George W. Bush's missing year
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. She also admits to bewilderment and hurt over the rupture her husband experienced in his friendship with George and Barbara Bush. To this day, Allison is unsure what caused the break, though she suspects it had something to do with her husband's opposition to the elder Bush becoming chairman of the Republican National Committee under President Nixon.
"Something happened that I don't know about. But I do know that Jimmy didn't expect it, and it broke his heart," she said, describing a ruthless side to the genial Bush clan of which few outsiders are aware.
Personal history aside, Allison's recollections of the young George Bush in Alabama in 1972 are relevant as a contrast to the medals for valor and bravery that Kerry won in Vietnam in the same era. An apparent front group for the Bush campaign, Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, has attacked Kerry in television ads as a liar and traitor to veterans for later opposing a war that cost 58,000 American lives. Bush, who has resisted calls from former Vietnam War POW John McCain, R-Ariz., to repudiate the Swift Boat ads, has said he served honorably in the National Guard.
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.
C. Murphy Archibald, a nephew of Red Blount by marriage and a Vietnam veteran who volunteered on the campaign from September 1972 until election night, corroborated Allison's recollections, though he doesn't recall that the Bush name carried much caché in Alabama at the time. "I say that because the scuttlebutt on the campaign was that Allison was very sharp and might actually be able to pull off this difficult race" against the incumbent Democrat, Sen. John Sparkman, Archibald said. "But then no one understood why he brought this young guy from Texas along. It was like, 'Who was this guy who comes in late and leaves early? And why would Jimmy Allison, who was so impressive, bring him on?'"
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.
Yet, after receiving unusual permission to transfer to the Alabama Guard from Texas, Bush has produced no evidence he showed up for service for anything other than a dental exam. Later, Bush would trade on his father's connections to enter the oil business, and when his ventures failed, trade on more connections to find investors to bail him out. Linda Allison's story fills in the details about a missing chapter in the story of how George Bush Sr.'s friends helped his wastrel son. The Bush campaign, decamped to New York for the convention, did not return a phone call by late Wednesday.
A graceful blonde with a Texas drawl, Linda Allison now lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, in an apartment decorated in the dusky tones of Tuscany with a magnificent view of the high-rises framing Central Park. I visited her there Monday on the opening night of the Republican National Convention as she related publicly for the first time her long and ultimately painful history with the Bush family. On the table between us were two photographs of her late husband -- an elfin man with curly hair, shown in animated conversation. From her drawers she pulled out old letters and notes from Barbara Bush, George H.W. Bush and even one from George W. Bush, written to Jimmy in 1978 as he was dying of cancer.
Jimmy Allison's family owned the Midland Reporter- Telegram and other small-town newspapers, and they were part of the establishment in the West Texas oil town where Bush senior made his fortune and Bush junior grew up. Still, Allison has been almost completely forgotten in the semi-official stories of the Bush dynasty's rise; his role as political fixer and family friend has been airbrushed out of Barbara Bush's autobiography and other accounts. But he was one of the originators of what evolved into the GOP's "Southern strategy," helping George H.W. Bush win election to Congress in 1966 at a time when Republicans in Texas were virtually unheard of.
The Blount Senate campaign he ran against the Democrat, Sparkman, in 1972 was notable for a dirty racial trick: The Blount side edited a transcript of a radio interview Sparkman had given to make it appear he supported busing, a poison position at that time in the South. When Sparkman found an unedited script and exposed the trick, the Blount campaign was finished. But it was an early introduction for Bush to the kinds of tricks that later Republican strategists associated with the Bush political machine, from Lee Atwater to Karl Rove, would use against Democrats, often to victorious effect.
After Bush won a House seat in 1966, Allison followed his patron to Washington as the top staffer in his congressional office and served as deputy director of the Republican National Committee in 1969 and 1970 under President Nixon. It was Allison who advised George W. Bush to return to Midland after Harvard Business School to seek his business fortune in the booming oil industry, advice that Bush recalled fondly in a 2001 speech in Midland. When Allison died at age 46, after an agonizing battle with lymphoma, both George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush served as pallbearers.
"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.
Linda, too, had a long, though not as close, relationship with the Bushes. She remembers watching Bush in 1964 at a campaign appearance at the Adolphus Hotel in Dallas, when she was 32 years old and he was running for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate. "He was so appealing to me. He said all the things that I believed in, and he wasn't like all the other Republicans running in Texas at that time, who were real right-wingers. He had a bigger vision of what the Republican Party could be. I volunteered for his campaign that day, and that's how I ended up being his Dallas County headquarters chairman." Over the years, Linda kept volunteering with the local Republican Party. "And they gave me bigger and bigger things to do. They appreciated me. And I felt like I belonged to something," she said.
