If the commander in chief's Air National Guard unit had been called up to serve in the Vietnam War, the younger George W. Bush (search) would have gladly gone overseas, the president said in an exclusive interview with FOX News.
"I was on active duty for a little over a year and a half and I proudly served. And had my unit been called up, I’d have gone," Bush told FOX News' Bill O'Reilly in a three-part interview, the second portion of which will air Tuesday night at 8 p.m. EDT. "I fulfilled my duties … I did exactly what my commanders told me to do," Bush said.
The comment comes as controversy continues to brew over whether Bush received preferential treatment to get into the Texas Air National Guard (search) more than 35 years ago to avoid going into active duty.
Asked if he thought he got special preferential treatment getting into the Air Guard, Bush responded: "No. I don’t. As a matter of fact, the general that, or the commander of the unit, Buck Staudt, said, said the same thing: 'No.'"
Ret. Col. Walter Staudt (search), who commanded the Texas Air National Guard in which then-Lt. George Bush served three decades ago, said the president received no favoritism in getting into the Guard and that his record was never "sugarcoated," as questionable memos aired by CBS earlier this month alleged.
Staudt said Bush was "highly qualified" and that the CBS (search) report was erroneous. CBS has since come out and said the source of those memos wasn't legitimate and is investigating the authenticity of the documents.
Bush noted again that he was honorably discharged from the Guard and had about 570 flying hours under his belt by then.
Bush Won't Take On Media Right Now
O'Reilly, host of FOX News' "The O'Reilly Factor," asked the president in the interview if, in light of the CBS fiasco, he thinks he gets a fair shake from the network news and media outlets like The New York Times. Bush said he knows better than to take on the press in the middle of a campaign and that it's "up for the people to decide."
"You know, I just tell people what I think. And I try to be as clear as I can be," Bush said. "You know, when it’s all said and done, and people look at this campaign, they're going to have to decide whether or not they want somebody who tells them what he believes and doesn’t change positions based upon pressure and polls or, or articles in newspapers."
Another topic that's taken the media by storm in the last few months leading up to the election is John Kerry's Vietnam service.
Groups like Swift Boat Veterans for Truth (search) charge that the Massachusetts senator doesn’t deserve all of the medals and Purple Hearts he earned during the war and have launched attack ads against him, trying to discredit the candidate.
Whereas Democrats accuse the Bush-Cheney camp for being behind such ads, the president's team says it has nothing to do with them. Bush has called for all unregulated 527 groups such as that behind the swift boat vets to be eliminated.
"I think that these ads, first of all, I said clearly, all these ads, these 527s, where billionaires fund the campaigns, ought to be gone," Bush told O'Reilly.
Bush said he has never diminished Kerry's claims about his own Vietnam military service.
"I said, no, he didn't lie. That was my judgment. I don't know enough about the Swift Boat people; I do know that they’ve got strong opinions, and I believed that those ads as well as other types of ads shouldn’t have been on the air," the president said.
Bush also maintained that he didn't know anything about the ads before they were aired.
A Country Divided
O'Reilly also asked the president why the country is so divided on the issue of Iraq and on the presidential race.
"Well, it was pretty divided in the 2000 elections, I recall," Bush said, laughing. "We’ve been united at times during my presidency. We were united after Sept. 11, we were united going into Afghanistan. … We’ll see how polarized it is on Election Day, for starters. … The Iraq war was a polarizing event because a lot of people didn't see the wisdom of going into Iraq."
Saying "everyone" — including his opponent — saw a threat in Saddam Hussein, Bush said, "I believe that we have to take threats seriously before they fully materialize.
"If Saddam Hussein were in power today, we’d be a heck of a lot worse off," he added. "And it’s really important for our citizens to understand that. This is a guy that had the capability of making weapons. I believe he was trying to delay and hope that the world would turn its head once again."
On the domestic front, Bush also said he believes he can balance the budget and cut the deficit in half in five years if Congress is "fiscally wise with our money."
Saying "everybody who pays taxes ought to get relief," the president added that 35 percent "is enough for anybody to pay in federal taxes." He said if taxes are raised on the rich, that would also amount to a hike for small-business owners.
"I think raising taxes would be a mistake, and my opponent’s going to raise taxes," Bush said.
On the issue of health care, Bush said the federal government has an "obligation" to help those who cannot help themselves and can provide places like community centers to provide care to those who can't go to emergency rooms or hospitals.
He also said the Medicare bill he signed modernizes the health program, gives seniors more choices and provides an effective prescription-drug benefit program.
"It is a good piece of legislation that honors an obligation to our seniors," Bush said.
In the portion of the interview that aired Monday night, Bush said he wouldn't think twice about donning a flight suit and boarding an aircraft carrier again to thank U.S. troops personally for fighting abroad.
"These kids had been on a very long cruise," Bush told O'Reilly. "They'd been on a cruise to both, in two theaters of war now, Afghanistan and Iraq. I flew out there, and said, 'Thanks. Thanks on behalf of a grateful nation.' You bet I'd do it again."
O'Reilly told FOX News on Tuesday that the interview is 100 percent Bush, uncut and unedited, that viewers will see.
"We didn't cut it, we didn't do anything to it, we gave him a fair shake," O'Reilly said.
When asked by FOX News' Shepard Smith why his usual raging tone and demeanor wasn't used toward the president, as it is toward many of his guests, O'Reilly said it's all about respect.
"There are three people in the world I have to be different with when I interview: the president, the pope and my mother," O'Reilly said. "You have to be respectful to the office. I pushed the president … as far as I could on the border, on Iran. … Here, I'm trying to give the viewer an insight to who the man is and if Sen. Kerry comes in, I'll treat him the same way."