"Is Our Children Learning?" examines the public life and public record of George W. Bush and reveals him for who he is: a man who presents the thinnest, weakest, least impressive record in public life of any major party nominee this century; a man who at every critical juncture has been propelled upward by the forces of wealth, privilege, status, and special interests who use his family's name for their private gain.
A Texan, political analyst, strategist, and partisan, Paul Begala has written a devastating assessment of the Bush brand of politics.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
At first I really liked George W. Bush.
Having grown up mostly in Texas, I left in 1989 to become a political consultant in Washington, D.C. Because I had the good sense to partner up with James Carville, I had a run of good luck, helping elect such Democrats as Governor Bob Casey of Pennsylvania (who died, sadly, this year), Governor (now Senator) Zell Miller of Georgia, and Senators Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey and Harris Wofford of Pennsylvania.
Then, in 1992, Carville and I served as senior strategists for the Clinton-Gore campaign. It was like being the jockey on Secretariat. Clinton and Gore won, and Carville and I went on to fame and fortune. But by 1995 the Republicans had taken over Congress, and Dick Morris had largely taken over Carville's and my role as principal political adviser. And since my wife and I were expecting our second baby, I had no desire to leave my growing family for another long campaign.
So I returned to my beloved Texas in 1995, Bush's first year as governor. I met him, and he impressed me. I thought then -- and I think now -- that he's a basically good man. He seems to have an abiding faith in God -- and in himself -- and an intense devotion to his family, his state, and our nation. And he's not a bigot. (If this seems like damning with faint praise to you, I'm not kidding. Most of the success the Republican party has enjoyed in the South is directly attributable to the Democratic party's support for -- and the GOP's opposition to -- racial equality.) Bush truly doesn't know the meaning of the word "intolerance." (But then again, he doesn't know what continent Mexico is on, the name of the prime minister of India, or where he was for a year in the National Guard. But that's for later in this book.)
So to encounter a successful Southern Republican who didn't seem to have an ounce of prejudice in him was a delight. I went out of my way to say nice things about him, and he reciprocated. We exchanged complimentary notes, and I was perfectly happy to praise him in the press -- especially when he tried to raise taxes in order to improve school funding. (He failed.) I even described his early years in office as "an unqualified success." But as a potential president I can only give him half that description: unqualified.
What's changed? Two things: I learned more about Bush (and how easily I could fall for first impressions), and Bush decided that he wanted to be our president.
I still think Bush is a basically decent guy. But I'm deeply troubled by much of what he has done and what he has failed to do -- in business and as governor of Texas -- and I am flat-out petrified about him becoming our president.
President Clinton lured me back to Washington to serve as one of his top White House aides in 1997. In that job I had a front-row seat from which to study the American presidency. Clinton, despite his personal failings, is the smartest person I've ever known and the most talented politician I've ever seen. And the job took every bit of his intellect; it demanded every ounce of his talent. On top of all that, the job required every iota of Clinton's vaunted compassion. Not the stuff of Bush's platitudinous speeches; the real thing. The kind of empathy that knew instinctively what to do when an elderly woman in New Hampshire collapsed sobbing in his arms as she tried to tell him how she had to choose between paying to heat her home or for her prescription drugs.
W, you're going to hate me when someone reads this to you. (I know you're not big on books yourself.) But you don't have what it takes to be president. Even your most loyal defenders say you're a few beans shy of a full burrito intellectually. And your whole career has been a case study in the art of failing upward. You were a poor student who somehow got into the finest schools. You were a National Guardsman who somehow disappeared from duty for a year. You were a failed businessman who somehow got rich. You were a minority investor who somehow was made managing partner of the Texas Rangers baseball team. And you were a defeated politician who somehow was made governor.
Let's face it, Dub: you were born on third base, and you think you hit a triple. You're lighter than my grandma's biscuits. You know it. I know it. And now the American people are going to know it.
