AUSTIN, Texas --- Oh for heaven's sake, doesn't anyone know how to research a story anymore? I have never seen anything as silly as this ridiculous Republican chorus that, aha!, Ben Barnes is a Democrat and so we know he's lying!

        The question is not whether Ben Barnes is a Democrat. Ben Barnes has never claimed to be nonpartisan or not to have any affiliation with the Kerry campaign. Of course he does. He's been a major Democratic player for years. The question is whether Ben Barnes is telling the truth about how he got George W. Bush in the Texas Air National Guard.

        The ridiculous little blowhard Sean Hannity crowed on Fox "News" that "Ben Barnes testified under oath in 1999 that no member of the Bush family ever contacted him about getting into the Air National Guard." How true. Nor has he changed his story one whit. Barnes testified in 1999 that the man who called him about little George Bush was Sid Adger, Poppy George Bush's dear and good friend. Let's ask Poppy about Sid Adger and see some of that "famous Bush loyalty."

        And how would Adger know whom to call? Adger had two sons in that very unit of the Air National Guard, that's how he knew whom to call. The notorious "Champagne Unit" of the Guard was also graced by the son of former Gov. John Connally, both sons of Sen. Lloyd Bentsen, Bobby Sakowaitz (Houston department store money), the grandson of H.L. Hunt (Dallas Oil) and several players for the Dallas Cowboys football team. Anyone who thinks that is just a coincidence or some kind of freaking accident probably thinks Sean Hannity is a journalist.

        I listened to Dick Armey chuckle about how "everybody in Texas knows Ben Barnes is a partisan Democrat," as though that were enough to discredit him. Is it possible to be a nonpartisan Democrat? I'll tell you something else damn near everybody in the Texas political world has known for years, and that is that during the Vietnam War Ben Barnes was the guy you went to if you wanted to keep your kid out of Vietnam. All you had to do (if you were a player) was call him, and he'd call Gen. Rose at the Guard. Our late Lt. Gov. Bob Bullock told me that at least 30 years ago: It was almost common knowledge in Austin. Barnes never talked about it because he was ashamed of it. I admire him for coming out with it and for taking the heat for it now -- he knew this would be no picnic.

        I didn't write about Barnes' actions until 1999 because I couldn't get evidence. Then the 1999 lawsuit -- at which Ben Barnes testified and said exactly what he is saying now -- finally forced it out.

        Recall that Texas was then, as now, a conservative one-party state. I was with the anti-Lyndon Johnson, pro-Ralph Yarborough (a progressive state senator) faction, and Barnes was the darling of the establishment wing. One of those television fools asked indignantly why Barnes would do a favor for a Republican congressman like Bush. Well, Sid Adger asked him to.

        Listen, my children, and you shall hear: There was then no nasty partisan politics in Texas except inside the Democratic Party. The Republicans were upper-class establishment types, and the tradition of Texas Republicans and Texas Democrats working and playing well together continued, actually, until the Republicans took over, when it ended with a bang.

        If you doubt me, ask George W. Bush about Bob Bullock and Pete Laney, the lieutenant governor and speaker when he was governor. As Bullock himself used to say, "It's all done on friendship." Republicans like Ken Lay regularly contributed to Democratic officeholders in order to have influence with them.

         I've spent my life fighting against those cozy relationships, where power and favors are traded among insiders and regular people get screwed. Barnes used to stand for everything I disliked about politics. He and John Connally (by then a Republican) were partners in the real estate business and went broke back in '80s, along with a lot of other people. Barnes is still playing the Texas power game, but he's backed a lot of people for public office who aren't going to help his business any, which I consider the test of an honest player. Dick Armey's contemptuous dismissal of Barnes leads me to wonder how he would describe what "everybody in Texas" knows about the way Tom DeLay practices politics.

        The only reason any of this is relevant today is because it speaks directly to the character of the man in the White House. For Bush to still stand there and deny that he got no special breaks, to deny that some other American kid went to Vietnam in his stead, is so telling of his moral blindness, of his deliberate obtuseness about the way the world of power and privilege screws over most people. If only he had the grace to say, as Barnes did, that he is ashamed of what happened, I'd have some respect for him.

        To find out more about Molly Ivins and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2004 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.