The Lost Years of Al and Dubya

The Lost Years of Al and Dubya
Posted by FoM on October 27, 1999 at 10:33:19 PT
By Kenneth T. Walsh
Source: U.S. News Online
As chairman of Vanderbilt University's Graduate Department of Religion, Jack Forstman counseled scores of young men who were trying to avoid the Vietnam War in the 1970s. 
Some were tormented by moral doubts about the conflict; others opposed the taking of any human life; most were scared about their own lives. Al Gore was different. The stocky 23-year-old with the slow Tennessee drawl and the sad, dark eyes was not looking for a way to dodge the draft; he had, in fact, just completed five months in Vietnam. He told Forstman he was "a seeker"–on a personal journey to find moral clarity about his country's sins, his role in its most divisive war of the 20th century, and, more broadly, his mission in life. That same month–August 1971–25-year-old George W. Bush was on a quest of his own, and it had nothing to do with moral clarity. "Little George," as he was called, was looking for thrills, as a part-time military fighter pilot and eligible bachelor on the prowl in Houston. Even though the nation was racked by anti-Vietnam protests that summer, Bush's thinking was simple: He would go to Vietnam if his Texas Air National Guard unit was called–a remote possibility. In the meantime, Bush wandered through what he calls his "nomadic years"–flying F-102 Delta Dagger jets on practice missions, dabbling sporadically in politics, hopping among jobs, and searching for fun with women, beer, and bourbon. He has admitted being a heavy drinker and has left open the possibility that he might have used cocaine or other illegal drugs during this period. Two roads diverged. Other presidential candidates navigated their younger years in different ways. Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona was headed down the same self-indulgent path as Bush until he was shot down over Vietnam and spent 51/2 years as a prisoner of war. Bill Bradley was on a path of achievement–a Rhodes scholar, professional basketball player for the New York Knicks, and Democratic senator from New Jersey for 18 years. Gore's lost years were marked by soul-searching, systematic introspection, and a distinct high-mindedness. Bush was restless and aimless and, as he has admitted, behaved irresponsibly at times. Gore was admired for his mind and his standards but was never very popular. Bush, ever the wisecracking fun lover, was the life of the party but never struck many friends as particularly altruistic or brilliant. Each man has retained these traits in maturity and built upon them as a presidential candidate.Forstman vividly remembers his conversation with Gore prior to admitting him to divinity school. "Being in Vietnam had unsettled a number of his certainties," Forstman recalls. "He didn't know what he was looking for, but he wanted to try to put things back together. He said the experience of being in Vietnam had shaken him." Friends say he briefly tried to find solace with his wife, Tipper, on their farm in Carthage, Tenn., but would awaken at night and take long walks to shake off his disquiet. Mrs. Gore once said her husband talked vaguely about "atonement" for his participation in a war he opposed. That spring and summer, he kept to himself and seemed more introspective than ever; he began working with friends as a contractor, building houses in the Carthage area. In a recent interview with U.S. News, Gore took issue with that picture, putting his Vietnam experience in a more positive light. The "disillusion," he said, "was the experience our whole country had, those who went and those who didn't go, because it tore at the seams of America and gave many the feeling that we had lost our way."No trauma. Gore said that his five-month tour as a military journalist was not traumatic–as some of his friends have claimed–but merely "intense." He contradicted several of the more dramatic accounts of his Vietnam service, including reports by friends that he had seen women and children cut down by American helicopter gunships. "No, no, no. I never saw women and children being shot. Absolutely not," he insisted.Gore admits he struggled to resolve a conflict between his "intellectual opposition" to the war and his sense of "obligation" to serve his country. "I wrestled with that," he told U.S. News. ". . . It was largely in order to explore that moral dimension that I looked for this structured opportunity [in divinity school] to–not just to explore that question but to explore the bodies of knowledge that might be helpful to me in addressing a lot of questions that I had as a young man." Among those questions, he said, were: "What's the purpose of life? What's our obligation to our creator? How do we invest our lives with meaning? How do we act and live in ways that are consistent with our deepest beliefs?"The marijuana question. Gore's lifestyle during this period included marijuana use. He began using pot in college and has admitted smoking it as a soldier, while at Vanderbilt, and as a reporter at the Nashville Tennessean–until he was 24. Gore now says his use of marijuana was wrong because it broke the law and set a bad example.He reconnected with what he called "the American spirit" when he was hired by the Tennessean in the fall of 1971. He had enjoyed being a reporter in the Army and thought journalism might be a meaningful career. His biggest stories focused on alleged payoffs to members of Nashville's Metro Council in exchange for favorable zoning decisions. His work, which in one case involved wiring a developer for sound to get taped evidence, was based on painstaking research and led to the indictments of a handful of Metro Council members. John Seigenthaler, the Tennessean's former editor, says that, while the stories didn't send anyone to jail, they "cleaned up a corrupt situation."But seeing the results, Gore–whose father had lost his U.S. Senate seat in a bitter 1970 defeat– shed his aversion to politics and concluded that he could accomplish more as a public official. He dropped out of divinity school and enrolled at Vanderbilt Law School. "It was easy to see the connection between decisions [politicians] were making and the effect and impact on the lives of the people in our community," he told U.S. News.The passage came faster than expected. After taking a few law courses, he got a phone call one afternoon in late February 1976. It was Seigenthaler with word that Joe Evins, the longtime congressman from Gore's hometown of Carthage, was going to announce his retirement the next day. Gore immediately quit the paper, dropped out of law school, traded his jeans for blue suits, and announced he was running for the seat. He hasn't stopped running since.If George W. Bush entertained any profound thoughts during his early 20s, he kept them hidden from his friends