The Skeleton in W.'s Closet: An excerpt from <i>Family of Secrets</i>

Bush's handlers thought they could get reporters off a story by intimidating them. It sometimes seems that the entire story of George W. Bush's life has been rewritten by hired hands.
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Do you know the story behind the Kennedy Assassination, behind Watergate, behind George W. Bush's quick ascension to the most powerful office in the world? I thought I did. It was pretty simple, really. Oswald killed Kennedy, Nixon was an ogre, and W triumphed through a combination of ruthless political tactics, the weakness of his opponent, timing, and dumb luck.

That's what I thought--I and many others. Then I began to wonder about George W. What, really, underlay his improbable rise and the administration it spawned? When I considered the astonishing array of controversies and the deceit running throughout the enterprise, my instincts told me there was more to the story. Beginning in 2004, and for the next five years, I hit the road, interviewing hundreds of people (most of whom had never been interviewed before) and obtaining and examining thousands of documents.

The story led me to places - psychologically as well as physically - that I never expected to go. I had to reassess many of my most basic assumptions, not just about George W. Bush and his family; but even more about the nature of power in America and the way it has played out in our recent history. That includes some of the most persistently baffling events.

The result is my first book, Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty, The Powerful Forces That Put it in the White House, and What Their Influence Means for America. For more information on this book and the research behind it, please visit

The following is an excerpt from the book.

Even before George W. Bush attained his first public office, his handlers were aware of a skeleton rattling noisily in his closet. It was one that undercut the legend of principle and duty -- the story of a man's man and patriot. It would have to be disposed of.

At a televised debate in 1994 between incumbent Texas governor Ann Richards and challenger George W., Austin television reporter Jim Moore asked Bush to explain how he had gotten so quickly and easily into National Guard pilot training as an alternative to serving in Vietnam. Candidate Bush simply asserted that favoritism had played no role and that he had honorably served. End of discussion. There were no follow-up questions.

But the moment the debate was over, Bush's communications director, Karen Hughes, came at the journalist. "Karen just makes a beeline for me and gets in my face and tries to separate me from the crowd," Moore said. "Then she starts a rant. 'What kind of question is that? Why did you ask that question? Who do you think you are? That's just not relevant to being governor of Texas. He's not trying to run the federal government. He's going to run the state of Texas. What does his service in the National Guard have to do with anything? He doesn't have an army to run here in Texas. Why would you ask such a question, Jim?'" (Some years later, when Bush actually was running an army, each time a reporter asked the same question, he or she was told that it had been "asked and answered" long ago.) In response to Hughes, Moore said, "It's about character, Karen. It's about his generation and mine coming of age, and how we dealt with what we all viewed as a bad war."

As the reporter was turning to go file his story, Bush's chief strategist, Karl Rove, came at him next. "'What was that question, Moore?' And I said, 'Well, you know what it was, Karl.' I said it's a fair question. And he said, 'It wasn't fair. It doesn't have anything to do with anything.' And his rant was less energized than Karen's, but it was the same thing -- trying to say, 'You're stupid. You're a yokel local and you're stupid and you don't know what you're doing.'"

Bush's handlers thought they could get reporters off a story by intimidating them. Often they turned out to be right. It sometimes seems that the entire story of George W. Bush's life has been rewritten by hired hands. As each exaggeration, distortion, or factual error is uncovered, Bush has ducked and bobbed; only rarely has he been forced to concede anything.

Just one of hundreds of such examples: During his unsuccessful Midland congressional bid in 1978, W.'s campaign literature described his war time service as "Air Force" -- a claim also made for him in Poppy's autobiography. Presumably both men knew the difference between the National Guard and the Air Force. Nevertheless, that claim remained in W.'s official biography until the 2000 presidential campaign, at which point the correction was quietly made.

On no subject were Bush and his team more intransigent than on the particulars of his military ser vice. One cosmetic concern was that the favoritism shown young Bush in his National Guard assignment did not fit the legend Karl Rove was developing for him. This was the tough, no bullshit, "mano a mano" kind of guy, the cocky kid who challenged his famous father to a fight, the self-made oilman in flight jacket and cowboy boots, the straight-talking "ranch hand" with the John Wayne swagger ("in Texas, we call that walking"). Even the name of his campaign plane (Accountability One) was crafted to the image. He could not be seen as someone who used family connections to get a cushy home-front assignment while thousands of his peers went off to die in Vietnam.

