Dan Rather might have made some journalistic errors in pursuing the story of George W. Bush’s National Guard duty, but he got the underlying narrative right.
Anyone who has worked at a television network has loads of stories about pieces that were spiked or totally suppressed because the corporation went into damage-control mode. One recent example: 60 Minutes.
On December 3, during a congenial retrospective presentation — “Fifty Years of 60 Minutes” — the iconic news program re-lived some of the show’s biggest moments: trophy interviews, scoops and revelations, and, commendably, a few jumbo mistakes.
But in the course of serving up confessions, such as Mike Wallace’s spiked interview with a tobacco company whistleblower, to which they devoted only a few seconds, they also mentioned how they were led astray on a key incident in the career of George W. Bush. And they blamed it on the sloppy reporting of Dan Rather and his producers.
By doing so, the network perpetuated a serious fiction about the 2004 election, in a way that only underlined its cowardice in dealing with an embarrassing scandal.
The real problem with Rather was not — as CBS would have us believe — that he failed to properly vet a fake document during an investigation into whether George W. Bush pulled strings to avoid combat duty in Vietnam.
In fact, the documentation for Bush’s self-serving actions is clear and compelling.
The core issue is what CBS left unsaid. Rather’s producers were poking into an authentic story that powerful political forces had long been trying to suppress: how the then-President of the United States, who had taken the country into war in Iraq under false pretenses, resulting in untold unnecessary deaths, himself had gone AWOL from military service years earlier — and covered it up.
That’s a big deal. And a news organization worth its salt doesn’t run from the truth.
Another mainstream outlet, the Los Angeles Times, mocked Rather by putting the word “Truth” in quotation marks in the title of a story published in 2015 — “Dan Rather is sticking to the ‘Truth’ of his story about George W. Bush.” But at least that newspaper gave him a chance to defend himself. In his response, Rather made clear that he regrets the use of documentation that was not properly vetted. But he went on to strongly refute any inference that this invalidates the thrust of the original report:
“It’s not a matter of opinion whether the central facts of the story were true or not; it’s true,” he says of the 2004 report. “One: That through the influence of his politically powerful father, George W. Bush got into a so-called champagne unit of the Air National Guard as a way of assuring he wouldn’t have to go to Vietnam. And two: After he got in… he disappeared for more than a year.”
We agree. To find out why, and for all the sordid details, have a look at this story, previously published by WhoWhatWhy.
(Original publishing date October 15, 2015)
George W. Bush sent thousands of Americans to their deaths in wars that could have been avoided — while he himself dodged the draft as a young man. Dan Rather’s reporting on how Bush allegedly got away with it led to the famed television news anchorman’s spectacular downfall.
A new film, Truth, starring Robert Redford as Rather, and Cate Blanchett as his producer Mary Mapes, claims to show what really happened. The film is about to open, and we haven’t seen it yet. But we thought you’d be interested in WhoWhatWhy editor Russ Baker’s own discoveries on the tricks behind the scenes to rewrite history — including indications that a trap was laid for Rather and Mapes, with the goal of scaring all media off the investigative trail. Here, from his best-seller Family of Secrets, are related excerpts. (This is the first of a two-part series.)
The Skeleton in W.’s Closet
Even before George W. Bush attained his first public office, his handlers were aware of a skeleton rattling noisily in his closet. It was one that undercut the legend of principle and duty — the story of a man’s man and patriot. It would have to be disposed of.
At a televised debate in 1994 between incumbent Texas governor Ann Richards and challenger George W., Austin television reporter Jim Moore asked Bush to explain how he had gotten so quickly and easily into National Guard pilot training as an alternative to serving in Vietnam.
Candidate Bush simply asserted that favoritism had played no role and that he had honorably served. End of discussion. There were no follow-up questions.
But the moment the debate was over, Bush’s communications director, Karen Hughes, came at the journalist. “Karen just makes a beeline for me and gets in my face and tries to separate me from the crowd,” Moore said. “Then she starts a rant.
‘What kind of question is that? Why did you ask that question? Who do you think you are? That’s just not relevant to being governor of Texas. He’s not trying to run the federal government. He’s going to run the state of Texas. What does his service in the National Guard have to do with anything? He doesn’t have an army to run here in Texas. Why would you ask such a question, Jim?’”
In response to Hughes, Moore said, “It’s about character, Karen. It’s about his generation and mine coming of age, and how we dealt with what we all viewed as a bad war.”
