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Bush the 'Infallible'

By Sam Parry
October 31, 2004

George W. Bush’s chief political appeal to his followers may be paradoxically the same characteristic that many critics despise: his sense that he is above the rules that apply to other people – or other countries. His supporters, still traumatized by the Sept. 11 attacks, seem to want a president who doesn’t care what anybody else thinks.

Indeed, if Bush wins a second term on Nov. 2, the American voters will be ratifying government actions that place “decisiveness” – even when stunningly ill-informed and inept – over virtually all other values. They will be sending a defiant message to the world that the United States will do whatever it wishes, whenever it wants, even if the decisions don’t make a whole lot of sense.

In this way, Bush’s life-long history of cutting corners and getting special treatment may actually help him politically. His swagger, his smirk, his put-down humor convey a primal sense of strength to his followers, even if that outward confidence often masks a reality of failure and incompetence.

Bush’s followers seem to believe that Bush – as a natural Leader, as a kind of American royalty – is expected to get favors.

‘Inadequate Time’

So, Bush supporters don’t care, for instance, that he received special treatment to get into the Texas Air National Guard to avoid service in the Vietnam War. They don’t hold it against him that in the early 1970s, he blew off a required flight physical, skipped drills and finally slipped out early with the cavalier explanation that he had “inadequate time to fullfill (sic) possible future commitments,” according to his handwritten resignation letter in November 1974. [See Reuters, Sept. 29, 2004]

This sort of feckless behavior might be disqualifying for other politicians – look, for example, at the damage done to John Kerry over questions raised about the extent of his heroism in Vietnam combat. But Bush’s followers don’t think it’s fair to point out any disparity between Bush’s shirking of his National Guard duty in the 1970s and his shipping off today’s National Guardsmen to extended tours in the Iraq War.

An ordinary politician might have to explain why he had “inadequate time” for his duties when that excuse doesn’t cut it for today’s Guardsmen.

In contrast to Bush’s lenient National Guard experience, a PBS documentary described the deployment of a National Guard unit from Sheldon, Iowa, the 2168th transportation company. Among the Guardsmen going to Iraq were Charles and Billi Crockett, the father and mother of two small girls. With the Crocketts heading to Iraq, possibly for more than a year, their daughters were being sent to live with relatives, according to the PBS program, “Now With Bill Moyers.” [See transcript, Sept. 17, 2004]

Bush’s success in sliding away from a coherent explanation of his Guard duty also is emblematic of an adult life where cutting corners has been the norm. From his string of business failures as a young man to his scarcity of accomplishments as president, Bush has gotten away with actions – and inaction – that would sink almost any other politician.

Instead, Bush has paid little price for ignoring explicit warnings about al-Qaeda terror attacks before Sept. 11, for going to war in Iraq on bogus intelligence and for failing to plan for the post-invasion chaos. On the domestic side, he’s forgiven for a sluggish economy, for the first net job loss since the Great Depression, for rising poverty, for record federal deficits, for worsening health care and for growing environmental crises.

‘Infallibility’

Bush also almost never admits mistakes, another characteristic that many of his followers see as a sign of strength. Many of these Americans seem to have an aching need for Bush to be infallible, even if his record shows him failing at almost everything he does. [For details on Bush’s history, see Robert Parry’s new book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq.]

The composite of Bush’s personality that has emerged from his life – starting as a prep-school student, then as an Ivy Leaguer, as a Guardsman, as a businessman, as a public figure and finally as president – is of a man who thinks the basic rules of fairness, responsibility and accountability don’t apply to him.

Despite the enduring questions about his Guard service, for instance, Bush and his communications team still can’t seem to get their story straight. On NBC’s Today Show on Sept. 22, after a series of questions about CBS’s handling of disputed memos about Bush’s Guard duty, interviewer Matt Lauer asked White House communications director Dan Bartlett a direct question about Bush’s Guard record.

“In July of 1972, he [Bush] failed to take a physical exam and it seems to me in reading several accounts there have been different reasons given for his failure to take that exam. What exactly was the reason, Dan?” Lauer inquired.

“We’ve given it countless times,” Bartlett responded. “President Bush received permission by his Guard unit to transfer to Alabama for a period of time to work on a campaign in Alabama. He was given that permission to do so in a non-flying capacity. When you’re not flying, you don’t take a flight physical, so President Bush did not take a flight physical because he was going to Alabama in a non-flying capacity. That’s why he didn’t take it.”

Bartlett’s statement seems to be the current account for Bush’s failure to show up for the physical, but it squares with neither the documentary record nor with what Bush and others have said in the past about the missed physical.

Bush wrote in his book, A Charge to Keep, “I was almost finished with my commitment in the Air National Guard and was no longer flying because the F-102 jet I had trained in was being replaced by a different fighter.” [See New York Times, Sept. 20, 2004.]

