't drafted because he had a deferral, something he made no mention of in his original letter.

When the paper pointed out to him that his version of events radically conflicted with the public record, Bartlett revised his letter.

In this delicious explanation of the explanation, he gives the appearance that he went back to look at his Selective Service record and found, well what do you know, I did have a 4-D deferral. How did that get there?

"I don't know how or why the status was changed," he wrote.

Really now. Bartlett said he's sure he would have remembered something like that, but then this is a man who apparently forgot his own birthday.

Besides, it's a ludicrous contention, since his 4-D deferral was front-page news back in 1992, and he was loudly confronted about it by Hattery's campaign, which made hay of the fact that he dropped his theological pursuits on the termination of the war.

Certainly there will be more explanations to come, but with each one he paints himself into a tighter spot. If he says he first learned of this deferral in 1992, as it now seems he must, it would create three more problems.

First, in the midst of the greatest war America had ever known, draft boards weren't in the habit of handing out deferrals for no reason, or with no request. And even if it were all a big misunderstanding, why would Bartlett, in his original response to Rottman's letter, say that he was eligible to be drafted and expected to be drafted? Obviously he knew that wasn't the case. Even if he first learned of it in 1992, he clearly knew it was the case in 2005.

But the biggest nail in the "it was news to me" coffin are Bartlett's own words. Scrambling to cover his "too young" defense, Bartlett told the press in 1992 he sought the deferment and that his planned ministry "entitled me to a deferment for seminary students." Yesterday, Bartlett wrote "I don't know how or why" he showed up as a 4-D.

Either he was lying in 1992 or he is lying today, and I think we all know which it is. That's the trouble with fibs. If you tell one and get caught, then you need two more to cover the original. Then if those two are exposed you need to tell four.

The problem isn't so much military service. That issue is 60 years old, and if Bartlett hadn't punched the tar baby he is now stuck in, no one would have cared.

But the issue that is fresh is this: If Bartlett will stoop to deceit over something so far away from anyone's radar, how can we trust anything our representative says about anything else - about things that matter to us today?

This isn't just a Bartlett problem, this is a politicians-in-general problem. The knee-jerk reaction is to tell the people who put them in office something other than the truth. It's Bill Clinton telling us he didn't have sex with that woman when he did. It's Dick Cheney telling us he didn't let Big Oil help him write the nation's energy policy when he did. It's George Bush telling us there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq when there weren't.

What would have been so bad if, in 1992, Bartlett had said this: "My religious beliefs prevented me from participating in war."

People would have respected that. It may even be the truth. In the end, wouldn't that have been a whole lot easier?

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