Interview: True Matilda
Politics: State of Play
Industrial: Capital Dilemmas
Unions: Rhodes Scholars
National Focus: Rennovating the Lodge
International: People Power
Economics: A Bit Rich
History: Mine Shafts
Safety: Sick Of Fighting
Organising: Building a Wave
Poetry: Anger In The Bush(es)
Review: The Battle Of Algiers
Culture: The Word On The Street
The Locker Room
Co-operating At All Costs
All Good Except You
How Bush Lost His Wings
The early winter of 1968 was a season of acute anxiety for the young George W. Bush. As his academic career at Yale sputtered to an inglorious denouement, the war in Vietnam was hurtling forward at full-bore with the onset of the Tet Offensive. In those perilous months, there were 350,000 US troops in Vietnam, dying at a rate of more than 350 a week. From Bush's perch in New Haven, elite hamlet of his birth, the draft loomed, casting a chill shadow over his future.
Bush faced limited options. Unlike his warden-to-be Dick Cheney, this randy bon vivant wasn't prepared to anchor himself down in early wedlock, which would have entitled him to a marriage deferment. There were too many oats yet to be sown. How many seeds in how many fields? Tough to say precisely, but in the ripe phrase of one of Bush's drinking buddies from the 1970s: "he bedded nearly every bimbo in West Texas, married or not."
Alas, the remedial scholar's grades at Yale, already puffed-up beyond all merit courtesy of his legacy admission, proved to be so paltry that the escape hatch of graduate school was out of the question, too.
Only one sure sanctuary remained: the National Guard.
In January of 1968, Bush sent enquiries to the National Guard. It seems Bush had had an epiphany: he wante to be a pilot, just like his dad. Well, not exactly like Pappy, who was shot down flying a fighter in World War II. Yes, Lil' Bush wanted to fly fighter jets, but not in dicey combat situations. That, naturally, would defeat the entire purpose of joining the Guard.
In 1989, Bush explained the coarse calculus behind his decision to a reporter from the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, "I'm saying to myself, 'What do I want to do?' I think, I don't want to be an infantry guy as a pilot in Vietnam. What I do decide to want to do [sic] is learn to fly."
The National Guard commanders responded warmly to Bush's initial probings, but noted, somewhat ominously for the fratboy flier, that before his application could be accepted he had to submit to a battery of physical and mental tests. Damn, Bush must have shivered, more exams and no helpful tutors from the egghead division of Skull and Bones to guide him through the intellectual shoals!
At the time Bush applied to the National Guard, there were 100,000 other young men in line before him, stalled on a crowded waiting list hoping their number would be called before they were sucked up by the draft and dropped onto the killing fields of the Mekong Delta. In Texas alone, there were 500 applicants frantically vying for only four open slots for fighter pilot-training in the Air National Guard.
At first blush, Bush didn't seem to have much of a shot at landing one of those choice positions. First, he flunked his medical test. Then he flunked his dental exam. And finally, as Ian Williams reveals in Deserter
Aptitude for piloting a fighter jet notwithstanding, on May 27, 1968, just nervy twelve days before the expiration of his student deferment, Bush the Younger was accepted into the Texas Air National Guard. On his application form under
the heading "Background Qualifications," Bush declares in a refreshing spurt of honesty "None."
Today the pipsqueak commander-in-chief has exploited the Guard and Army Reserve as a form of covert conscription to beef up troop numbers in Iraq and Afghanistan. But in those days National Guard squadrons were generally not being sent off to the frontlines in Vietnam. But just to be sure, Bush checked the box on his enlistment form saying he was unwilling to do time overseas. That box was a comfy failsafe that is no longer available to young people seduced into signing up as weekend warriors in Bush's National Guard.
Flush with excitement at his triumphal entry into the Air National Guard, Bush averred to one-and-all that he had caught the flight bug. He duly submitted to the Guard brass a "Statement of Intent," pledging that he had "applied for pilot training with the goal of making flying a lifetime pursuit and I believe that I can best accomplish this to my own satisfaction as a member of the Air National Guard as long as possible."
This seems like boilerplate stuff. But it is a crucial document in at least one respect. Getting the dunderheaded Bush air-ready was going to take a lot of training and the Guard wanted to get a guarantee that it would get a minimal return on its investment-if not a special line-item in the appropriations bill, at least commitment from Bush that he would stick around as a pilot for the duration of his commitment, if not beyond. Ian Williams estimates that the Guard spent more than a million dollars training Bush how to fly. Bush was warned that any prolonged absence from the Guard would result in him being ordered to "active duty" for a period of two years.
