Bush booted from cockpit?

By Eric Boehlert
Published March 15, 2004 4:07PM (EST)

As a lieutenant in the Texas Air National Guard, George Bush insists he voluntarily stopped flying in 1972 because he simply lost interest in being a pilot. That explanation has never washed (most pilots would rather fly than eat), and now a new possibility has emerged; the Pentagon, suspicious of possible drug or alcohol use, booted Bush from the cockpit. That's the intriguing scenario laid out in a detailed, must-read from Sunday's Spokane, WA., Spokesman-Review newspaper.

Pointing to stringent U.S. regulations known as the Human Reliability Program -- and in place at the time of Bush's spotty service -- the rules were used to weed out pilots who had access to nuclear weapons. Pilots such as Bush. According to the paper, HRP was instituted "to screen military personnel for their mental, physical and emotional fitness before granting them access to nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Under the rules, pilots could be removed immediately from the cockpit for HRP issues."

The Spokesman-Review notes Bush flew F-102s, which routinely carried conventional warheads, but were also capable of carrying nuclear-tipped missiles, meaning he'd fall under the HRP rules. The paper also reports nearly 50,000 personnel were decertified due to HRP between 1975 and 1984.

If Bush was yanked because of the program there ought to be a clear paper trail in his military records. But no mention was found among the documents the White House released last month in an effort to quell the controversy of Bush's missing year from the Texas Air National Guard between 1972 and 1973. Then again, there were lots of things missing from that White House document dump, such as an Officer Effectiveness Report for Bush's final year in the Guard. It's among the most important evaluations superiors do on officers. But according to White House, the document simple does not exist.

The Spokesman-Review got nowhere with the White House, the Pentagon, or the National Guard Bureau with its questions about Bush's Guard service, and any possible HRP connection. It's obvious an information lockdown is now in effect. Even the National Guard Bureau's Freedom of Information Act officer has stopped taking requests on Bush's military service.

Still, the article goes a long way in explaining what's always been the biggest mystery surrounding Bush's questionable Guard service: Why did he stop flying? When he landed a coveted spot in the Texas Air National Guard at the height of the Vietnam War in 1968, Bush pledged, "I have applied for pilot training with the goal of making flying a lifetime pursuit." Instead, 22 months after the government spent nearly $1 million training him to be a pilot, Bush, with two years left on his commitment, simply walked away from his aviating career, never flying after April 1972.

The article wasn't all bad news for Bush. He still has a few Guard defenders. Retired Brig. Gen. Walter Staudt, the man who got Bush a direct commission as a second lieutenant straight out of Yale University in May 1968, is 81 years old and itching for a fight. "I love the guy [Bush]," he told the Statesman-Review. "I'm so tired of this negative crap about him that I'd like to volunteer to build a barn and take you press guys out behind it and kick your asses."

Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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