The frustrating thing about this story is the widespread impression that because there remain so many unanswered questions about Bush's extended absence from Texas Air National Guard duty, somehow the "real" scandal hasn't been uncovered yet. This seeming mystery indeed was at the root of Howard Kurtz's absurd dismissal of the story. And indeed there are many questions about Bush's service record that need answering.
But the reality is that what we know about his record now should be considered a scandal, and should have been since it was uncovered during the campaign.
Namely, there is this salient point:
Bush blew off his commitment to the Texas Air National Guard by failing to take a physical, and thereafter failing to report to his superior officers at his old unit for at least seven months. His flight status was revoked, and he never flew again -- at least, not until the Lincoln stunt.
These facts have never been disputed since they were uncovered, and in fact were acknowledged by Bush's spokespeople. Moreover, as Joe Conason has already noted, Bush actually falsified this aspect of his service in his ghost-written autobiography, A Charge to Keep, describing his pilot's training in some detail, then concluding: ''I continued flying with my unit for the next several years." In fact, Bush was suspended from flying 22 months after he completed his training -- a period that does not even generously fit Bush's description.
Several of Bush's former superiors in the TANG -- most of whom remain on friendly terms with the president -- have defended his service and suggested that there was nothing wrong with Bush's behavior in what for most other servicemen would be considered a fairly clear case of dereliction of duty.
Consider, for instance, the rationalization offered by Albert Lloyd Jr., a retired TANG colonel, in the Boston Globe story that in many respects was the most serious effort by anyone in the mainstream media to examine the issue:
- But Lloyd said it is possible that since Bush had his sights set on discharge and the unit was beginning to replace the F-102s, Bush's superiors told him he was not ''in the flow chart. Maybe George Bush took that as a signal and said, 'Hell, I'm not going to bother going to drills.'
''Well, then it comes rating time, and someone says, 'Oh...he hasn't fulfilled his obligation.' I'll bet someone called him up and said, 'George, you're in a pickle. Get your ass down here and perform some duty.' And he did,'' Lloyd said.
This rationalization, of course, begs the question: What if anyone else had pulled such a stunt?
The reality is servicemen do not ordinarily have the option of deciding whether or not to attend drills. They do not typically have the option of shortening their commitment to the task for which they have been trained based solely on their own assessments of where they fit into the scheme of things. Those decision are made by their superiors. Moreover, the military considers the training of its personnel to be a significant asset that it protects, particularly for high-skill positions like jet-fighter pilots. This training is expensive, and pilots' status -- particularly their availability for potential combat -- is a carefully monitored commodity.
Secondarily: If Joe Shlabotnik had failed to fulfill his commitment, would anyone have bothered to call him and urge him to find a way out of his "pickle" -- before the MPs came and took him away?
[Lloyd's hypothesis also is somewhat at odds with reality; though the F-102s were scheduled for phase-out, this would not occur until well after the completion of Bush's original six-year commitment.]
As Uggabugga observes in his terrific graphical presentation of the entire case surrounding Bush's military service:
- Expensively trained pilots are not casually suspended. There is normally a Flight Inquiry Board. If one had been convened, its three senior officer members would have documented why such a severe action was justified in relation to the country's military objectives at the time, as opposed to the simple desire of a trained pilot to just "give up flying".
There is no evidence now in the public domain that a Flight Inquiry Board was convened to deal with Bush's official reclassification to a non-flying, grounded status.
This absence of a Flight Inquiry Board is of particular interest to veteran pilots. The implication is that Bush's misconduct was handled like everything else in his military service: aided and abetted by powerful family connections.
There remain many other questions about Bush's service, of course. Why exactly did he refuse to take a physical? Was it related to the plans then in the works to begin drug-testing military pilots? And why don't the various stories about his supposed fulfillment of his duties while working in Alabama on a senatorial election campaign jibe? Why have the documents related to this service been altered in some cases? Indeed, the ultimate question may be: Why does Bush refuse to release his military records?
This question alone should have set off journalists' instincts around the country. That it has not so far remains, I think, one of the chief pieces of continuing evidence supporting Eric Alterman's thesis in What Liberal Media? that whatever liberal bias once existed in the media has been thoroughly supplanted with a painfully obvious conservative bias, one that has permeated the culture of newsrooms to the point that questions which once would have intrigued any thinking reporter are now airily dismissed in the name of avoiding charges of "liberal bias."
For those who want the documented goods on Bush's military records, be sure to visit Martin Heldt's Web site. Marty's an Iowa farmer who decided to make use of FOIA and get ahold of the actual documents, most of which have been reproduced. (For a more partisan and somewhat sensational, yet reasonably accurate, take on the matter, visit AWOLBush.com.)
But forget all these unanswered questions. Just from what we know now, the question that needs answering is this: Why did Mr. Bush abandon his commitment to his country during wartime? Why did he blow off his valuable training and remove himself from flight status?
The question any serviceman should be asking is this: What if I were to treat my commitment to service just as Bush did? What if I trained to be a pilot and then refused to take a physical? And then failed to show up for any subsequent meetings of my unit? Dropped out of sight for seven months?
And then he ought to think about the big grin Bush wore along with that flight suit.