So, according to this version of the story, Bush didn’t stop flying because he transferred to another air base in Alabama, but because the plane he flew was being replaced. If this was the reason he stopped flying, then the reason Bush didn’t take his physical was that his plane was no longer in service, not, as Bartlett said, because he was transferred under a no-flying capacity to Alabama.

However, this account doesn’t fit either. According to the Boston Globe, Bush’s “former commander, retired Major General Bobby W. Hodges, said that the F-102 was still being flown until the year after Bush left the Guard.” Hodges went on to state that had Bush shown up, he would have been instructed to keep flying the F-102. [Boston Globe, July 28, 2000]

Confused Explanations

At other times, the Bush team has said Bush missed his physical because he was in Alabama and his personal physician was in Houston. But, by military rules, flight physicals can only be administered by certified military flight doctors.

So, while Bush’s personal doctor in Houston couldn’t give Bush the proper physical, there were qualified doctors in Montgomery, Alabama, who could have examined Bush but didn’t get the chance. (According to military records, Bush did get his teeth checked.)

The documentary record creates other problems for Bartlett’s explanation. On May 24, 1972, Bush initially requested transfer from his Ellington Air Force Base in Houston to serve in the 9921st Air Reserve Squadron in Montgomery, so that he could work on the Senate campaign of a family friend, Winton M. Blount.

Several weeks later (news accounts on the timing vary and the documentary record is not clear), the National Guard Personal Center rejected Bush’s transfer request because the Reserve Squadron unit in Montgomery was not classified as “a specific Ready Reserve” unit. [To see the relevant document, click here.]

Whatever the exact timing, some might question why Bush assumed he could transfer to another state more than 600 miles away without first getting permission. It also appears that by the time Bush’s transfer request was denied, Bush had already missed his required physical. Bush also was not seen by fellow Guardsmen in Houston or Montgomery during this time.

Mystery Bush

As far the Guard’s records go, Bush doesn’t resurface for another two months, when he submits a second transfer request to another Alabama Guard unit, the 187th Tactical Reconnaissance Group, also based in Montgomery. Bush submitted this request on Sept. 5, 1972. [To see the document, click here.]

This second transfer request was approved 10 days later on Sept. 15, and Bush was ordered to report to Lt. Col. William Turnipseed, the commanding officer of the 187th, on Oct. 7-8, 1972. [Click here.]

Turnipseed told the Associated Press and George magazine in 2000 that Bush never showed up, a recollection supported by Kenneth Lott, then chief personnel officer of the 187th, who also doesn’t remember Bush reporting as ordered. [George, Oct. 10, 2000]

Turnipseed has since backtracked a bit on his stance, suggesting that he may not have been on the base at the time to know whether Bush showed up. And, according to the New York Times, “Payroll records released by the White House show that in addition to being paid for attending a drill in Alabama the last weekend in October, Mr. Bush was also paid for a weekend drill after the Blount election, on Nov. 11 and 12, and for meetings on Nov. 13 and 14.”

However, the Times also reports that, “there are no records from the 187th indicating that Mr. Bush, in fact, appeared on those days in October and November, and more than a dozen members of the unit from that era say they never saw him.” [NYT, Sept. 20, 2004]

Other details of Bush’s whereabouts and activities in 1972 also remain unclear. He appears to have done some work on Blount’s Senate campaign, but accounts from the campaign suggest that Bush spent much of the time partying at night, showing up for work late, and leaving early. Though he held a paid position in the campaign, the 27-year old future president doesn’t appear to have taken the job very seriously.

In any event, the evidence raises doubts about Bartlett’s explanation for why Bush missed his physical – that Bush was granted a transfer to Alabama in a non-flying capacity. In fact, Bush missed his physical before his first request for transfer was rejected and Bush was grounded before he was officially granted permission to transfer to Alabama.

On top of that, there’s the question: Why would Bush miss a physical even if he were temporarily going into a non-flying capacity? The transfer to Alabama let him work on a campaign, which would end in November 1972. After that, Bush would be expected to return to Houston and complete his Guard duty.

Yet, skipping a physical meant he would be grounded and would jeopardize Bush’s future as a pilot with the Texas Air National Guard after he returned from Alabama.

A Pattern

If Bush’s performance in the National Guard were an anomaly, one could reasonably argue that it was just a case of a young man behaving irresponsibly. But the pattern of privilege and deception has repeated itself over and over again in Bush’s life, continuing to this day.

Bush was the C-student who went to prestigious Andover Academy then to Yale. He was the prankster who once stole a Christmas wreath off a front door, but avoided getting caught for anything serious. He’s the Ivy Leaguer whom fellow students remember for rarely cracking a book.

