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?