Why Bush Left Texas

Grow­ing evi­dence sug­gests that George W. Bush abrupt­ly left his Texas Air Nation­al Guard unit in 1972 for sub­stan­tive rea­sons per­tain­ing to his inabil­i­ty to con­tin­ue pilot­ing a fight­er jet.

A months-long inves­ti­ga­tion, which includes exam­i­na­tion of hun­dreds of gov­ern­ment-released doc­u­ments, inter­views with for­mer Guard mem­bers and offi­cials, mil­i­tary experts and Bush asso­ciates, points toward the con­clu­sion that Bush’s per­son­al behav­ior was caus­ing alarm among his supe­ri­or offi­cers and would ulti­mate­ly lead to his flee­ing the state to avoid a phys­i­cal exam he might have had dif­fi­cul­ty pass­ing. His fail­ure to com­plete a phys­i­cal exam became the offi­cial rea­son for his sub­se­quent sus­pen­sion from fly­ing status.

This cen­tral issue, whether Bush did or did not com­plete his duty — and if not, why — has in recent days been obscured by a rag­ing sideshow: a debate over the accu­ra­cy of doc­u­ments aired on CBS’s 60 Min­utes. Last week CBS News report­ed on new­ly unearthed mem­os pur­port­ed­ly pre­pared by Bush’s now-deceased com­mand­ing offi­cer. In those doc­u­ments, the offi­cer, Lieut. Col. Jer­ry Kil­lian, appeared to be estab­lish­ing for the record events occur­ring at the time Bush abrupt­ly left his Texas Air Nation­al Guard unit in May 1972. Among these: that Bush had failed to meet unspec­i­fied Guard stan­dards and refused a direct order to take a phys­i­cal exam, and that pres­sure was being applied on Kil­lian and his supe­ri­ors to white­wash what­ev­er trou­bling cir­cum­stances Bush was in.

Ques­tions have been raised about the authen­tic­i­ty of those mem­os, but the crit­i­cism of them appears at this time spec­u­la­tive and incon­clu­sive, while their sub­stance is con­sis­tent with a grow­ing body of doc­u­men­ta­tion and analysis.

If it is demon­strat­ed that pro­found behav­ioral prob­lems marred Bush’s wartime per­for­mance and even cut short his ser­vice, it could seri­ous­ly chal­lenge Bush’s essen­tial appeal as a mil­i­tary stew­ard and guardian of soci­etal val­ues. It could also explain the incom­plete, con­tra­dic­to­ry and shift­ing expla­na­tions pro­vid­ed by the Bush camp for the Pres­i­den­t’s strik­ing invis­i­bil­i­ty from the mil­i­tary dur­ing the final two years of his six-year mil­i­tary oblig­a­tion. And it would explain the sav­agery and rapid­i­ty of the attack on the CBS documents.

In 1972 Bush’s unit activ­i­ties under­went a change that could point to a degra­da­tion of his abil­i­ty to fly a fight­er jet. Last week, in response to a law­suit, the White House released to the Asso­ci­at­ed Press Bush’s flight logs, which show that he abrupt­ly shift­ed his empha­sis in Feb­ru­ary and March 1972 from his assigned F‑102A fight­er jet to a two-seat T‑33 train­ing jet, from which he had grad­u­at­ed sev­er­al years ear­li­er, and was put back onto a flight sim­u­la­tor. The logs also show that on two occa­sions he required mul­ti­ple attempts to land a one-seat fight­er and a fight­er sim­u­la­tor. This after Bush had already logged more than 200 hours in the one-seat F‑102A.

Mil­i­tary experts say that his new, appar­ent­ly down­grad­ed and accom­pa­nied train­ing mode, which includ­ed Bush’s some­times mov­ing into the co-pilot’s seat, can, in the­o­ry, be explained a vari­ety of ways. He could, for exam­ple, have been train­ing for a new posi­tion that might involve car­ry­ing stu­dent pilots. But the real­i­ty is that Bush him­self has nev­er men­tioned this chap­ter in his life, nor has he pro­vid­ed a cred­i­ble expla­na­tion. In addi­tion, Bush’s high­ly detailed Offi­cer Effec­tive­ness Reports make no men­tion of this rather dra­mat­ic change.

A White House spokesman explained to AP that the heavy train­ing in this more ele­men­tary capac­i­ty came at a time when Bush was try­ing to gen­er­ate more hours in antic­i­pa­tion of a six-month leave to work on a polit­i­cal cam­paign. But, in fact, this sce­nario is implau­si­ble. For one thing, Guard reg­u­la­tions did not per­mit him to log addi­tion­al hours in that man­ner as a sub­sti­tute for miss­ing six months of duty lat­er on. As sig­nif­i­cant­ly, there is no sign that Bush even con­sid­ered going to work on that cam­paign until short­ly before he depart­ed — nor that cam­paign offi­cials had any inkling at all that Bush might join them in sev­er­al months’ time.