As the reporter was turning to go file his story, Bush’s chief strategist, Karl Rove, came at him next. “‘What was that question, Moore?’ And I said, ‘Well, you know what it was, Karl.’ I said it’s a fair question. And he said, ‘It wasn’t fair. It doesn’t have anything to do with anything.’”
Bush’s handlers thought they could get reporters off a story by intimidating them. Often they turned out to be right. It sometimes seems that the entire story of George W. Bush’s life has been rewritten by hired hands.
Allbaugh told James that Karen Hughes and Bartlett would be coming out to Camp Mabry, which was on the outskirts of Austin, to comb through the records in preparation for a book on Bush, and he instructed the general to have the records prescreened. According to Burkett, Allbaugh said, “Just get rid of the embarrassments.”
Just one of hundreds of such examples: During his unsuccessful Midland congressional bid in 1978, W.’s campaign literature described his wartime service as “Air Force” — a claim also made for him in Poppy’s autobiography. Presumably both men knew the difference between the National Guard and the Air Force. Nevertheless, that claim remained in W.’s official biography until the 2000 presidential campaign, at which point the correction was quietly made.
After Bush’s election as governor in 1994, his political team worked to inoculate their man against further inquiries into his Guard service. Dan Bartlett, an eager staff aide then in his twenties, and with no military service of his own, was named as liaison between the governor and the National Guard. And Bush replaced Texas’s adjutant general Sam Turk, the administrative head of the Guard, who had been appointed by Governor Richards, with General Daniel James.
Cleaning up the Texas Guard records became a lot easier once W. was the titular commander in chief of the state’s National Guard units. The effort got under way just months after Bush’s inauguration. On May 16, 1995, Joe Allbaugh, by then Bush’s chief of staff, met with Guard officials and asked to see Bush’s personnel records. Three days later, they were sent over to the governor’s office from the office of the outgoing adjutant general. “I am enclosing copies of the Texas Air National Guard personnel records for Mr. Daniel O. Shelley and Governor George W. Bush,” wrote Turk.
It is not clear why Shelley’s records were also requested, except that he was about to be named Bush’s legislative director. In any case, asking for two records rather than one likely was a form of cover — comparable to what happened in 1972 when George W. Bush failed to take his mandatory National Guard physical and was joined in this violation by his friend Jim Bath. In each instance, the special treatment accorded W. was made to seem more “routine” by the fact that at least one other person was included.
That the people around the governor were concerned was evident when Dan Bartlett traveled to Denver to personally review the microfiche copy of Bush’s records on file at the Air Reserve Personnel Center.
Enter Bill Burkett
In 1996, the new adjutant general, Daniel James, hired Lieutenant Colonel Bill Burkett, a former Guardsman and tough cattle rancher who doubled as a private management consultant, to lead a task force assessing the state of the organization. Burkett returned several months later with a devastating report, documenting how outmoded, inefficient, unprepared, and even corrupt the service was.
What Burkett and his team discovered went way beyond unjustified promotions of politically connected officers. They also uncovered that the Texas Guard rolls were full of “ghost soldiers,” military personnel kept on the books after they had left the unit to justify the continued flow of money allocated for their pay. Equally important, the ghost numbers made units appear to be at authorized troop levels when reviewed by state and federal authorities.
Burkett and his team believed their findings were so important and so sensitive that they had to take them straight to the top. Not knowing who was responsible for the fraud, “we decided we had to go to the boss,” Burkett recalled. But James, the man governor Bush had handpicked to run the Guard, seemed far more upset about the breach of military procedure in reporting the news of corruption and malfeasance than in the news itself. According to Burkett, James responded: “Now guys, I want to know what I’m supposed to tell the chief of staff, Colonel Goodwin, when he wants to have your heads ’cause you violated the chain of command and came in here over his head.”
When Burkett asked for — and received — a promise of funding from the Clinton-Gore administration to begin repairing holes in the Guard, Governor Bush angrily declined the help. According to Burkett, Bush’s chief of staff, Joe Allbaugh, informed General James that henceforth his primary function was to ensure that Bill Burkett be kept as far as possible from the media.
“Just get rid of the embarrassments.”
