Monday, September 20, 2004

The NYTimes > Vote '04 > Military Service: Portrait of Bush in '72: Unanchored in Turbulent Time

The New York Times > Washington > Campaign 2004 > Military Service: Portrait of George Bush in '72: Unanchored in Turbulent Time:
"Nineteen seventy-two was the year George W. Bush dropped off the radar screen.

He abandoned his once-prized status as a National Guard pilot by failing to appear for a required physical. He sought temporary reassignment from the Texas Air National Guard to an Alabama unit but for six months did not show up for training. He signed on as an official in the losing campaign of a Republican Senate candidate in Alabama, and even there he left few impressions other than as an amiable bachelor with a good tennis game and a famous father."

"To say he brought in a bunch of initiatives and bright ideas," said a fellow campaign worker, Devere McLennan, "no he didn't."

This year of inconsequence has grown increasingly consequential for President Bush because of persistent, unanswered questions about his National Guard service - why he failed to take his pilot's physical and whether he fulfilled his commitment to the Guard. If anything, those issues became still murkier this past week, with the controversy over the authenticity of four documents disclosed by CBS News and its program "60 Minutes" purporting to shed light on that Guard record.

Still, a wider examination of his life in 1972, based on dozens of interviews and other documents released by the White House over the years, yields a portrait of a young man like many other young men of privilege in that turbulent time - entitled, unanchored and safe from combat, bouncing from a National Guard slot made possible by his family's prominence to a political job arranged through his father.

In a speech on Tuesday at a National Guard convention, Mr. Bush said he was "proud to be one of them," and in his autobiography he writes that his service taught him respect for the chain of command. But a review of records shows that not only did he miss months of duty in 1972, but that he also may have been improperly awarded credit for service, making possible an early honorable discharge so he could turn his attention to a new interest: Harvard Business School.

Mr. Bush, nearly 26, went to Alabama in mid-May 1972 to work on the campaign of Winton M. Blount, a construction magnate known as Red who was a friend of Mr. Bush's father. The Democratic opponent was Senator John J. Sparkman, chairman of the Senate banking committee, a legendary power in what was still a solidly Democratic South.

Mr. Bush, while missing months of the Guard duty that allowed him to avoid Vietnam, was the political director of the Blount campaign, which accused Mr. Sparkman - a hawk on the war - and the national Democrats of supporting "amnesty for all draft dodgers" and of showing "more concern for coddling deserters than for patriotic American young men who have lost their lives in Vietnam." In the last week of the race, the Blount campaign ran a radio advertisement using an edited recording of Mr. Sparkman that made him appear to support forced busing of schoolchildren, which he opposed.

Although campaign records list Mr. Bush as third in command, people who worked in the race said he was not involved in those tactics or with the overall agenda. Mr. Bush's connection was Jimmy Allison, a political operative from Midland, Tex., who was running the campaign and was a close friend of George H. W. Bush, having managed the elder Mr. Bush's 1966 Congressional victory in Houston.

Mr. Allison's widow, Linda, who volunteered in the Blount campaign, said she became curious about the young Mr. Bush's job after noticing his coming into the office late and leaving early.

"I asked Jimmy, 'What does Georgie do?' '' Mrs. Allison, 73, said in an interview, repeating the account she had given to Salon, the online publication. "He just said George had called him and told him that Georgie was having some difficulties in Houston. Big George thought it would be beneficial to the family and George Jr. for him to come to Alabama to work on the campaign with Jimmy."


His jobs had mostly come through family ties, and in 1971 he was hired as a management trainee at Stratford of Texas, an agricultural and horticultural conglomerate owned by a Bush family friend, Robert H. Gow. Mr. Bush's immediate supervisor, Peter Knudtzon, then Stratford's executive vice president, recalls him as a smart, dutiful worker who, while lacking direction, was keenly interested in the process of politics - "how people get elected, where the power is."

Every so often, he would take off work to fly with the National Guard. His entree to the Guard had come through Ben Barnes, then the lieutenant governor of Texas, who has said that he helped get Mr. Bush, among other well-connected young men, a slot at the request of a Bush family friend. When Mr. Bush applied, in 1968, one of the forms he filled out asked if he would volunteer for overseas duty; he checked "I 'do not' volunteer for overseas."

And he got off to a splashy start. After basic training and a year at flight school in Georgia, he was assigned to Ellington Air Force Base outside Houston, where he flew F-102 fighter jets. In March 1970, with his father, himself a World War II Navy pilot, in Congress, the Texas Air National Guard issued a news release announcing that the young Mr. Bush "doesn't get his kicks from pot or hashish or speed," but from "the roaring afterburner of the F-102." As he wrote in his autobiography, "It was exciting the first time I flew, and it was exciting the last time." In a November 1970 evaluation, his squadron commander, Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, called him a "top-notch" pilot and a "natural leader."