This book examines the real record of George Walker Bush: a man who presents the thinnest, weakest, least impressive record in public life of any major party nominee for the presidency this century. A man who at every critical juncture has been propelled upward by the forces of wealth, privilege, status, and special interests who would use his family's name for their private gain.
But before we start, a brief word about what this book is not. It is not a product of the Gore for President campaign. In fact, with the exception of my sister (who used to be Gore's communications director) I didn't even tell anyone from the Gore campaign I was writing this book. Nor is this book a sales job on why you should vote for Al Gore for president. I am fully qualified to write such a book, having worked with him in the 1992 campaign and served with him in the White House. The Al Gore I know has the quality of mind, the depth of spirit, the firmness of principle, and the goodness of heart to be a great president. But I don't flack for Al Gore. He can make the case for his candidacy just fine without me.
This book is prompted by my own experience as a partisan, as a political analyst, as a strategist, and as a Texan observing Bush. It is not a hatchet job. It is meticulously documented. (For my right-wing friends who get their news from AM radio blowhards, those little numbers are notes; scholars use them to authenticate their work.) And it is limited to Bush's public life and public record. I have no interest or desire to poke around in Bush's private life, nor do I particularly care if he had too many beers at a college kegger, or experimented with something worse twenty-five years ago. This is not the politics of personal destruction. It is documentation of Bush's brand of politics: the politics of platitudes, the politics of cynical sound bites devoid of substance, the politics of familial vengeance, and the politics of faithfully serving the interests of those who have made you wealthy and powerful.
I have looked behind W's smirk. This is what I found.
Copyright © 2000 by Paul Begala
Where's George? How Bush Disappeared
from the National Guard for a Year
[After completing flight training in 1970] "I continued flying with my unit for the next several years."
(George W. Bush in his autobiography, A Charge to Keep, as quoted in the Boston Globe, 5/23/00)
"Had he reported in, I would have had some recall, and I do not. I had been in Texas, done my flight training there. If we had had a first lieutenant from Texas, I would have remembered."
(General William Turnipseed, commander of the Alabama National Guard unit to which Bush had been assigned, Boston Globe, 5/23/00)
Think back to the days of the war in Vietnam. (If you're too young to remember them, think back to Apocalypse Now.) Because of the absurdly elitist rules governing the draft, the sons of working people are being shipped off to Vietnam by the thousands, while the sons of the powerful and the privileged remain safe at home.
But one son of privilege decides to do his duty. Although deeply conflicted about the war his father in Congress is opposing, he volunteers for the army. Despite his Ivy League education he enlists as a grunt, a lowly private, and ships out for Vietnam. That gutsy young man was Al Gore. This is not his story.
This is the story of another son of privilege and power, another Ivy League-educated man who, although not at all conflicted about the war his father in Congress was supporting, does not enlist in the army and ship out for Vietnam. He enlists in the Texas Air National Guard. He is George W. Bush.
In fairness to W, this is dangerous duty. He wants to be a pilot, and pilots die in training with tragic frequency. So you'll get no sneering from me about Bush's service in the Guard.
It's his lack of service that bothers me.
Friends in High Places: How Bush Got in the
Guard in the First Place
Back in 1968, being in the National Guard was a coveted ticket out of getting your ass shot off in Vietnam. Despite a waiting list of 500, Bush was vaulted to the head of the line. He only scored in the 25th percentile in the pilot aptitude test (1), yet he was approved for an automatic commission as a second lieutenant and assigned to flight school, a role usually reserved for young men with ROTC or air force experience. Bush had neither (2).
Both Bush and his father deny they asked for preferential treatment, although such treatment was common for the sons of the wealthy and powerful. And then -- Texas House Speaker Ben Barnes has testified under oath that he did in fact pull strings to get W into the Texas Air National Guard, "at the request of a businessman from Houston named Sid Adger." Adger lived in the same Midland neighborhood and attended the same clubs as the Bush family while George W. was growing up. However, Barnes said that Adger gave no indication that the call came at the Bushes' urging (3).