Meanwhile, according to Burkett, there was discussion of Bush’s impending presidential bid and how it would become a priority for state officials. One day in 1997, Burkett said, he was in the vicinity of General James’s office when a call came in. James took it on the speakerphone. It was Joe Allbaugh, with Bush’s Guard liaison Dan Bartlett on the line. According to Burkett, Allbaugh told James that Karen Hughes and Bartlett would be coming out to Camp Mabry, which was on the outskirts of Austin, to comb through the records in preparation for a book on Bush, and he instructed the general to have the records prescreened. According to Burkett, Allbaugh said, “Just get rid of the embarrassments.”
About ten days after Allbaugh’s call, Burkett claims, he came upon Guard officials going through Bush’s records and observed a trash can nearby that included between twenty and forty pages of Bush’s military documents. Burkett had a few moments to see what they contained.
Another Guard officer and friend of Burkett’s, George Conn, would later corroborate much of this story, but then withdraw confirmation while steadfastly maintaining that Burkett was an honorable and truthful man. Clearly, Conn was in a difficult position, working for the military on a civilian contract, while his wife served as head of the secretarial pool for a large law firm that was a leading bundler of campaign contributions to the Bush campaigns.
“I was there. I know what I saw in the trash. I know what actions I saw taking place,” Burkett told me during one of several lengthy conversations. One of the documents that has been missing from the released files, Burkett claims, is a “counseling statement” from a senior officer to Bush, explaining why he was grounded and the changes to his assignment, slot, and pay rate. Burkett told me he glimpsed Bush’s counseling statement at the top of the discard stack, but did not have time to read it through.
“In a perfect world, I guess I should have just stepped up and grabbed the files and made a federal case of it all right there,” he said. “Looking back, I probably would have. It would have been simpler to have confronted the whole mess right then and there.”
Burkett, whose claims would surface publicly on a Web site for a Texas veterans’s group in 2000 and were subsequently detailed in Jim Moore’s 2004 book, Bush’s War for Reelection, first made his allegations within Guard circles in 1997. The next year he laid them out in letters to state legislators and in eight missives to Bush himself, addressing broad problems with the Guard, as well as in sworn public testimony.
“Dan Bartlett knew about it,” Burkett said.
“I called Dan in May or June 1998. I told him it’s gotten to the point where you need a new [National Guard] adjutant general.”
Burkett was pulled away to other projects, and then in 1998 abruptly and unexpectedly dispatched on federal orders to Panama. On his trip home, he fell seriously ill. It was when he had trouble receiving proper medical care under his benefits package that he tried to use his knowledge of the destruction of Bush’s military record as leverage.
Even efforts by Texas congressman Charles Stenholm and the surgeon general to arrange hospital care for Burkett were rebuffed by Guard headquarters. Two close friends of Burkett’s within the Guard who tried to get him help for emergency medical bills — George Conn and Harvey Gough — would themselves be fired from the Guard.
To this day, it remains unclear whether the treatment of Burkett was retribution for embarrassing the Guard with claims of corruption and of the destruction of documents concerning George W. Bush’s service.
The undeniable fact is that essential paperwork one would expect to find in W.’s file somehow was missing. This included records of how the military handled Bush’s transfer to Alabama, documentation of additional service after May 1972 or an explanation of why no such evidence existed, and a report from the panel that typically convened when a pilot stopped flying prematurely. However it happened, it certainly would appear that someone purged parts of the governor’s National Guard file.
“Accident” at National Records Center
Circa 1997, the same year as the trash-can incident, microfilm containing military pay records for hundreds of Guardsmen, including Bush, was irreversibly damaged at a national records center. When the government finally acknowledged the incident seven years later, it was described as an accident during a routine “restoration” effort.
Until May 23, 2000, the efforts of Bush’s team to keep their man’s military record from public view seemed to be succeeding. Then, with Bush closing in on the GOP presidential nomination, The Boston Globe ran a story headlined, 1-YEAR GAP IN BUSH’S GUARD DUTY: NO RECORD OF AIRMAN AT DRILLS IN 1972 — Reporter Walter Robinson had obtained and reviewed 160 pages of military documents. It was Robinson who first interviewed Bush’s former commanders, only to discover that none could recall Bush performing service during that period.
The Globe’s revelations gave rise to a veritable cottage industry of bloggers, with citizen journalists launching their own inquiries, complete with their own Freedom of Information requests. Together they provided sophisticated, rigorous analysis of the fine points of military procedure and record keeping.
Evidence of Service: a Torn Scrap of Paper?
