Winning a war or two goes a long way toward redefining a man.
As the cable news networks enthusiastically covered George W. Bush's trip to the USS Abraham Lincoln--cool military hardware, guys in uniforms, the Big Man, and a touch of can-anything-go-wrong drama--there were plenty of references to Bush's days in the Texas Air National Guard, when he flew F-102 fighter jets. (Well, sort of--but we'll get to that.) On MSNBC, correspondent George Lewis noted that Bush, with his tailhook landing on the aircraft carrier, was "becoming one of" the troops on board. He didn't add, only 25 years late. That is, neither Lewis nor any of the other television journalists covering this gee-whiz event (whom I saw) mentioned Bush's rather spotty (to be kind about it) record in the National Guard.
Those of you who closely followed the 2000 campaign might already be familiar with the tale of Bush's service--or non-service--in the Guard. It received some, but not much, coverage. Not as much as Al Gore's not-quite-true remark about the cost of meds for Tipper's mother's dog. Bush dodged a bullet on this, for he offered dubious explanations in response to serious questions about his military record--and never was called on it. Here's an all-too brief summary:
Getting into the Guard. Enlisting in the Guard was one way to beat the draft and avoid being sent to Vietnam. Is this why Bush signed up? During the campaign, Bush said no. Yet in 1994, he had remarked, "I was not prepared to shoot my eardrum out with a shotgun in order to get a deferment. Not was I willing to go to Canada. So I chose to better myself by learning how to fly airplanes." That sure sounds like someone who was looking to avoid the draft and pick up a skill. Obtaining a slot in the Guard at that time was not usually easy--for the obvious reason: lots of young men were responding to the call of self-preservation. (Think Dan Quayle.) Bush, whose father was then a congressman from the Houston area, has said no strings were pulled on his behalf. Yet in 1999, the former speaker of the Texas House of Representatives told The New York Times that a Houston oilman who was a friend of Bush's father had asked him to grease the skids for W. and he obliged.
What Bush did in the Guard. In Bush's campaign autobiography, A Charge To Keep, he wrote that he completed pilot training in 1970 and "continued flying with my unit for the next several years." But in 2000, The Boston Globe obtained copies of Bush's military records and discovered that he had stopped flying during his final 18 months of service in 1972 and 1973. More curious, the records showed Bush had not reported for Guard duty during a long stretch of that period. Had the future commander-in-chief been AWOL?
In May 1972, with two years to go on his six-year commitment to the Guard, Bush moved to Alabama to work on a Senate campaign. He asked if he could do his Guard duty there. This son-of-a-congressman and fighter pilot won permission to do "equivalent training" at a unit that had no aircraft and no pilots. The national Air Reserve office then disallowed this transfer. For months, Bush did nothing for the Guard. In September 1972, he won permission to train with a unit in Montgomery. But the commander of the unit and his administrative officer told the Boston Globe that they had no recollection of Bush ever reporting for duty. And when Bush returned to Texas after the November election, he did not return to his unit for months, according to his military records. His annual performance report, dated May 2, 1973, noted he had "not been observed at this unit" for the past year. In May, June and July of that year, he did pull 36 days of duty. And then, as he was on his way to Harvard Business School, he received permission to end his Guard service early.
The records suggest Bush skipped out on the Guard for about a year. (And during that time he had failed to submit to an annual physical and lost his flight status.) A campaign spokesperson said Bush recalled doing duty in Alabama and "coming back to Houston and doing duty." But Bush never provided any real proof he had. Asked by a reporter if he remembered what work he had done in Alabama, he said, "No, I really don't." A fair assumption was that he had gamed the system and avoided a year of service, before wiggling out of the Guard nearly a year before his time was up. It looked as if he had served four, not six years.
When he enlisted in the Texas Air Guard, Bush had signed a pledge stating he would complete his pilot training and then "return to my unit and fulfill my obligation to the utmost of my ability." Instead, he received flight training--at the government's expense--and then cut out on his unit. He had not been faithful to the Guard. He had not kept this particular charge
But that was then. After 9/11, after Afghanistan, after Iraq--and before who-knows-what--Bush has become a man with no past. He is a different fellow, that's for sure, and now wears the commander-in-chief uniform more comfortably than before those airliners crashed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. But could Bill Clinton--even in a similar situation--have gotten away with joy-riding a S-3B Viking aircraft onto a carrier for a mega-photo-op without commentators reminding viewers of his sly draft-dodging ways?
Bush looked quite heroic--so Tom Cruise-ish--hopping out of that plane dressed in a flight suit and striding across the flight deck. What imagery. This entire trip was only about imagery. He flew out to the Lincoln to announce that the major combat operations are done. What a news flash. Who didn't know that? And he could not have made such an announcement from Washington? Bush did not even plan to say that the war was officially over, because then Geneva Accords provisions pertaining to occupation would kick in and impose obligations upon the United States, such as releasing POWs. So what really was the point? Could it have been to score free television time during an hour that tends to draw one of the biggest viewing audiences of the week? Bush's communications people just so happened to have scheduled his Lincoln speech for the time slot usually inhabited by CSI on CBS and Will & Grace on NBC. Last week, these two shows attracted 43 million viewers. Bush's primetime one-on-one with Tom Brokaw earlier this week only drew an audience of 9 million and lost out to an America's Funniest Home Videos rerun featuring dog tricks. (A nod of thanks to Lisa de Moraes, The Washington Post's television columnist for pointing this out.)
Was this, then, just a campaign stunt? Nah, Bush and Karl Rove wouldn't waste taxpayer money and exploit a war that claimed the lives of 128 Americans--and thousands of Iraqis--for crass political advantage. And Bush really did serve honorably in the Guard.