The of the two men running for president have become part of the political arsenal in this campaign – a tool for building up, or blowing up, each candidate's credibility as America's next commander-in-chief.
While Sen. Kerry has been targeted for what he did in Vietnam, President Bush has been by landing a spot in the Texas Air National Guard - and then failing to meet some of his obligations.
Did then-Lt. Bush fulfill all of his military obligations? And just how did he land that spot in the National Guard in the first place? Correspondent Dan Rather has new information on the president's military service – and the first-ever interview with the man who says he pulled strings to get young George W. Bush into the Texas Air National Guard.
It was May 1968, and Vietnam was in flames. In that month, more than 2,000 Americans were killed in combat, and the draft was siphoning thousands more into the jungle.
George W. Bush had just graduated from Yale, and faced the prospect of being drafted himself. But former Texas House Speaker and Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes says he helped keep that from happening.
So what happened with Mr. Bush, the draft and the National Guard? And why is Barnes finally telling his story?
"First of all, I want to say that I'm not here to bring any harm to George Bush's reputation or his career. I was contacted by people from the very beginning of his political career, when he ran for governor, and then when he ran for president, and now he's running for re-election," says Barnes.
"I've had hundreds of phone calls from people wanting to know the story. And I've been quoted and misquoted. And the reason I am here today … is that I really want to tell the story. And I want to tell it one time. And get it behind us. And again, it is not about George Bush's political career. This is about what the truth is."
Barnes is a Democrat who is now actively raising money for Sen. John Kerry. But he was also a Democrat back in 1968, and serving as Texas speaker of the House. At 29, Barnes was a protégé of President Lyndon Johnson. But in keeping with the times, he wielded clout and connections to build a powerful political base.
A few months before Mr. Bush would become eligible for the draft, Barnes says he had a meeting with the late oilman Sid Adger, a friend to both Barnes and then-Congressman George Bush.
"It's been a long time ago, but he said basically would I help young George Bush get in the Air National Guard," says Barnes, who then contacted his longtime friend Gen. James Rose, the head of Texas' Air National Guard.
"I was a young, ambitious politician doing what I thought was acceptable," says Barnes. "It was important to make friends. And I recommended a lot of people for the National Guard during the Vietnam era - as speaker of the house and as lt. governor."
George W. Bush was among those he recommended for the National Guard. Was this a case of preferential treatment?
"I would describe it as preferential treatment. There were hundreds of names on the list of people wanting to get into the Air National Guard or the Army National Guard," says Barnes. "I think that would have been a preference to anybody that didn't want to go to Vietnam or didn't want to leave. We had a lot of young men that left and went to Canada in the '60s and fled this country. But those that could get in the Reserves, or those that could get in the National Guard - chances are they would not have to go to Vietnam."
This is the first time Barnes has told his story publicly, but for years, the president has been hounded by questions about how he got in the National Guard.
"Any allegation that my dad asked for special favors is simply not true," said Mr. Bush. "And the former president of the United States has said that he in no way, shape or form helped me get into the National Guard. I didn't ask anyone to help me get into the Guard either."
In an interview today with Senior White House Correspondent John Roberts, the president's communication director, Dan Bartlett, repeated that denial.
Bartlett said this was all part of the Kerry campaign. "I chalk it up to the politics they play down in Texas. I've been there. I've seen how it works. But the bottom line is that there's no truth to this," he says.
"The fact that 55 days before an election that partisan Democrats are recycling the very same charges we hear every President Bush runs for reelection. It is dirty politics."
Then-Lt. Bush went to Georgia, and completed a difficult pilot training program. He was assigned to duty in Houston, flying F-102s out of Ellington Air Force Base.
Today on the airbase, a mothballed F-102 is emblazoned with the president's name. But even in 1970, then-Lt. Bush was already something of a celebrity at the airfield. A press release issued that year by his unit points out that the young lieutenant is the son of the local congressman.
Mr. Bush had signed a six-year commitment to fly for the Air Guard, and early on, the young pilot got glowing evaluations from his squadron commander, Col. Jerry Killian.
Killian called Lt. Bush "an exceptionally fine young officer and pilot" who "performed in an outstanding manner." That is part of the public record.
But 60 Minutes has obtained a number of documents we are told were taken from Col. Killian's personal file. Among them, a never-before-seen memorandum from May 1972, where Killian writes that Lt. Bush called him to talk about "how he can get out of coming to drill from now through November."