The Bush camp swung into damage-control mode. Bartlett called in the retired Guard personnel director, General Albert Lloyd, and asked him to review W.’s record to look for any proof of his service. Armed with a request letter from Bush for access to his files, and, as he confirmed to me, left alone in the records room at Camp Mabry, Lloyd found a torn piece of paper with Bush’s social security number and a series of numbers. Though no one explained why the paper had come to be torn, or established the authenticity or validity of the document, it would be turned over to news organizations and the visible partial-date information extrapolated upon as evidence of service.
Bush carried into the White House with him an official biography that by now reflected an already thoroughly discredited scenario:
“George W. Bush was commissioned as second lieutenant and spent two years on active duty, flying F-102 fighter interceptors. For almost four years after that, he was on a part- time status, flying occasional missions to help the Air National Guard keep two of its F-102s on round-the-clock service.”
Yet, in actuality, after he went on part-time status, Bush did not fly for four more years, but rather just one year and nine months.
Since that time, the White House has, without acknowledging or explaining the changes, repeatedly revised the script. Ultimately, the latter period of Bush’s Guard service would be presented this way: after April 1972 the high-flying and highly visible pilot suddenly becomes a ground-hugging reservist reading manuals in back offices both in Alabama and in Texas, unobserved by his former flight mates, and therefore unremembered.
The personable Bush, once nicknamed “the Lip” and “the Bombastic Bushkin,” had disappeared into a cubbyhole. In spite of this, when he became governor, his F-102 was symbolically refurbished like new, and a ceremony honoring his service was held, featuring Bush-supplied promotional materials containing the misleading biographical information.
Meanwhile, the original justification for Bush’s staff to review his Guard records — that they were seeking information to include in his “autobiography” — proved suspect. When the book, A Charge to Keep, finally appeared, all mentions of his Guard duty were couched in the vaguest possible language.
“It was exciting the first time I flew and it was exciting the last time … I continued flying with my unit for the next several years … My fellow pilots were interesting people … We were different, but we worked well together …”
From the moment journalists started to look into Bush’s military records, it was clear that some essential documents were missing. But after initial Freedom of Information requests had elicited the “complete record,” other documents — such as laudatory press releases — were mysteriously supplied in response to later rounds of FOIA requests. There was no adequate explanation of where these new documents came from.
Bush Accused: The Lottery Gambit
In 1996, an anonymous letter reached the US attorney in Austin. The letter, whose existence was revealed in a later legal proceeding, was apparently written by someone with knowledge of the situation. The letter referred to former Texas house speaker Ben Barnes, and alleged that in 1968 Barnes knew about or was involved with favoritism in dispensing of coveted Guard slots, including Bush’s. According to the letter writer, Governor Bush had been so desperate to suppress information about his admission to the Guard that he had rewarded Barnes with a lucrative contract.
The letter alleges that the situation unfolded in the following way:
The state of Texas had, under Democrat Ann Richards, awarded the lucrative state lottery contract to GTech Corporation, which was represented by Barnes, who had signed a lifetime deal with the company. It gave Barnes a percentage of revenues generated by the lottery; the arrangement, worth millions, made him the highest-paid lobbyist in Texas history.
When Bush came into office, he appointed his attorney Harriet Miers to head the Lottery Commission. Miers, consulting closely with Karl Rove, went right to work scrutinizing the GTech deal and quickly decided the state could do better than continue with the firm appointed by a Democratic predecessor. “The time has come,” Miers wrote in a February 18, 1997, memo. “I am convinced the Texas Lottery Commission and the State of Texas will be best served by the re-bid of the Lottery Operator contract as soon as possible.”
The commission hired a lottery expert, Larry Littwin, who moved aggressively for rebidding. At that point, according to the anonymous letter writer, Bush’s aide Reggie Bashur got Barnes to agree — in return for GTech keeping the lucrative lottery contract — not to talk about Bush’s fortuitous admission to the Champagne Unit.
Added the letter writer: “Governor Bush knows his election campaign might have had a different result if this story had been confirmed at the time.” Littwin was abruptly fired by the commission after he resisted renewing the GTech contract. He then filed a wrongful termination suit. In court pleadings at the time of the lawsuit, Barnes and his attorneys described the notion that the contract renewal was a favor repaid as “fanciful and preposterous.”
Help From the Dead
After being deposed as part of Littwin’s lawsuit, Barnes issued a statement saying that “neither Bush’s father nor any other member of the Bush family” asked Barnes for help getting W. into the Guard. Instead, Barnes indicated in his written statement that he had been contacted by a third party, Houston businessman Sidney Adger, a wealthy friend of George H.W. Bush’s, who, Barnes claimed, had asked him to recommend the younger Bush “for a pilot position at the Air National Guard.” Barnes said he did just that.
