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How Well Did He Serve?

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George W. Bush has long had a habit of giving people nicknames—and perhaps that's because he picked up a few along the way himself. Like the one he earned in 1972, when he left his home in Houston to work on the long-shot Senate campaign of Winton M. (Red) Blount in Alabama. Bush, then 26, would often turn up at campaign headquarters in Montgomery around lunchtime, recount his late-night exploits and brag about his political connections, according to a Blount campaign worker. All that made him slow to win over the Alabama crowd, who began to complain that Bush was letting things slide. C. Murphy Archibald, a nephew of Blount's who worked on the campaign that fall, told TIME that Bush "was good at schmoozing the county chairs, but there wasn't a lot of follow-up." Archibald, now a trial attorney in North Carolina, remembers that a group of older Alabama socialites, who were volunteering their time, gave Bush a nickname because they thought he "looked good on the outside but was full of hot air." They called him the Texas SoufflÚ.

Skimming the surface and skipping over details may be business as usual for a happy-go-lucky 26-year-old, but it's a problem for a President during a winter of discontent. Whether Bush performed his National Guard duties while he was working on the Blount campaign—as well as during much of the year starting in May 1972—was raised in his past campaigns and always fluttered away quickly, an issue regarded as irrelevant after two decades or more. But it has become germane this time in a way it never was before because for the second time in as many months—first on prewar intelligence in Iraq and now on his military record—Bush is caught in a gap between what he has claimed and what he can prove. At the same time, he's gearing up for a fight with a probable Democratic nominee whose record as a Vietnam War hero helps buy him credibility to challenge Bush on his military resume. Bush insists he did his duty in Alabama, but the records—and many memories—don't confirm it. And these days, people are paying a lot closer attention to the President's words.

All week long, the White House tried to complete two contradictory missions: keep Bush's promise to Tim Russert on NBC's Meet the Press to release all his military records—and change the story line as quickly as possible. First came the Bush pay stubs, which showed he was paid for some work during his Alabama sojourn but didn't prove he did any work. Then came a page of a dental exam, proving that he had at least turned up at an air base to have his teeth checked. And finally, when those documents weren't having the proper impact, the White House released 400 pages of military records on a late Friday afternoon. Those documents didn't solve the puzzle either, but by then the White House hoped that at least no one could accuse the President of hiding anything. "We're going on the offensive on this," says a top official. "The problem with the Democrats is that they always overplay their hand."

It may be that Bush's military service has already passed into the custody of amateur oral historians—those who say he never turned up, and the lone veteran and the ex-girlfriend who say Bush reported for duty in Alabama. But if the stack of papers may someday intrigue his biographers—we learn that Bush had an appendectomy at age 10, that he took a semester of Japanese during his senior year at Yale, that his Air Force minders rated him "a natural leader whom his contemporaries look to"—they also leave many of the central mysteries of his service unsolved. Here are four:

How Did Bush Get In the Guard, And What Were His Duties?
It was Bush's name that helped land him the coveted Guard-duty spot in the first place. Maurice Udell, the flight instructor who trained Bush, told TIME last week that "there was all kinds of people trying to get in, lot of 'em flying Cessnas. But Bush's stock went way up when I found out his dad was the youngest [Navy] pilot in World War II and got shot down. As far as I was concerned, who were they? When your dad flies in the war in combat, that gives you a leg up." It also probably didn't hurt that Bush's father was a Congressman from Houston.

After basic training and flight school, Bush spent most of his time in the service with the 111th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron at Ellington Field, a "champagne" unit based southeast of Houston. Suiting up for battle alongside scions of other Texas political families—Connally and Bentsen—Bush flew the F-102 Delta Dagger, a 1950s-era interceptor, at a speed of 600 m.p.h. over the Gulf Coast on the lookout for enemy aircraft. Duty at Ellington was relatively worry free; the Guard's air-defense mission was certainly a low priority in the 1970s. And the pilots had little fear of being called to active duty in Vietnam; they were flying nearly obsolete F-102s that were not suited to a guerrilla war. But the scene had a touch of glamour for a young man about town. The apron was often jammed with the sleek little jet planes of NASA astronauts who trained nearby and shuttled back and forth from Cape Canaveral, Fla. The 111th had its dangers: Bush and his wingmen often flew in formation, hovering just a few feet from one another's wing tips. At other times, they would wait in a ready room for hours, doing next to nothing on action-free alert drills.

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