The charge of scandalous behavior by Lt. George W. Bush in the National Guard evolves, on reflection, into scandalous behavior by CBS and Dan Rather. Mr. Rather is standing by his story, but hanging on by his fingernails. The focus had been on whether CBS had relied on forgeries. In his second 60 Minutes broadcast, Rather had the courage to bring onstage the 86-year old secretary, Mrs. Marian Carr Knox, who said flat-out that the document suggesting inattentive duty was a forgery–this was not a document typed by her or in her office. But even though the document was fake, Mrs. Knox went on, its sentiments weren’t fake. Namely, that Lieutenant Bush was happy-go-lucky in the Texas National Guard, more interested in other things than Guard duty.
At that point Dan Rather looked sternly at his guest, and indeed at life itself, and said, Well, then, George Bush defied direct orders!
Yes, said Mrs. Knox.
The concrete issue had to do with his failure to take a physical examination on the appointed day. These physicals, 60 Minutes viewers were told, were routine annual requirements. An officer was supposed to undergo a physical on his birthday, a reasonable arrangement designed to allocate medical resources.
But Bush didn’t take the exam that day.
An awful, irreverent thought enters impious minds. Namely: So what?
So he missed the physical. What did the postponement of it have to do with–anything of current interest? No one has charged that he missed the physical in order to conceal something. Conceal what? That he had syphilis, and didn’t want to show up with the medics until his antibiotics had dispelled all traces of it? That he had taken to defying military authority to express his iconoclasm?
It was stressed that he had sought leave, and been given it, to move to the Air Guard unit in Alabama, which would permit him a role in the Senate campaign of Winton Blount.
Giving him leave didn’t affect pressing military concerns. “In 1972,” according to retired Colonel William Campenni, who flew with Bush in 1970 and 1971, “there was an enormous glut of pilots. The Vietnam War was winding down, and the Air Force was putting pilots in desk jobs. In ‘72 or ‘73, if you were a pilot, active or Guard, and you had an obligation and wanted to get out, no problem. In fact, you were helping them solve their problem.”
And then the theme is advanced that Bush got into the Guard because of influence. Service in the Guard was coveted, because homeland duty is clearly preferable to overseas duty in combat zones. But Guard units were hardly cloistered. Air Guard pilots flew 24,124 sorties and 38,614 combat hours in Southeast Asia during the months after Bush started his service. The scholar Charles Gross records that “85 percent of the personnel in the Vietnam-based 355th Tactical Fighter Squadron . . . were Air Guardsmen.”
Bush began his training in May 1968. He did six weeks of basic training, 53 weeks of flight training, and 21 weeks of fighter-interceptor training. Guardsmen were required to accumulate a minimum of 50 points annually to meet their yearly obligation. Bush accumulated 253 points his first year, and a total of 589 points in the succeeding three years, before his Alabama leg and his discharge.
Was there influence accountable for his getting into the National Guard?
Here is a subject best ignored, but when raised, requiring basic sophistication. Grown-up people know that influence is everywhere used. When Bush joined the Air Guard, his father was only a congressman, having failed to be elected to the Senate. So George W. could get away with–what? His father didn’t exactly own the National Guard. So he got in because his father was in Congress and his grandfather had been in the Senate?
Anybody who believes that influence isn’t a factor in life was never asked to write a letter to a Congressman asking him kindly to endorse the application of Joey from next door to enter West Point. That’s how much of life works. Influence is not to be confused with corruption. Influence can get you to the head of the line to get your driver’s license; corruption is when you fail the test, but get the license anyway.
Lt. Bush flew successfully, adroitly, admirably. His inclination to move on after four years to help a Republican candidate is testimony to a lively disposition, in a 25-year old, to move on, to undertake another challenge. He did this in Alabama and, after his discharge, went on to Harvard Business School (what influence got him through the rigorous exams they give you at Harvard?), getting his degree. Then back to Texas into business, then politics, then the governorship, then the White House. How did he get to the White House? Influence with the voters.