In September 1999, at the time Littwin’s lawsuit was being adjudicated, The Dallas Morning News published the more benign Adger narrative. “Former Texas House Speaker Ben Barnes has told friends that in the late 1960s, a well-known Houston oilman asked him to help George W. Bush get a spot in the Texas Air National Guard,” the newspaper story reported.
“Two of those friends, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said in recent interviews that Mr. Barnes identified the oilman as Sidney A. Adger, a longtime Bush family acquaintance who died in 1996.”
And there was a requisite non-denial denial. “‘All I know is anybody named George Bush did not ask [Barnes] for help,’ said the governor and GOP presidential front-runner while campaigning in New Hampshire.”
It was a wonderful non-story — a dead man had supposedly called someone to request assistance in gaining W. admission to a unit filled with children of privilege who had gotten into it through connections. In another break for W., though copies of the accusatory anonymous letter were leaked to a few Texas reporters, they were never published.
As part of the cleanup operation on Bush’s Guard years, Don Evans, who ran Governor Bush’s 1998 reelection effort and chaired his presidential campaign, was dispatched for a chat with Barnes. The purpose was to dispel a rumor that the senior Bush had solicited Barnes’s help during an encounter in a private box at the Bluebonnet Bowl football game in December 1967. Evans returned with word that Barnes had no memory of the elder Bush asking for any such consideration. W. wrote Barnes personally to express his thanks and also to add another denial to the paper trail.
“Dear Ben,” Bush wrote, “Don Evans reported your conversation. Thank you for your candor and for killing the rumor about you and dad ever discussing my status. Like you, he never remembered any conversation. I appreciate your help.”
Why did Bush choose Don Evans for this sensitive mission? The most likely explanation seems to be a prior connection between Evans and Barnes, one that was carefully guarded for many years. The delicacy of Evans’s position became apparent when Fox News’s Brit Hume was interviewing him at the 2000 convention. Only an extremely observant viewer might have noticed how evasive Evans was on a particular point: the exact year he had first come to know George W. Bush. Here’s a transcript excerpt from Fox:
HUME: And awaiting Texas’[s] turn to finally cast its votes, we are joined by Governor George W. Bush’s very good friend and campaign chairman, Don Evans, a fellow Texan. Known him for what 30, 31 years?
EVANS: About 30 years … He’s a guy that I knew early on. And we met in 1975 really is when we became great friends. [italics added]
Evans starts to say that he met Bush in 1975, then realizes that he can’t say that because it is not true. Mid-sentence, he makes a subtle shift: 1975 is when the two really became great friends. It is not when they first met. The distinction might seem trivial. But consider the backstory.
It turns out that Evans, the man most responsible for raising the massive sums that made W. president, had firsthand knowledge of W.’s National Guard saga. Back in 1968, Evans was attending the University of Texas at Austin and dating the woman who would become his wife, Susie Marinis — a childhood friend of George W. Bush’s. But even more significant is this: Susie Marinis was Ben Barnes’s secretary. Ben Barnes confirmed this to me in 2004. Thus, Marinis is the reason that Evans and Bush knew each other in the first place — and the glue between Barnes and Bush.
There were other things that W. told Herskowitz about what makes a successful leader. Prominent among them, the future president of the United States confided, was the benefit of starting a war.
Ultimately, the most telling detail may be the simple fact that at the time Ben Barnes helped George W. Bush get into the National Guard, his secretary was Bush’s childhood friend. With connections like that, who needed a phone call from Sid Adger? In 2004, when Barnes finally “went public” with what he knew on CBS’s 60 Minutes II, that point about Marinis and Evans was never raised.
Another person who figures in the Bush Guard story is Robert Spellings, who in 1968 was Ben Barnes’s chief of staff. According to the anonymous letter sent to the US attorney in 1996, Spellings not only knew about the favoritism shown to W., but in the mid-nineties was gossiping about it. “Robert Spellings also knows about this and began telling the story which made a lot of people nervous,” wrote the informant. “I am told that Spellings was also an aide to Barnes at the time this took place.”
