Joe Conason's Journal

Bush's "Top Gun" get-up wasn't just tacky, it was a reminder of one of the most stunning lies ever committed to print by a presidential candidate.

Published May 2, 2003 4:14PM (EDT)

Top gun's photo op
Watching the president emerge onto the flight deck of the USS Lincoln yesterday afternoon, it occurred to me that memory is the strongest antidote to propaganda. With the cooperation of the Pentagon (and at the expense of the taxpayers), Karl Rove had arranged one of the tackiest, most expensive campaign photo ops in history, but my recollections kept me from becoming absorbed in the macho atmospherics, let alone the president's anticlimactic speech about Iraq.

Rather than determination and grit, what the occasion evoked was Bush's strange Vietnam-era stint as a pilot in the Texas Air National Guard. And although Rove no doubt intended that we should all recall Bush's military service, he must have assumed that almost nobody would remember the actual details -- only the "Top Gun" style.

But the details are difficult to forget, even at such inspirational moments. The vague official account presented in Bush's campaign autobiography -- wherein he suggests that he "kept flying" with his Texas Guard unit until he completed his service -- is one of the more egregious prevarications ever committed to print by a presidential candidate. Closer to the true story, in which Bush mysteriously disappears from duty after failing to take his annual physical in 1972, is this account that appeared in the Boston Globe.

In today's Globe, Anne Kornblut reports a peculiar aspect of the May Day photo op: "White House officials originally said that Bush was making the dramatic jet trip because the ship was too far out to sea to be reached by helicopter. Bush was trained in ejection procedures and water survival in case of a crash. But the carrier was just 30 miles from shore by the time he arrived, and officials said it had slowed down so that Bush could spend the night on board before the USS Abraham Lincoln docks today, extending by one day the sailors' almost 10-month deployment at sea, the longest by a carrier in 30 years."

The men and women aboard the Lincoln looked content to be used as presidential props, despite the delay in their homecoming. But something else was troubling me about the president's determination to bask in reflected martial glory. And then I remembered exactly how he has demonstrated his respect and admiration for those who actually serve. His budget slashes their benefits over the next decade by almost $29 billion and restricts their medical care, in order to reduce taxes on his friends and patrons.

The only Democrat willing to say much about any of this seems to be David Sirota, communications director for the House Appropriations Committee's ranking minority member, David Obey. Sirota's response -- a "circus" -- was sharp and swift, as always, in marked contrast to many of the leaders of his party.

The Democrats' inability to express real outrage over Rove's plan to use ground zero and the third anniversary of Sept. 11 as next year's props is astutely examined, along with other pertinent matters, by my friend Michael Tomasky in his weekly online column for the American Prospect.
[9:42 a.m. PDT, May 2, 2003]

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