George W.’s Troubling Flights of Fancy

During the course of this Presidential campaign, voters have been treated to hours of amateur psychoanalysis of Al Gore. Every aspect of the Vice President’s life, dating back to his childhood, has been examined for clues about his character. Much concern has been expressed, for instance, about the critical question of whether he actually endured manual labor during summers on the family farm in Tennessee. (Various pundits whose own lives are probably far too comfortable suggested that he didn’t. The people who know him say he did.)

And, of course, the monotonous theme of all these quasi-journalistic exercises was that Mr. Gore’s own account of himself is marred by exaggeration, embellishment and worse. Typically, the smug chorus of reporters and commentators rarely deigns to correct any of its own numerous embellishments and exaggerations. Most if not all of the charges against Mr. Gore’s credibility are false, although unfortunately neither he nor his campaign has aggressively sought to correct them, either.

Meanwhile, the damage to the Democratic nominee’s credibility now shows up every day in interviews with voters who say they don’t trust him because of what they have heard about his alleged penchant for “lying.”

By contrast, the conventional wisdom about George W. Bush is that the Texas governor-to put it bluntly-isn’t quite bright enough to utter intentional lies. “In Bush’s case, you know he’s just mis-stating as opposed to it playing into a story line about him being a serial exaggerator,” explains ABC’s sagacious Cokie Roberts.

Obviously, however, Mr. Bush is more clever than he once appeared to be. Perhaps he is more devious, too, having skirted the truth about matters that may well reflect on his character and fitness for the Presidency. Aside from various misrepresentations about his record as governor, the most glaring falsehoods he has uttered concern his service in the Texas Air Guard.

In his 1999 autobiography A Charge to Keep , Mr. Bush offers a lyrical description of his flight training in the F-102 fighter. “I continued flying with my unit for the next several years,” he writes. That simply isn’t true: Lieutenant Bush never flew another jet after being suspended from flight duty in August 1972 for failing to take a mandated annual physical.

Further along, he says his military service “gave me respect for the chain of command.” Not enough respect, apparently, to report for duty as ordered, since his records show that he ignored two direct orders to do so.

A few pages later, Mr. Bush explains that when he applied to Harvard Business School in 1972, “I was almost finished with my commitment in the Air National Guard, and was no longer flying because the F-102 jet I had trained in was being replaced by a different fighter.” That, too, isn’t true. According to his commanding officer, who was interviewed by The Boston Globe , Mr. Bush’s unit continued to fly the F-102 until 1974, an assertion confirmed by Air Force records. “If he had come back to Houston, I would have kept him flying the 102 until he got out,” said retired Major General Bobby W. Hodges.

This year, a few reporters have asked the Bush campaign to account for his near-total absence from duty during the final two years of the six-year stint he agreed to serve. The Republican candidate and his spokespersons have said that he made up his missed days in an Alabama Guard unit, but there is scant evidence to confirm that claim. Two former officers in that Alabama unit have said that he never showed up as required.

As for Mr. Bush’s curious failure to take the annual physical in 1972, the only excuse he has offered is that he was in Alabama working on a Republican Senate campaign and couldn’t get back to Houston for a checkup by his personal physician. That, too, is blatantly untrue. For as Mr. Bush surely knows-having undergone such examinations in previous years-only a certified Air Force flight surgeon may conduct a pilot physical.

The twists and turns of Mr. Bush’s military record are too complex for an exhaustive analysis in this space. Among the questionable claims in his book is that he tried to volunteer for service in Vietnam “to relieve active-duty pilots.” In a more candid mood in 1998, however, he told a reporter for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram , “I don’t want to play like I was somebody out there marching [to war] when I wasn’t. It was either Canada or the service and I was headed into the service.”

Do Mr. Bush’s exaggerations, excuses and embellishments of his service record matter? They do in light of his own rhetoric about honor and integrity and his emphasis on military readiness.

It is impossible to imagine Al Gore or Bill Clinton getting away with anything like this.

George W.’s  Troubling Flights of Fancy