Bush told his com­mand­ing offi­cers that he was going to Alaba­ma for an oppor­tu­ni­ty with a polit­i­cal cam­paign. (His Texas Air Nation­al Guard super­vi­sors — pre­sum­ably rely­ing on what Bush told them — would write in a report the fol­low­ing year, “A civil­ian occu­pa­tion made it nec­es­sary for him to move to Mont­gomery, Alaba­ma.”) But the tim­ing of Bush’s deci­sion to leave and his depar­ture — about the same time that he failed to take a manda­to­ry annu­al phys­i­cal exam — indi­cate that the two may have been related.

Cam­paign staff mem­bers say they knew noth­ing of Bush’s inter­est in par­tic­i­pat­ing until days before he arrived in Mont­gomery. Indeed, not one of numer­ous Bush friends from those days even recalls Bush talk­ing about going to Alaba­ma at any point before he took off.

Bush’s behav­ior in Alaba­ma sug­gests that he viewed Alaba­ma not as an impor­tant career oppor­tu­ni­ty but as a kind of nec­es­sary evil.

Although his role in the cam­paign has been rep­re­sent­ed as sub­stan­tial (in some news­pa­per accounts, he has been described as the assis­tant cam­paign man­ag­er), numer­ous cam­paign staffers say Bush’s role was neg­li­gi­ble, low lev­el and that he rou­tine­ly arrived at the cam­paign offices in the after­noon hours, brag­ging of drink­ing feats from the night before.

Accord­ing to friends of his, he kept his Hous­ton apart­ment dur­ing this peri­od and, based on their rec­ol­lec­tions, may have been com­ing back into town repeat­ed­ly dur­ing the time he was sup­pos­ed­ly work­ing full-time on the Alaba­ma cam­paign. Absences from the cam­paign have been explained as due to his respon­si­bil­i­ties to trav­el to the fur­ther reach­es of Alaba­ma, but sev­er­al staffers told me that orga­niz­ing those coun­ties was not Bush’s de fac­to responsibility.

Even more sig­nif­i­cant­ly, in a July inter­view, Lin­da Alli­son, the wid­ow of Jim­my Alli­son, the Alaba­ma cam­paign man­ag­er and a close friend of Bush’s father, revealed to me for the first time that Bush had come to Alaba­ma not because the job had appeal or because his pres­ence was required but because he need­ed to get out of Texas. “Well, you have to know Georgie,” Alli­son said. “He real­ly was a total­ly irre­spon­si­ble per­son. Big George [George H.W. Bush] called Jim­my, and said, he’s killing us in Hous­ton, take him down there and let him work on that cam­paign.… The tenor of that was, Georgie is in and out of trou­ble sev­en days a week down here, and would you take him up there with you.”

Alli­son said that the younger Bush’s drink­ing prob­lem was appar­ent. She also said that her hus­band, a cir­cum­spect man who did not gos­sip and held his cards close­ly, indi­cat­ed to her that some use of drugs was involved. “I had the impres­sion that he knew that Georgie was using pot, cer­tain­ly, and per­haps cocaine,” she said.

Now-promi­nent, estab­lished Texas fig­ures in the mil­i­tary, arts, busi­ness and polit­i­cal worlds, some of them Repub­li­cans and Bush sup­port­ers, talk about Bush’s alleged use of mar­i­jua­na and cocaine based on what they say they have heard from trust­ed friends. One mid­dle-aged woman whose gen­er­al verac­i­ty could be con­firmed told me that she met Bush in 1968 at Hemi­sphere 68, a fair in San Anto­nio, at which he tried to pick her up and offered her a white pow­der he was inhal­ing. She was then a teenag­er; Bush would have just grad­u­at­ed from Yale and have been start­ing the Nation­al Guard then. “He was get­ting real­ly aggres­sive with me,” she said. “I told him I’d call a police­man, and he laughed, and asked who would believe me.” (Although cocaine was not a wide­spread phe­nom­e­non until the 1970s, US author­i­ties were strug­gling more than a decade ear­li­er to stanch the flow from Latin Amer­i­ca; in 1967 bor­der seizures amount­ed to twen­ty-six pounds.)

Bush him­self has pub­licly admit­ted to being some­what wild in his younger years, with­out offer­ing any details. He has not explic­it­ly denied charges of drug use; gen­er­al­ly he has hedged. He has said that he could have passed the same secu­ri­ty screen­ing his father under­went upon his inau­gu­ra­tion in 1989, which cer­ti­fies no ille­gal drug use dur­ing the fif­teen pre­ced­ing years. In oth­er words, George W. Bush seemed to be say­ing that if he had used drugs, that was before 1974 or dur­ing the peri­od in which he left his Guard unit.

The fam­i­ly that rent­ed Bush a house in Mont­gomery, Alaba­ma, dur­ing that peri­od told me that Bush did exten­sive, inex­plic­a­ble dam­age to their prop­er­ty, includ­ing smash­ing a chan­de­lier, and that they unsuc­cess­ful­ly billed him twice for the dam­age — which amount­ed to approx­i­mate­ly $900, a con­sid­er­able sum in 1972. Two uncon­nect­ed close friends and acquain­tances of a well-known Mont­gomery socialite, now deceased, told me that the socialite in ques­tion told them that he and Bush had been par­ty­ing that evening at the Mont­gomery Coun­try Club, com­bin­ing drink­ing with use of illic­it drugs, and that Bush, com­plain­ing about the bright­ness, had climbed on a table and smashed the chan­de­lier when the duo stopped at his home briefly so Bush could change clothes before they head­ed out again.