and family. After graduating from Yale in 1968 and facing the military draft, Bush accepted a six-year commitment in the Texas Air National Guard–two years of active duty and four years in uniform part time. He earned his wings after a year of pilot training in Georgia and was assigned to Ellington Air Force Base outside Houston. There he flew an F-102 on practice missions, including night maneuvers, weapons tests, and intercept training. He played the role of fighter jock with considerable swagger, tucking a rakish orange scarf into his green flight suit, keeping his hair short and his shoes spit-shined. Always ready with a wisecrack and a smirk, the young lieutenant didn't take himself very seriously, even though his friends and superiors in the Guard said he was an excellent flier."There was no question in my mind that I was going to serve–I was going to go to the military in 1968," Bush told U.S. News. "The question was, for me, what branch and when and how. And one of the things I made up my mind is I wanted to fly airplanes. I'm sure my dad's being a pilot influenced my decision."Bush added: "I felt like if the country was at war, people were making rational decisions on the people's behalf, and in 1968 I supported the war. I must confess over time I became disillusioned . . . because as the war dragged on and more people lost life, it looked like we were aimless in our purpose."Aimless missions. While Gore agonized over the morality of the Vietnam War, Bush's doubts were entirely pragmatic. "Some of my buddies who were pilots over in Vietnam, I remember them talking about how the [pilots] would go across what was called Thud Ridge," the Texas governor said. "And our missions were so predictable and so planned, at least this is what the pilots told me, that they became sitting ducks. In other words . . . oftentimes, the politicians began to make the military decisions, and therefore the mission became aimless and no goal was accomplished."Friends from that era, such as fellow pilot Dean Roome and administrative officer Al Lloyd, say they were insulated from the protest movement that was spreading across the country. "A lot of people in George's pilot training class went to Vietnam," says Roome, noting that the class included pilots in both the regular Air Force and the Air National Guard. "There was a pretty good loss rate in his class." At Ellington, Roome recalls, "We were gung-ho. We were mission oriented. . . . There wasn't a whole lot of sympathy for insurrection."There were also plenty of distractions. One of Bush's favorite off-duty activities was pursuing the "aviation groupies" hanging around the bars and clubs near the base. He'd cruise by in his blue Triumph convertible, showing off a succession of impressive dates. And he loved carousing with the guys. The ritual was simple, according to a participant: Bellying up to the bar at a local tavern, someone in Bush's crowd would yell, "Dead bug," whereupon everyone would drop to the floor, flop onto his back, and twitch his arms and legs. The last one to hit the ground would have to buy the next round. "You'd drink until you couldn't see straight," and no one would care as long as you showed up for work the next morning, says a Bush cohort from those days. "The culture was different then."Bush followed the lead of other Texas Air National Guard pilots in 1970 and volunteered for a three- to-six-month assignment in Southeast Asia under a program called Palace Alert, which involved flying F-102s on reconnaissance missions. But he was turned down, partly because he lacked the required 500 hours of flying time (he had logged only about 300 hours at that point) and also because the F-102s he was trained to fly were being rotated out of Southeast Asia. After his two years of active duty ended in June 1970, he took a one-bedroom apartment, No. 29A, at Chateaux Dijon, a singles-oriented high-rise in Houston, and turned to what friends said seemed to be a life centered on partying and dating. He was a regular on the Dijon volleyball court and enjoyed lounging poolside with a drink. People familiar with the social scene in Houston at that time say cocaine was often used by affluent, young singles, but there is no evidence that Bush took the drug himself. He refuses to address the issue, saying that he took no illegal drugs after 1974 and that anything he did before is irrelevant to his presidential campaign. He often didn't work for months at a time, living off personal savings and family wealth. "I was rootless," he once told a friend. "I had no responsibilities whatsoever." He spent many weekends on temporary Air National Guard duty. In the fall of 1970, he worked in his father's Republican Senate campaign in Texas and was embittered by his defeat. In early 1971, he began a nine-month stint with Stratford of Texas, an agricultural company owned by his father's friend Robert Gow. George W. was basically a trainee, working on a variety of projects such as looking into the purchase of a mushroom farm in Pennsylvania and analyzing expansion possibilities for Gow's chicken and egg business. Bored, he privately derided his work as "a stupid coat-and-tie job."Macho man. That fall, he considered running for the Texas Legislature but decided he wasn't ready. He hit bottom, friends say, over the 1972 Christmas holidays. The 26-year-old occasional flyboy was staying with his parents in Washington (where his father was chairman of the Republican National Committee) when he took his 15-year-old brother, Marvin, to a friend's house. They drank too much beer, and the older brother drove into a garbage can near his parents' driveway. Told that his father was waiting to see him in the den, George W. barged in with a belligerent declaration: "I hear you're looking for me. You wanna go mano a mano right here?"No one moved. Then, at Marvin's urging, George W. defused the tension by blurting out, to everyone's surprise, that he had managed to get accepted at Harvard Business School for the following fall. Family friends say he had applied without telling his parents because he realized he had to pull himself together. But enrollment was eight months away. In the meantime, the father hoped to expose the footloose son to "real life." The elder Bush arranged for his son to serve as a counselor with a mentoring program in Houston called Professionals United for Leadership (PULL), according to Bush family friends and advisers. The program brought inner-city kids together with pro athletes and civic leaders. Early in 1973, George W. began working at PULL, often as the only white volunteer. His jobs included taking the kids on field trips to juvenile prisons to scare them away from crime. It was from there that he headed to Cambridge in September 1973, ready to get serious at the age of 27. U.S. News 11/1/99
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