By 1972, though, something had changed; the excitement seemed to have waned. Mr. Bush's flying buddy from Ellington, Dean Roome, said Mr. Bush may have been frustrated because the unit's growing role as a training school left young pilots fewer opportunities to log hours in the air. Others who knew him believe he simply lost interest. He was once again at loose ends, without a regular job, having left Stratford after a year or so, unhappy in the company's buttoned-down atmosphere.

Whatever precisely was drawing Mr. Bush away from flying, it was then, in the spring of 1972, that the Alabama job came along. He had worked for Jimmy Allison before - on a 1968 Senate campaign in Florida - but this would be his first full-time job in the family business, politics.

Still, there was the matter of his commitment to the Guard. Moving to Alabama meant taking a temporary leave from his Texas unit; Guard officials say it was not unusual for civilian officers to take jobs away from their home states. Mr. Bush did not wait to line up a spot with an Alabama unit before arriving in Montgomery in mid-May.

Mr. Bush first tried to join the 9921 Air Reserve Squadron in Montgomery, which was classified as a "standby reserve unit." Unlike his unit in Texas, the Alabama unit had no planes and its members were neither paid nor required to attend monthly drills.

In July, though, senior Guard officials rejected Mr. Bush's transfer, saying he had to continue with a "ready reserve unit," which requires monthly attendance. In that same period - the precise timing is not clear - he did something that brought his dwindling flying ambitions to a close: he failed to take the annual physical exam required of all pilots.

In his 1999 book, "A Charge to Keep," Mr. Bush did not mention the missed physical or the suspension. "I was almost finished with my commitment in the Air National Guard," he wrote, "and was no longer flying because the F-102 jet I had trained in was being replaced by a different fighter." In fact, when he missed his physical he had almost two years left in the Guard.

Later, an aide to Mr. Bush explained that he had missed his physical because he was waiting to get examined by his personal physician. But pilots were required to be examined by military doctors.

More recently the White House has said that he did not take the physical because Alabama units were not flying the F-102. But his second application to transfer to Alabama - after the rejected transfer in July - was filed in September 1972, at least two months after he had missed his physical.

Whatever the reason, on Sept. 5, Mr. Bush was notified that he was suspended from flying "for failure to accomplish annual medical examination."

By that time, still without an Alabama unit, he had not attended a required monthly drill for almost five months, according to records released by the White House. Under the law at the time, he could have been sent to Vietnam. But in the relatively relaxed world of the Guard, and with hardly anyone being called up for active duty anymore, officials took no action. He was free to stay in Montgomery and work on the Blount campaign.

Richard Nelson, who had been Mr. Blount's political director, remembers briefing Mr. Bush when he arrived in town. "He was a bright young man," Mr. Nelson recalled. "I knew who his father was."

The months in Montgomery were part of what Mr. Bush has described as his "nomadic" years, when he "kind of floated and saw a lot of life." No one remembers him worrying about his Guard status - or, for that matter, much of anything else. He worked the phones in the Montgomery office and drove around the state meeting with county chairmen. He played tennis at Winton Blount's mansion and partied with the other young campaign workers at watering holes like the Top of the Star, at the Montgomery Holiday Inn.

Kay Blount Pace, 52, the candidate's daughter, said Mr. Bush did not act like the son of the man who was then the United States ambassador to the United Nations. "This was just Joe Blow - cute, fun George Bush, who fit in with the campaign," Ms. Pace said.

Murphy Archibald, a nephew of Winton Blount's, remembers Mr. Bush rolling into the office at noon and joking about how much he had had to drink the night before.

"I found him to be far younger than his age," recalled Mr. Archibald, a Democrat in Charlotte, N.C., who had gone to Vietnam in 1968.

One way or another, Vietnam ran through the lives of the young campaign workers in Montgomery. Devere McLennan said he figured he got lucky when, after enlisting in the Marines, he washed out of Quantico with a bad back. Another campaign worker, Emily Marks, had a college boyfriend who had been killed by a land mine in Vietnam a couple of years before. In 1972, Ms. Marks, the daughter of an old Montgomery family, was dating George Bush, and she remembers that he was in the Guard but could offer no detailed recollections. "A lot of people were doing Guard duty," she said in an interview.

That September, grounded from flying but still obligated to his Guard service, he wrote to his Texas squadron commander, Colonel Killian, asking for permission to perform his monthly drills with the 187th Tactical Reconnaissance Group in Montgomery for September, October and November, according to documents released by the White House.

"We told him that was O.K. with us," said Bobby W. Hodges, then a commander in the Texas Guard. He was told he would have to do drills there, Mr. Hodges added. "He may or may not have done it. I don't know."


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con·cept: The NYTimes > Vote '04 > Military Service: Portrait of Bush in '72: Unanchored in Turbulent Time