The authorship of the letter never was determined. But one of its effects was to give a boost to Spellings’s personal fortunes. He had gained clout with the 1990 victory of Ann Richards, with whom he had been close. But when Bush beat Richards, Spellings was on the outs — a bad position for a lobbyist. Soon after the letter arrived at the US Attorney’s Office, however, Spellings’s luck and life changed dramatically.
Spellings was introduced to Margaret LaMontagne, a longtime Karl Rove protégé serving as an adviser to Governor Bush. The two, both previously married, began dating. Spellings’s new clients included the Texas Thoroughbred Association, one of whose directors was John Adger, a friend and former Champagne Unit colleague of George W. Bush’s, and the son of the man Barnes claimed had called him to get W. preferential treatment in the National Guard.
With W.’s 2000 victory, LaMontagne moved to Washington, where as assistant to the president for domestic policy, she helped create the “No Child Left Behind” program. In 2005 Bush named her secretary of education. In 2001, Spellings and LaMontagne were married — after he proposed to her over the microphone at an Austin dinner held, fittingly, to honor Karl Rove.
Perhaps Rove’s involvement in this political love match was no more than that of a friend. But it also served a larger purpose: once Spellings became LaMontagne’s boyfriend and then husband, he was effectively removed as a witness to the suppression of Bush’s National Guard service story — an obvious political time bomb for Governor Bush.
Body Language Again
Spellings is sensitive about inquiries. When he heard that I had been asking questions about him, he called me and demanded to know why. I arranged to see him at the Washington law firm he had joined after marrying LaMontagne, and through which he works as a lobbyist. When I arrived at his offices with a colleague in December 2006, he ushered us into a conference room, spent the first minutes or so in a tirade against the press, and then insisted he would only consent to an interview if he was allowed to videotape me — so that he could “study my body language” later.
Studying body language is a favorite gambit of George W. Bush, as Ron Suskind recounts in The One Percent Doctrine. It is not clear whether Spellings picked it up from the president. But videotaping a private meeting with a print journalist in which note taking and audio recording are the norm seemed in this instance an effort to intimidate. When Spellings insisted on this, I left.
A Flight of Fancy
Texas governors from Republican Bill Clements to Democrat Ann Richards routinely visited Guard headquarters at Camp Mabry. All except George W. Bush. “In his eight years as governor, he never one time went to Camp Mabry,” said one Mabry veteran. “How far was it from the office? A five-minute drive if you are driving in a normal car. If you had an escort, it’s a three-minute drive. You could almost hit it with a tank round.”
All this makes doubly interesting a lengthy anecdote Evans shared during Bush’s first presidential race. According to Evans, during the summer of 1976, in Midland, W. took Evans up in a Cessna. Evans chortled over Bush’s problems with the controls — though Bush’s original flight training was in a Cessna. Evans actually had to issue instructions: “Give it some gas!” It was a heart-stopping landing and — according to Texas reporter and author Bill Minutaglio — “the last time [Bush] flew a plane.”
Evans told this story to Minutaglio in June 1998, at the precise time that Evans and his team were busy cleaning up the messy spots in Bush’s résumé, especially his National Guard service. In their world of deception, calculation and counter-calculation, it is impossible to know with certainty why Evans thought it important to share this seemingly embarrassing story about his friend and candidate with a reporter, or whether it simply slipped out.
Nevertheless, while this story presents W. as a bumbler, it also appears to refute the evidence that W. never flew again after walking away from his duty as an Air National Guard pilot in 1972. That’s important, because of Janet Linke’s story, recounted in chapter 8, about W. being afraid to fly and having trouble handling the controls of his jet — a story that could have been politically damaging if it gained momentum.
And they cannot have it both ways. If the Evans story of W.’s shaky performance in a small, simple civilian plane were true, it would cast doubt upon the carefully choreographed moment in which Bush emerged in pilot’s garb from a jet on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln in 2003 to celebrate “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq. The image — instantly telegraphed around the globe and reinforced by subsequent White House statements about his capacity in the cockpit — created the impression that a heroic Bush had played a role in flying the craft.
A Charge to Keep
During his presidential campaign, W. collaborated with a professional writer on A Charge to Keep, a book that was intended to introduce the candidate to the American public. Mickey Herskowitz was a longtime Texas journalist, known both as a sports columnist and as a prolific ghostwriter of biographies.
At the beginning, Herskowitz had no idea of the extent to which W. was treading on eggshells. According to Herskowitz, W. was a confusing combination of cautious and candid. Sometimes, he would say something in an offhanded way that would later prove to be explosive. One such bombshell concerned his military service.