"Favorable Treatment and Uncommon Attention"
Once he got in the Guard, W's run of good luck continued. According to the Los Angeles Times, "An examination of nearly 200 pages of his service record obtained by the Times, plus interviews with Guard officials, veterans, and military experts, show that Bush, now 52 and governor of Texas, received favorable treatment and uncommon attention in his time in the Guard (4)."
Despite the preferential treatment, most accounts of Bush's days in the Texas Air National Guard show him to be a good pilot who took his work seriously and performed his service honorably. Then in the fall of 1972, things changed. Bush wanted to work for the Senate campaign of Alabama Republican Winton "Red" Blount, Richard Nixon's former postmaster general. Bush asked for and received a transfer to the Alabama Guard. His request was approved even though the comparable unit in Alabama was being phased out. The Los Angeles Times noted that with the Alabama unit downsizing, "there appeared to be no real task for [Bush] to perform (5)."
Here's where the plot thickens, and the Bush doo-doo gets deep:
Bush didn't show up for duty in Alabama. At least that's what the records say. That's what the commanding officer says. That's what the administrative officer says. But that's not what Bush says. Let us walk through this morass carefully:
On September 5, 1972, First Lieutenant George W. Bush was ordered to report to the 187th Tactical Region Group of the Alabama Air National Guard in Montgomery. He was directed to report to the commanding officer, General William Turnipseed (6).
But General Turnipseed says he never showed. "Had he reported in," the general told the Boston Globe, "I would have had some recall, and I do not. I had been in Texas, done my flight training there. If we had had a first lieutenant from Texas, I would have remembered (7)."
The general's administrative officer, Kenneth K. Lott, backs him up. Lott says that he, too, has no recollection of Bush ever reporting for duty. And even retired Colonel Albert Lloyd, a longtime Texas Air National Guard official who is otherwise full of praise for Bush and his service, had to admit to the Globe that he doesn't know if Bush fulfilled his duty in Alabama. "If he did," Colonel Lloyd said, "his drill attendance should have been certified and sent to Ellington [the Texas airbase from which Bush had been transferred], and there would have been a record. We cannot find the records to show he fulfilled the requirements in Alabama (8)." And, as the Globe's investigation pointed out, Bush's discharge papers have no record of any service whatsoever in Alabama, and no record of any service for an entire year. "There should have been an entry for the period between May 1972 and May 1973," Lloyd told the Globe (9).
So, where was George? I have no idea. But it is stunning that after months of effort, the Bush campaign cannot produce a single person who can personally vouch for Bush's service in Alabama. The Bushies did produce a woman who said she was seeing Bush socially at the time, and he had told her he had to hurry back for Guard duty (10). But if girlfriends are now the proof of military service, my old boss Bill Clinton should get the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Bush cannot say what he was doing. "I can't remember what I did," he told a press conference (11). Expanding on Bush's remarks, campaign senior adviser Ari Fleischer quoted Bush as saying he did "paper shuffling" in Montgomery. "He thinks it was desk work," said Fleischer (12). "Governor Bush specifically remembers pulling duty in Alabama at the end of the campaign," says Dan Bartlett, another spokesman (13). And at another time, Bartlett suggested the work was that all-important "odds and ends."
(I remember exactly what I was doing at the end of 1972 and the beginning of 1973: going to the sixth grade at John Foster Dulles Junior High School in Sugar Land, Texas. In our ultraconservative little town we were taught about old-fashioned values of duty and honor and country. They never mentioned that rich people could take a walk on those values if they became inconvenient. They must have covered that ground for Bush at his elite private boarding school, Andover.)
Bush cannot say for whom he was doing whatever it was he was doing. His spokesman says he worked under different supervisors whose names he does not recall (14).
He hasn't named a single person he served with in Alabama. In fact, as the Associated Press reported, "Gov. George W. Bush's campaign workers have concluded that no documents exist showing he reported for duty as ordered in Alabama with the Texas Air National Guard in 1972 (15)." And Bush's claim that he may have made up the time upon returning to Ellington Air Force Base in Texas is refuted by the unit's former administrative officer (16).
