[Mb-civic] Portrait of George Bush in '72: Unanchored in Turbulent Time
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Mon Sep 20 15:33:42 PDT 2004
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Portrait of George Bush in '72: Unanchored in Turbulent Time
By Sara Rimer
The New York Times
Monday 20 September 2004
MONTGOMERY, Ala. - 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
"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."
In Houston, nearly five years out of Yale, Mr. Bush had been adrift,
without a career or even a long-running job. He had been rejected by the
University of Texas law school and had briefly considered, then abandoned, a
run for the Texas Legislature. Acquaintances recall him tooling around town
in his Triumph sports car, partying with a crowd of well-to-do singles.
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
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
Whatever the reason, on Sept. 5, Mr. Bush was notified that he was
suspended from flying "for failure to accomplish annual medical
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
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."
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.
But 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. The White House
said last week that there were no records from the Alabama unit because Mr.
Bush was still officially part of the Texas Guard. But Mr. Hodges, the
former Texas commander, said the 187th "should have a record of his drills."
Mr. Bush's former campaign colleagues remember being aware that he had
some relationship with the Guard. Mr. McLennan recalled going with Mr. Bush
to the dry cleaner to pick up his Guard uniforms. Joe Holcombe, who managed
the Montgomery office, remembers Mr. Bush missing a meeting at the
"Jimmy said, 'He's with the Guard,' '' Mr. Holcombe said.
A Fight Between Hawks
That fall, political observers were predicting a big victory for the
incumbent, but the Blount campaign fought hard.
Although both candidates were hawks in a fiercely pro-military state,
Mr. Blount tried to align his opponent with George McGovern, the Democratic
Party's antiwar presidential candidate. Then, a few days before the
election, the Blount campaign broadcast a radio commercial in which Mr.
Sparkman, a staunch segregationist, was heard saying "busing is all right."
According to an account in The Birmingham News, the Blount campaign had
produced the commercial by deleting part of Mr. Sparkman's lengthy answer to
a question about busing during a radio interview, and switching a question
and answer on the subject. The Blount campaign maintained at the time that
the interview had simply been compressed for time's sake, but the Sparkman
campaign said the tape was doctored to inject racial innuendo. Blount
campaign workers say these tough tactics had the mark of Mr. Allison.
Mr. Bush's own retelling of the Blount campaign leaves out any negative
aspects. He described Mr. Allison, who died in 1978, as "a wonderful friend"
and "a mentor in a way." He wrote that "I witnessed firsthand the effects of
populist campaigning." Gov. George Wallace, who was shot that spring, taped
a radio commercial for Mr. Sparkman casting Mr. Blount as an elitist
multimillionaire who lived in a mansion with 26 bathrooms.
Winton Blount lost in a landslide. "A good man went down to defeat,"
Mr. Bush wrote.
A Return to Houston
After the election, Mr. Bush returned to Houston, moving out of his
small rented bungalow in Montgomery. He left the place a mess, with a broken
light fixture and piles of debris, according to Mary Smith, whose husband
was the bungalow's caretaker. Ms. Smith said her husband, who has since
died, sent Mr. Bush a bill for professional cleaning but never heard back.
By January 1973, Mr. Bush had a new job, with an inner-city youth
program organized by John L. White, a former professional football player
who knew his father. And he continued his erratic relationship with the
National Guard, where he had 18 months left of his six-year commitment.
A review of records raises questions about whether he was properly
credited for his service. Documents released by the White House show that he
was paid for drills in January, April and several days in early May 1973.
These drills were in Alabama, the White House said, and his old friend Emily
Marks, now Emily Marks Curtis, said she remembered Mr. Bush returning to
Montgomery for Guard duty.
But Mr. Bush had been authorized to drill in Alabama only from
September through November 1972.
By the summer of 1973, Mr. Bush had decided to go to Harvard Business
School. According to documents released by the White House, he wanted an
early discharge from the Guard but did not have enough service points for
1972 and 1973, since he had missed months of training. Guardsmen were
required to earn 48 points each fiscal year, or four points for each weekend
drill every month.
Although missed drills can be made up, regulations at the time said it
had to be done within 30 days and in the same fiscal year. As the time for
his early discharge neared, Mr. Bush was lacking enough points; according to
records for July 1973, he attended drills on 18 days that month.
When questions arose about Mr. Bush's Guard service, the White House
asked a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel, Albert C. Lloyd Jr., to review
his record. In a memorandum released by the White House in February, Mr.
Lloyd wrote that from May 1973 through May 1974, Mr. Bush accumulated 35
training points and 15 points for being a Guard member "for a total of 56
points.'' It is not clear how Mr. Lloyd came up with 56, instead of 50.
Another military document released by the White House indicates that Mr.
Bush had earned only 38 points from May 1973 until his discharge that
A retired Army colonel, Gerald A. Lechliter, who has prepared an
extensive analysis of Mr. Bush's National Guard record, described Mr.
Lloyd's memorandum as "seemingly an attempt to whitewash Bush's record." Mr.
Lloyd declined comment last week.
Mr. Lechliter, who describes himself as a political independent, also
said that Mr. Bush was not entitled to 20 credits he received from Nov. 13,
1972, until July 19, 1973, because the service was being made up improperly.
Mr. Lechliter also said that Mr. Bush should not have been paid for
these sessions. "That would appear to be a fraud," he said in an interview
However the points added up, on Oct. 1, 1973, Mr. Bush was awarded an
honorable discharge. By that time he was already at Harvard.
Sara Rimer reported from Montgomery for this article, Ralph Blumenthal
from Texas, and Raymond Bonner from Texas and Washington.
This article was reported by Sara Rimer, Ralph Blumenthal and Raymond
Bonner and written by Ms. Rimer.
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