Herskowitz says that Bush was reluctant to discuss his time in the Texas Air National Guard — and inconsistent when he did so. Among other things, he provided conflicting explanations of how he came to bypass a waiting list and obtain a coveted Guard slot as a domestic alternative to Vietnam.
When the subject came up, W. sought to quickly deflect the conversation to the summer of 1972 — when he moved to Montgomery, Alabama, to work on the Winton Blount senatorial campaign. And what did you do about your remaining military service? Herskowitz asked. “Nothing,” Bush replied. “I was excused.” [emphasis added]
Of course, W. had not been excused, so this was not true. Even more interesting, however, is that this would constitute Bush’s only admission that he had not continued to fulfill his military service obligation.
At the time, however, Bush’s service record had not become a subject of contention, so his answers seemed only mildly interesting to Herskowitz. Pressing on, the biographer asked W. if he ever flew a plane again after leaving the Texas Air National Guard in 1972. He said Bush told him he never flew any plane — military or civilian — again.
But a story had circulated among the press, in which W. took some of the inner-city kids at PULL [Professional United Leadership League, an inner-city youth program] up in a plane in 1973 — and stalled the engine to teach the unruly kids a lesson. If Herskowitz is correct, then the PULL story, combined with Evans’s yarn during the 2000 election, look like deliberate attempts to foster the impression that he did indeed fly again. The bit about scaring the children looks like the kind of compelling detail that ensures the wide circulation of a story.
This is an apt example of Bush’s favored technique, as described in chapter 19, of intentionally burying stories in plain sight for enterprising reporters to find and publicize.
“Delete it. Shred it. Just do it.”
Herskowitz began writing W.’s book in May 1999. Within two months, he says, he had completed and submitted some ten chapters, with a remaining four to six chapters still on his computer. Then he began hearing of concern from within the Bush campaign.
Ostensibly, the matter that troubled the Bush team the most was a trifling one. W. had described his Midland-based oil companies as “floundering,” seemingly an innocuous and even understated characterization of his undistinguished business career. But his handlers were steamed.
“I got a call from one of the campaign lawyers,” Herskowitz recalled. “He was kind of angry, and he said, ‘You’ve got some wrong information.’ I didn’t bother to say, ‘Well, you know where it came from.’ [The lawyer] said, ‘We do not consider that the governor struggled or floundered in the oil business. We consider him a successful oilman who started up at least two new businesses.’”
It was downhill from there. Before long, Herskowitz was told that he was being pulled off the project, that his work would not be used, and they demanded all his materials back. “The lawyer called me and said, ‘Delete it. Shred it. Just do it.’ ”
A campaign official arrived at his home unexpectedly at seven AM on a Monday morning and took his notes and computer files. He had not expected them to come so abruptly, nor so early in the morning, nor to be quite so aggressive in seizing and removing all his documentation of Bush’s thoughts. Mickey summed up the end of his book labors this way: “They took it, and [Communications Director] Karen [Hughes] rewrote it.”
After Herskowitz was pulled from the Bush book project, he learned that a scenario was being prepared to explain his departure. “I got a phone call from someone in the Bush campaign, confidentially, saying, ‘Watch your back.’”
Reporters covering Bush say that when they asked why Herskowitz was no longer on the project, Hughes intimated that Herskowitz was hitting the bottle — a claim Herskowitz said was unfounded. Later, the campaign put out the word that Herskowitz had been removed for missing a deadline. Hughes subsequently finished the book herself; it received largely negative reviews for its self-serving qualities and lack of spontaneity or introspection …
As for A Charge to Keep, Herskowitz keeps thinking about what might have happened if the public had learned how W. really thinks. “He told me that as a leader, you can never admit to a mistake …”
There were other things that W. told Herskowitz about what makes a successful leader. Prominent among them, the future president of the United States confided, was the benefit of starting a war.
What was a guy who had apparently skipped out on military service, and ditched his National Guard service prematurely, doing sending thousands of National Guardsmen into combat in a foreign country for a war initiated through deception?
And why, after so many years, if Bush had fulfilled his military obligation as he was supposed to, was it so incredibly difficult to verify that seemingly simple fact?
The answer to these questions harkens back to the same skillful perception management and psy-ops that enabled the administration to sell the invasion in the first place. It also enabled W. to banish the ghosts of his own less-than-admirable past. The personal, it turned out, was political indeed.
Next: Part 2.