It is notable that in 1972, the mil­i­tary was in the process of intro­duc­ing wide­spread drug test­ing as part of the annu­al phys­i­cal exams that pilots would undergo.

For years, mil­i­tary buffs and retired offi­cers have spec­u­lat­ed about the real rea­sons that Bush left his unit two years before his fly­ing oblig­a­tion was up. Bush and his staff have mud­died the issue by not pro­vid­ing a clear, com­pre­hen­sive and con­sis­tent expla­na­tion of his depar­ture from the unit. And, pecu­liar­ly, the Pres­i­dent has not made him­self avail­able to describe in detail what did take place at that time. Instead, the White House has adopt­ed a pol­i­cy of offer­ing obscure expla­na­tions by offi­cials who clear­ly do not know the specifics of what went on, and the peri­od­ic release of large num­bers of con­fus­ing or incon­clu­sive doc­u­ments — par­tic­u­lar­ly at the start of week­ends and hol­i­day peri­ods, when atten­tion is elsewhere.

In addi­tion, the Bush camp has offered over the past few years a shift­ing panoply of expla­na­tions that sub­se­quent­ly failed to pass muster. One was that Bush had stopped fly­ing his F‑102A jet because it was being phased out (the plane con­tin­ued to be used for at least anoth­er year). Anoth­er expla­na­tion was that he failed to take his phys­i­cal exam in 1972 because his fam­i­ly doc­tor was unavail­able. (Guard reg­u­la­tions require that phys­i­cals be con­duct­ed by doc­tors on the base, and would have been eas­i­ly arranged either on a base in Texas or, after he left the state, in Alabama.)

One of the dif­fi­cul­ties in get­ting to the truth about what real­ly took place dur­ing this peri­od is the fre­quent­ly expressed fear of ret­ri­bu­tion from the Bush orga­ni­za­tion. Many sources refuse to speak on the record, or even to have their knowl­edge com­mu­ni­cat­ed pub­licly in any way. One source who did pub­licly evince doubts about Bush’s activ­i­ties in 1972 was Dean Roome, who flew for­ma­tions often with Bush and was his room­mate for a time. “You won­der if you know who George Bush is,” Roome told USA Today in a lit­tle-appre­ci­at­ed inter­view back in 2002. “I think he digressed after awhile,” he said. “In the first half, he was gung-ho. Where George failed was to ful­fill his oblig­a­tion as a pilot. It was an irra­tional time in his life.” Yet in sub­se­quent years, Roome has revised his com­ments to a firm insis­tence that noth­ing out of the ordi­nary took place at that time, and after one inter­view he e‑mailed me mate­r­i­al rais­ing ques­tions about John Ker­ry’s mil­i­tary career. Roome, who oper­ates a curio shop in a Texas ham­let, told me that Bush aides, includ­ing com­mu­ni­ca­tions advis­er Karen Hugh­es, and even the Pres­i­dent him­self stay in touch with him.

Sev­er­al Bush asso­ciates from that peri­od say that the Bush camp has argued stren­u­ous­ly about the impor­tance of sources back­ing the Pres­i­dent up on his mil­i­tary ser­vice, cit­ing patri­o­tism, per­son­al loy­al­ty and even the claim that he lacks friends in Wash­ing­ton and must count on those from ear­ly in his life.

In 1971 Bush took his annu­al phys­i­cal exam in May. It’s rea­son­able to con­clude that he would also take his 1972 phys­i­cal in the same month. Yet accord­ing to offi­cial Guard doc­u­ments, Bush “cleared the base” on May 15 with­out doing so. Fel­low Guard mem­bers uni­form­ly agree that Bush should and could have eas­i­ly tak­en the exam with unit doc­tors at Elling­ton Air Force Base before leav­ing town. (It is inter­est­ing to note that if the Kil­lian mem­os released by CBS do hold up, one of them, dat­ed May 4, 1972, orders Bush to report for his phys­i­cal by May 14 — one day before he took off.)

Bush has indi­cat­ed that he depart­ed from Elling­ton Air Force Base and his Guard unit because he had been offered an impor­tant employ­ment oppor­tu­ni­ty with a polit­i­cal cam­paign in Alaba­ma. The over­whelm­ing evi­dence sug­gests, how­ev­er, that the Alaba­ma cam­paign was a con­ve­nient excuse for Bush to rapid­ly exit stage left from a Guard unit that found him and his behav­ior a grow­ing prob­lem. If that’s not the case, now would be an excel­lent time for a Pres­i­dent famed for his superla­tive mem­o­ry to sit down and explain what real­ly hap­pened in that period.

Cyn is Rick's wife, Katie's Mom, and Esther & Oliver's Mémé. She's also a professional geek, avid reader, fledgling coder, enthusiastic gamer (TTRPGs), occasional singer, and devoted stitcher.
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