What the commanders of the Guard may not have known at the time was that in Bush's mind it was either the Guard or Canada. In 1994, the gunshy Bush, who tortured animals as teen-ager, fessed up to the Houston Chronicle that being sent to Vietnam was simply not an option for him: "I was not prepared to shoot my eardrum out with a shotgun in order to get a deferment. Nor was I willing to go to Canada. So I choose to better myself by learning how to fly airplanesI don't want to play like I was somebody out there marching when I wasn't. It was either Canada or the service. Somebody said the Guard was looking for pilots. All I know is, there weren't that many people trying to be pilots."
As we now know, there were more than 500 people looking to be pilots in Texas alone, nearly all of them more qualified for the slots than Bush.
So how did this miraculous induction come about? Bush has long denied he got any favored treatment, which would seem unmanly. But there's now little doubt that the draft evader benefited from at least three pairs of helping hands: Sid Adger, a Texas oilman and Bush family crony, Ben Barnes, then Speaker of the House in Texas, and Gen. James Rose, former commander of the Texas Air National Guard.
The truth began to trickle out in 1999, when Barnes, then a top lobbyist and political fixer in Austin, became a witness in a lawsuit by Laurence Littwin. Littwin was suing the State of Texas for firing him as lottery directory, which he claimed was politically motivated. The Littwin lawsuit is a complex and confusing affair that provides a glimpse at the baseline of corruption pullulating through the Texas political system.
In sum, Littwin claimed that he was forced to hire a company called GTech to run the Texas lottery in order to suppress the real story of how Bush won entry into the Guard-namely that Ben Barnes had pulled strings with Gen. Rose. In the 1990s, Barnes worked a lobbyist for GTech. Indeed, GTech had paid Barnes $23 million for his expert services.
In his deposition, Barnes denied blackmailing Littwin into giving GTech the lucrative contract. But he confessed, with the haughty sense of accomplishment that only an apex politico can impart, that he had indeed opened the backdoor for Bush into the Air National Guard. Barnes said that he responded to a distress beacon from Bush intimate Sid Adger, a now dead Texas oil tycoon, and prevailed on Gen. Rose to adopt the young Bush as a member of the Guard's flying elite, which then included the war aversive sons of Gov. John Connelly and Sen. Lloyd Bentsen. It helped that Barnes's chief of staff, Nick Kralj, also served as a top aide-de-camp to the general. Mission accomplished.
But the handouts didn't stop there. Bush didn't want to remain a lowly private or corporal in those drab uniforms. He saw himself as officer material. Yet, he had no desire to subject himself to the mental and physical rigors of Officer Candidate School. In his mind, he was a birthright officer. And so it came to be. After a mere six weeks of training, Bush was promoted to the rank 2nd Lieutenant. He didn't even have his pilot's license.
In the wake of this astounding achievement, Bush felt it was time for a breather. He abandoned his training with the Guard for two months, hightailing it to the beaches and bars of Florida, where he claimed to have occasionally lent the services of his agile political mind to the senatorial campaign of rightwing, neo-segregationist congressman Ed Gurney, a favorite of Richard Nixon. Gurney won, but his victory was short lived. Gurney was later indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of political corruption, bribery and perjury. He walked away a free man courtesy of a hung jury.
* * *
After the election, Bush headed for Moody Air Base in Georgia to complete his pilot training with the 3559th Student Squadron. Around Thanksgiving, Bush was once again whisked away from the monotony of life as a fighter-pilot-in-training, this time courtesy of Richard Nixon. The president sent a plane to Moody Air Base to pick up the young Bush so that the newly brevetted lieutenant could escort Nixon's fabulously neurotic (and what progeny of Nixon's wouldn't at least be neurotic?) daughter Tricia out on a date. Sparks didn't fly. The young officer made clumsy advances, which Tricia deftly deflected. She later described Bush as "testy."
And so the days and weeks of Bush's service to the country, as commander-in-chief likes to put it, during the war in Vietnam rolled on. His instructors at the Moody Air Base assigned Bush the task of learning how to fly the F-102, an obsolete fighter soon destined for the scrap heap.
Finally, on June 23, 1971 Bush graduated from combat flight training school. Now he was ready to defend the airspace of Texas from hostile incursions from Mexico, Belize or the Virgin Islands.
Except that George the Younger apparently had formed other plans. Without informing the Guard commanders who had saved him going to Vietnam, Bush quietly applied for admission to study law at the University of Texas. For one of the few times in his life, Bush didn't get immediate gratification.
The flying fratboy's application to the University of Texas law school was ungraciously declined, despite the pleas of his father, then pitted in a fierce senatorial election battle with Lloyd Bentsen that he would end up losing. Whatever its faults, apparently the University of Texas isn't prone to handing out legacy admissions to New Haven-born whelps of the political elite. Even in Texas, you have to draw the line somewhere.
Sulking at this unfamiliar rebuke, Bush slunk off to Ellington Air Base near Houston to join the 111th Fighter Squadron. By most accounts, his drinking, already problematic, began to intensify. By other accounts, it was during this time in Ellington that Bush began to refamiliarize himself with his narcotic of
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