He was a Vietnam War supporter who avoided going to war by leaping ahead of others on the waiting list to enter the Texas Air National Guard even though he earned the lowest acceptable score on the entrance tests. He was a heavy drinker and partier who was caught at least once driving while drunk, but again avoided serious trouble. He apparently used cocaine and possibly other hard drugs, though has never been forced to fully account for this destructive behavior.

He was the oilman who couldn’t find oil but still managed to make millions of dollars in business thanks to financial backing from family friends and benefactors. He was the director of Harken Energy who was once warned by lawyers not to sell stock in the company or risk the appearance of insider trading, but sold the stock anyway without being held accountable. The Securities and Exchange Commission at the time was run by his father’s appointee.

He rose to the highest office in the land by becoming the first person to be sworn in as president without winning the popular vote since 1876. Then, instead of acknowledging his political status as president with tenuous legitimacy following a controversial 5-4 Supreme Court decision that shut down the recount in Florida, Bush governed from the outset as if he had won in a landslide victory.

When things weren’t going his way early in his presidency, Bush reportedly threw a temper tantrum. As reported by conservative columnist Robert Novak on July 5, 2001, Bush threatened House Republicans shortly after the Senate passed the Patient’s Bill of Rights that he could always “return to Crawford, Tex., if the liberal health juggernaut grinds him down.” [Washington Post, July 5, 2001]

Terror Attacks

On Aug. 6, 2001, when he got the CIA’s warning, “Bin Laden Determined to Attack Inside the U.S.,” he went fishing and never convened his counterterrorism experts to put the government on high alert. On Sept. 11, after bin Laden’s terrorists crashed the second plane into the World Trade Center and after Bush was informed “America is under attack,” he sat frozen for seven minutes reading “My Pet Goat” with a class of second graders.

Bush vowed to get bin Laden “dead or alive,” but changed his tune several months later by saying “I truly am not that concerned about him. I know he is on the run. … I just don’t spend that much time on him.” (During the third presidential debate when John Kerry quoted Bush on this point, Bush responded, “I just don’t think I ever said I’m not worried about Osama bin Laden. It’s kind of one of those exaggerations.”)

In March 2003, when Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq – though it had no role in the Sept. 11 attacks – he defied military advice calling for more troops. Though the U.S. military defeated the Iraqi army in three weeks, the undermanned U.S. forces found themselves incapable of restoring order or protecting vital sites, such as the arms depot at al Qaqaa where nearly 380 tons of high-grade explosives disappeared.

When “post-war” Iraq descended into bloody chaos, Bush blamed the situation on what he called “catastrophic success.” More than 1,100 U.S. soldiers have died, with a new estimate of Iraqi dead exceeding 100,000. [NYT, Oct. 29, 2004]

Despite obvious mistakes, Bush has consistently refused to admit any personal errors beyond regrets about a few appointees whom he would not identify. (They appear to include former Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neill, who had the temerity to challenge Bush over his policy of tax cuts and his determination to attack Iraq.) [For details, see Ron Suskind’s The Price of Loyalty.]

Beyond refusing to admit mistakes, Bush has presided over an administration that is extraordinarily intolerant of criticism. For instance, Bush’s White House has so far avoided accountability for divulging the name of undercover CIA officer Valerie Plame in what appears to have been retaliation against her husband, Joseph Wilson, for publicly questioning Bush’s State of the Union claim that Saddam Hussein sought “significant quantities of uranium from Africa.”

Home Front

On the home front, there has been a similar litany of failed expectations. Bush claimed that his tax cuts would create six million jobs. Instead, Bush is the first president since Herbert Hoover to preside over a net job loss in the United States.

Bush promised in 2000 not to use the Social Security surplus for anything other than Social Security, but is now applying every penny of the Social Security surplus to pay for other budget priorities. In less than four years, Bush’s budgets have contributed $1 trillion in publicly held debt and are on path to add another $1.3 trillion to the debt over the next four years, according to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office.

Yet, instead of a focus on Bush’s broken promises and mistaken judgments, Campaign 2004 has been transformed largely into a referendum on John Kerry, including harsh – and ultimately false – accusations about his actions during combat in the Vietnam War. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Bushes Play the Traitor Card.”]

Backed by a powerful conservative news media, Bush has been allowed routinely to twist Kerry words, such as the refrain about Kerry’s supposed requirement for a “global test” before the United States would act in its own defense. Any fair reading of Kerry’s actual words would show that the Massachusetts senator meant the opposite of how Bush has presented the phrase, but Kerry is still put on the defensive. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “France Bashing, Again!”]

Yet, the big question remains whether the American voters on Nov. 2 will endorse Bush’s handling of the presidency and his image as the tough-guy Leader.

Or will the voters hold Bush accountable for his dubious judgments and broken promises? If the voters do the latter, it would represent one of the few times in George W. Bush’s life that anyone has called him to account.

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