Lt. Bush tells his commander "he is working on a campaign in Alabama…. and may not have time to take his physical." Killian adds that he thinks Lt. Bush has gone over his head, and is "talking to someone upstairs."
Col. Killian died in 1984. 60 Minutes consulted a handwriting analyst and document expert who believes the material is authentic.
Robert Strong was a friend and colleague of Col. Killian who ran the Texas Air National Guard administrative office in the Vietnam era. Strong, now a college professor, believes these documents are genuine.
"They are compatible with the way business was done at the time. They are compatible with the man that I remember Jerry Killian being," says Strong. "I don't see anything in the documents that is discordant with what were the times, what was the situation and what were the people involved."
"He [Killian] was a straight-arrow guy," adds Strong. "He really was. I was very fond of him, liked him personally. Very professional man, a career pilot. He took his responsibilities very, very seriously."
In a memo from Aug. 18, 1973, Col. Killian says Col. Buck Staudt, the man in charge of the Texas Air National Guard, is putting on pressure to "sugar coat" the evaluation of Lt. Bush. Staudt, a longtime supporter of the Bush family, would not do an interview for this broadcast.
The memo continues, with Killian saying, "I'm having trouble running interference and doing my job."
"He was trying to deal with a volatile political situation, in dealing with the son of an ambassador and former congressman," says Strong. "He was trying to deal with at least one superior officer, Gen. Staudt, who was closely connected to the Houston political establishment. And I just see an impossible situation. I feel very, very sorry, because he was between a rock and a hard place."
One of the Killian memos is an official order to George W. Bush to report for a physical. The president never carried out the order.
On Aug. 1, 1972, Lt. Bush was suspended from flying status, due to failure to accomplish his annual medical examination. That document was released years ago. But another document has not been seen until now. It's a memo that Col. Jerry Killian put in his own file that same day. It says "on this date, I ordered that 1st Lt. Bush be suspended not just for failing to take a physical….but for failing to perform to U.S. Air Force/Texas Air National Guard standards."
He goes on: "The officer [then-Lt. Bush] has made no attempt to meet his training certification or flight physical."
Correspondent John Roberts talked with the president's communications director, Dan Bartlett, and asked about Col. Killians' order for Lt. Bush to take a physical.
"The memorandum in your possession shows that he spoke to the commander who made that order to talk about his personal situation and the fact that he is going to Alabama," says Bartlett. "So at every step of the way, President Bush was meeting his requirement. Granted permission to meet his requirement. And that's why President Bush was honorably discharged."
However, the questions about Vietnam still follow President Bush and Ben Barnes - and every American who remembers where they were, and what they did during Vietnam.
"By 1968, casualties in Vietnam were running high," Rather says to Barnes. "Did you or did you not think at that time, 'I'm a little uncomfortable with this,' or did you have long talks with your conscience? Did you say to yourself, 'I'm a little uncomfortable with doing this?'"
"It would be very easy for me to sit here and tell you that I had wrestled with this and lost a lot of sleep at night, but I wouldn't be telling you the truth," says Barnes. "I very … not eagerly… but readily was willing to call and get those young men into the national guard that were friends of mine and supporters of mine. And I did it. Reflecting back, I'm very sorry about it. But you know, it happened. And it was because of my ambition, my youth and my lack of understanding. But it happened. And it's not something I'm necessarily proud of."
Didn't conscience come into play here? Strong says it did. "But conscience is a very individual thing. This is the way power works. What you saw is the way power works," says Strong.
"Power begets power. Power goes to power to get more power. If you have a little bit of power and someone offers you an opportunity to gain more power by doing power a favor, then this is what power does. It trades on itself. It feeds on itself. This is the way the system worked. This is the way the state government worked. This is the way the Guard worked."
Thirty years after the fact, Barnes says he is one of many Americans still trying to make peace with what he did during the war.
"I've thought about it an awful lot. And you walk through the Vietnam memorial, particularly at night like I did a few months ago, and I tell you, you'll think about it a long time," says Barnes.
"I don't think I had any right to have the power that I had, to choose who was going to go to Vietnam and who was not going to go to Vietnam. That's power. In some instances, when I looked at those names, I was maybe determining life or death. And that's not a power that I want to have."
"Too strong or not to say that you are ashamed of it now," asks Rather.
"Oh, I think that would be somewhat of an appropriate thing," says Barnes. "I'm very, very sorry."