But we know what he was not doing. Reporting for his flight physical. And he's given a variety of excuses as to why.
- The "My Doctor Lives in a Different City" Excuse:
According to the Los Angeles Times, "A Bush spokesman said that this [missing the exam] occurred because Bush was in Alabama while his physician was in Houston." (Los Angeles Times, 7/4/99)
- "The Paperwork Hasn't Caught Up Yet" Excuse:
Bush spokesman Dan Bartlett told the Sunday Times of London that Bush was aware at the time that he would be suspended for missing his medical exam, but had no choice because he had applied for a transfer from Houston to Alabama and his paperwork hadn't caught up with him. "It was just a question of following the bureaucratic procedure of the time," Bartlett said. "He knew the suspension would have to take place." (New York Post, 6/18/00)
- The "There Was No Reason for the Exam" Excuse:
Dan Bartlett said Bush had transferred to Alabama as a nonflying guardsman and so required no medical assessment. "As he was not flying, there was no reason for him to take the flight exam," said Bartlett. "And he was not aware of any changes that required a drug test." (Sunday Times of London, 6/18/00)
The Bottom Line
I don't believe Bush. Call me skeptical, but I'm going with the word of a retired general (and I'm just guessing that a retired general from Alabama is not a raving leftist), a couple of colonels, and hundreds of pages of records. With the exception of Bush's implausible denials, the record here is quite clear: Bush avoided going to Vietnam by securing a coveted spot in the Texas Air National Guard. While stationed in Texas he performed hazardous duty honorably. But when he requested and received his transfer to Alabama, he did little or nothing to fulfill his duty. The fact that he was honorably discharged only means that he got away with it.
Back in the Second World War, a little private from Detroit didn't show up for duty. His father was not a powerful congressman, and his grandfather had not been a senator. His family did not have a majestic mansion on the surf-pounded cliffs of Kennebunkport. Private Eddie Slovik deserted. And Eddie Slovik was shot by a firing squad.
Thus proving once more the enduring lesson of W's life: it's good to be a Bush.
I'm not accusing Bush of desertion, mind you. He was not on active duty, much less in combat. But it's pretty clear that the man who pontificates about how, when he takes the oath of office as president, he will "restore honor and dignity to the presidency" did not fulfill his oath of office as a first lieutenant in the Texas Air National Guard.
- Dallas Morning News, 7/4/99.
- Boston Globe, 5/23/00.
- Chicago Tribune, 1/18/00.
- Los Angeles Times, 7/4/99; Austin American-Statesman, 7/17/99.
- Los Angeles Times, 7/4/99.
- Boston Globe, 5/23/00.
- Newsweek, 7/17/00; Associated Press, 7/4/00.
- Press conference, Tuscaloosa, Alabama, 6/23/00.
- Associated Press, 6/24/00.
- Boston Globe, 5/23/00.
Copyright © 2000 by Paul Begala
Table of Contents
- Governor Bush: My Substitute Teacher
- Where's George? How Bush Disappeared from the National Guard for a Year
- El Busto: Bush as a Bidnessman
- Bush's Emphasis on Education: Public Policy, or a Desperate Cry for Help?
- "It's Still the Economy...and Bush Is Stupid!"
- Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition!
- To Die For: Bush and the Environment
- Social Insecurity
- Why Help Working Families When You Can Suck Up to Wealthy Families?
- Is There an HMO Bureaucrat in the House?
- The Grim Reaper Wore a Smirk: Bush and the Death Penalty
- Bush and Race: "Porch Monkeys," Bob Jones, and the Confederate Flag
- Dan Quayle Without the Experience: Bush and Foreign Policy
- Is Bush Really Dumb? Or, "Let's Get Ready to STUMBLE!"
- Cheney Mania! Poppy's Pick