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George W. Bush's missing year
The widow of a Bush family confidant says her husband gave the future president an Alabama Senate campaign job as a favor to his worried father. Did they see him do any National Guard service? "Good lord, no."
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By Mary Jacoby
Sept. 2, 2004 | NEW YORK -- Before there was Karl Rove, Lee Atwater or even James Baker, the Bush family's political guru was a gregarious newspaper owner and campaign consultant from Midland, Texas, named Jimmy Allison. In the spring of 1972, George H.W. Bush phoned his friend and asked a favor: Could Allison find a place on the Senate campaign he was managing in Alabama for his troublesome eldest son, the 25-year-old George W. Bush?
"The impression I had was that Georgie was raising a lot of hell in Houston, getting in trouble and embarrassing the family, and they just really wanted to get him out of Houston and under Jimmy's wing," Allison's widow, Linda, told me. "And Jimmy said, 'Sure.' He was so loyal."
Linda Allison's story, never before published, contradicts the Bush campaign's assertion that George W. Bush transferred from the Texas Air National Guard to the Alabama National Guard in 1972 because he received an irresistible offer to gain high-level experience on the campaign of Bush family friend Winton "Red" Blount. In fact, according to what Allison says her late husband told her, the younger Bush had become a political liability for his father, who was then the United States ambassador to the United Nations, and the family wanted him out of Texas. "I think they wanted someone they trusted to keep an eye on him," Linda Allison said.
After more than three decades of silence, Allison spoke with Salon over several days before and during the Republican National Convention this week -- motivated, as she acknowledged, by a complex mixture of emotions. They include pride in her late husband's accomplishments, a desire to see him remembered, and concern about the apparent double standard in Bush surrogates attacking John Kerry's Vietnam War record while ignoring the president's irresponsible conduct during the war.
Allison's account corroborates a Washington Post investigation in February that found no credible witnesses to the service in the Alabama National Guard that Bush maintains he performed, despite a lack of documentary evidence. Asked if she'd ever seen Bush in a uniform, Allison said: "Good lord, no. I had no idea that the National Guard was involved in his life in any way." Allison also confirmed previously published accounts that Bush often showed up in the Blount campaign offices around noon, boasting about how much alcohol he had consumed the night before. (Bush has admitted that he was a heavy drinker in those years, but he has refused to say whether he also used drugs).
"After about a month I asked Jimmy what was Georgie's job, because I couldn't figure it out. I never saw him do anything. He told me it basically consisted of him contacting people who were impressed by his name and asking for contributions and support," Allison said.
Bush, who had a paid slot as Allison's deputy in a campaign staffed largely by volunteers, sat in a little office next to Allison's, said Archibald, a workers compensation lawyer in Charlotte, N.C. Indeed, when Bush was actually there, he did make phone calls to county chairmen. But he neglected his other duty: the mundane but important task of mailing out campaign materials to the county campaign chairs. Archibald took up the slack, at Allison's request. "Jimmy didn't say anything about George. He just said, 'These materials are not getting out. It's causing the candidate problems. Will you take it over?'"
While Kerry earned a Silver Star and a Bronze Star after saving a crewmate's life under fire on the Mekong River in Vietnam, by contrast, the Georgie that Allison knew was a young man whose parents did not allow him to live with the consequences of his own mistakes. His powerful father -- whom the son seemed to both idolize and resent -- was a lifeline for Bush out of predicaments. After Bush graduated from Yale in 1968, his slot in the Texas Air National Guard allowed him to avoid active duty service in Vietnam. The former speaker of the Texas state House, Democrat Ben Barnes, now admits he pulled strings to get Bush his coveted guard slot, and says he's "ashamed" of the deed. "60 Minutes" will air an interview with Barnes next Wednesday, but George H.W. Bush denounced Barnes' claims in an interview aired on CBS. "They keep saying that and it's a lie, a total lie. Nobody's come up with any evidence, and yet it's repeated all the time," the former president said, in what could just as well describe the playbook for the Swift Boat Veterans ads.
"Aide, confidant, campaign manager, source of joke material, alter ego -- Allison and Bush were bonded by an uncommon loyalty," former Reagan White House deputy press secretary Peter Roussel, who got his start in politics when Allison invited him to work for Bush's 1968 congressional reelection campaign, wrote in a 1988 newspaper column dedicated to Allison.
The break happened not long after a boozy election-night wake for Blount, who lost his Senate bid to the incumbent Democrat, John Sparkman. Leaving the election-night "celebration," Allison remembers encountering George W. Bush in the parking lot, urinating on a car, and hearing later about how he'd yelled obscenities at police officers that night. Bush left a house he'd rented in Montgomery trashed -- the furniture broken, walls damaged and a chandelier destroyed, the Birmingham News reported in February. "He was just a rich kid who had no respect for other people's possessions," Mary Smith, a member of the family who rented the house, told the newspaper, adding that a bill sent to Bush for repairs was never paid. And a month later, in December, during a visit to his parents' home in Washington, Bush drunkenly challenged his father to go "mano a mano," as has often been reported.
Jimmy, meanwhile, had larger issues on his mind. According to Linda, he was hoping to use the visit in Florida to convince Bush to turn down the chairmanship of the Republican National Committee because he didn't trust Nixon or his palace guard. "He had been so appalled at the Ehrlichman, Haldeman, Colson group, and he thought they'd sacrifice George. He just wanted to warn him, as a friend," Allison told me.
By 1978, Jimmy was dying. Whether out of guilt, genuine affection for old times or a desire to maintain appearances with a revered member of the Midland establishment, the Bushes responded with warmth. Jimmy's heart soared, Allison said.
More than a quarter century later, George W. Bush is running for reelection as a "war" president. At the Republican Convention, delegates pass out Purple Heart stickers mocking Kerry's Vietnam wounds as "a self-inflicted scratch," and George H.W. Bush, speaking on CNN, lauds the Swift Boat Veterans' claims against Kerry as "rather compelling." Karl Rove tells the Associated Press that Kerry's opposition to a war that Bush avoided had served to "tarnish the records and service of people who were defending our country and fighting communism." Barbara Bush tells USA Today: "I die over every untruth that I hear about George -- I mean, every one."
Linda Allison watches it all from her New York apartment. About George W. Bush's disputed sojourn in Alabama, she asks simply: "Can we all be lying?"