But it was also this sense of being connected to a larger, more powerful force that seduced the Allisons -- a trap that many aides and friends of important politicians fall into. The dynamic allowed the Bushes -- Barbara especially, Allison said -- to manipulate the friends and supporters they needed to further their ambitions, a lesson she says could not have been lost on the young George. "They had a way of anointing you, then pushing you out," she said. "It was like a mind game. It was very subtle, very hard to describe. But when you were out, you wanted desperately to be let back in." It was how she and Jimmy felt when, in 1973, they experienced a strange and, to Allison, never fully explained rupture with the Bushes, which took place against the backdrop of boorish behavior by their son that persisted during the time he was nominally under the Allisons' care.
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.
Around the same time, for the 1972 Christmas holiday, the Allisons met up with the Bushes on vacation in Hobe Sound, Fla. Tension was still evident between Bush and his parents. Linda was a passenger in a car driven by Barbara Bush as they headed to lunch at the local beach club. Bush, who was 26 years old, got on a bicycle and rode in front of the car in a slow, serpentine manner, forcing his mother to crawl along. "He rode so slowly that he kept having to put his foot down to get his balance, and he kept in a weaving pattern so we couldn't get past," Allison recalled. "He was obviously furious with his mother about something, and she was furious at him, too."
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.
Apparently, Jimmy Allison's advice was not appreciated. In Hobe Sound, Bush senior kept trying to avoid talking with Jimmy about the RNC, Allison said. Then later, as the Allisons took their leave, Barbara "thanked" them for their Christmas present with unexpected cruelty. "She said, 'I'm so sorry, but we've been so busy this year that we didn't have time to do anything for our political acquaintances.' I swear to God, I'll never forget those two words as long as I live. For her to say that was absolutely appalling. Mind you, Jimmy was an old, old friend. And I had stayed as a houseguest with the Bushes, been invited in my pajamas into their bedroom to read the papers and drink coffee while Bar rode her exercise bicycle.
"Big George was just stricken by this," Allison continued. "There was a wet bar in the hall on the way to the front door. He grabbed this moldy bottle of Mai Tai that he said had been given to him by the president of China, and he said we just had to have it. Then he plucked this ostrich egg in a beaded bag from a shelf that he said had been given to him by the ambassador to the U.N. from Nigeria or someplace, and gave it to us. Can you imagine how embarrassing that was?"
The Allisons found they were no longer being invited to the Sunday cookouts the Bushes held to chew over the week's political events. And though Jimmy had once been deputy chairman of the RNC, when Bush chaired the committee, he "couldn't even get invited to a cocktail party there," Allison said. The freeze-out was subtle and surgical. "It took us some time to realize we'd been lopped off," she said. At home, the Allisons once decided to try that dusty bottle of Mai Tai from China that Bush had thrust into their hands in Hobe Sound. They were unable to drink the liquor. "It was so foul. The smell that came out of that thing! We just looked at each other," Allison said.
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.
George W. Bush, then running unsuccessfully for Congress, wrote his old mentor a letter. "Every person I see in Midland asks about you and sends their regards," Bush wrote. "Like a younger brother, I have treasured your advice, your guidance and most importantly your never selfish friendship." And shortly before he died, George H.W. Bush – by then an executive at a bank in Houston after having served as head of the Central Intelligence Agency – invited Jimmy back to his home. Elated, Jimmy persuaded the doctors to discharge him for the visit, Linda said. But Linda, who was not consulted, was incensed. Though she drove him to the Bushes, she refused to go in. "I was so furious. I had no way to take care of him. He was so weak, and they had taken him off the morphine, and he was in great pain," she said.
In a letter to the editor of Allison's newspaper in Midland after his death, Bush recalled that day: "He swam and relaxed. He was very weak but the warm water soothed him. He gave us hope. 'I'm going to make it,' he said.
But soon after Linda picked him up, Jimmy crashed. "He was in so much pain. It was unreal." At the emergency room, he waited 10 hours for medical attention. "I begged them to do something. I begged," she said, wiping tears from her eyes. "He was in so much pain. I was so angry." Jimmy died about a week later.
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?"
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