After Bush's election as governor in 1994, his political team worked to inoculate their man against further inquiries into his Guard service. Dan Bartlett, an eager staff aide then in his twenties, and with no military service of his own, was named as liaison between the governor and the National Guard. And Bush replaced Texas's adjutant general Sam Turk, the administrative head of the Guard, who had been appointed by Governor Richards, with General Daniel James.

Cleaning up the Texas Guard records became a lot easier once W. was the titular commander in chief of the state's National Guard units. The effort got under way just months after Bush's inauguration. On May 16, 1995, Joe Allbaugh, by then Bush's chief of staff, met with Guard officials and asked to see Bush's personnel records. Three days later, they were sent over to the governor's office from the office of the outgoing adjutant general. "I am enclosing copies of the Texas Air National Guard personnel records for Mr. Daniel O. Shelley and Governor George W. Bush," wrote Turk. It is not clear why Shelley's records were also requested, except that he was about to be named Bush's legislative director. In any case, asking for two records rather than one likely was a form of cover -- comparable to what happened in 1972 when George W. Bush failed to take his mandatory National Guard physical and was joined in this violation by his friend Jim Bath. In each instance, the special treatment accorded W. was made to seem more "routine" by the fact that at least one other person was included.

That the people around the governor were concerned was evident when Dan Bartlett traveled to Denver to personally review the microfiche copy of Bush's records on file at the Air Reserve Personnel Center. Although Bartlett had little or no knowledge of the military, he would turn out to be a good man for the job. As was true of most Bush appointees, his primary qualification was loyalty. Bartlett had gone to work for Karl Rove's political consulting business in 1992, right out of college, and so by the 2000 presidential campaign, his entire adult life had been in service to Rove and Bush.

In 1996, the new adjutant general, Daniel James, hired Lieutenant Colonel Bill Burkett, a former Guardsman and tough cattle rancher who doubled as a private management con sul tant, to lead a task force assessing the state of the organization. Even the top brass believed it had become lax and inefficient; Burkett's mission was to create a strategic plan to bring the Guard back into fighting trim. Burkett returned several months later with a devastating report, documenting how outmoded, inefficient, unprepared, and even corrupt the service was. The report suggested sweeping reforms.

What Burkett and his team discovered went way beyond unjustified promotions of politically connected officers, as bad as those were. (One officer whose promotion was judged improper nevertheless went on to head a unit that was sent to Iraq in 2004.) They also uncovered that the Texas Guard rolls were full of "ghost soldiers," military personnel kept on the books after they had left the unit to justify the continued flow of money allocated for their pay. Equally important, the ghost numbers made units appear to be at authorized troop levels when reviewed by state and federal authorities.

Burkett and his team believed their findings were so important and so sensitive that they had to take them straight to the top. Not knowing who was responsible for the fraud, "we decided we had to go to the boss," Burkett recalled. But James, the man governor Bush had handpicked to run the Guard, seemed far more upset about the breach of military procedure in reporting the news of corruption and malfeasance than in the news itself. According to Burkett, James responded: "Now guys, I want to know what I'm supposed to tell the chief of staff, Colonel Goodwin, when he wants to have your heads 'cause you violated the chain of command and came in here over his head."

When Burkett asked for -- and received -- a promise of funding from the Clinton-Gore administration to begin repairing holes in the Guard, Governor Bush angrily declined the help. According to Burkett, Bush's chief of staff, Joe Allbaugh, informed General James that henceforth his primary function was to ensure that Bill Burkett be kept as far as possible from the media.

Meanwhile, according to Burkett, there was discussion of Bush's impending presidential bid and how it would become a priority for state officials. One day in 1997, Burkett said, he was in the vicinity of General James's office when a call came in. James took it on the speakerphone. It was Joe Allbaugh, with Bush's Guard liaison Dan Bartlett on the line. According to Burkett, Allbaugh told James that Karen Hughes and Bartlett would be coming out to Camp Mabry, which was on the outskirts of Austin, to comb through the records in preparation for a book on Bush, and he instructed the general to have the records prescreened. According to Burkett, Allbaugh said, "Just get rid of the embarrassments."

About ten days after Allbaugh's call, Burkett claims, he came upon Guard officials going through Bush's records and observed a trash can nearby that included between twenty and forty pages of Bush's military documents. Burkett had a few moments to see what they contained. Another Guard officer and friend of Burkett's, George Conn, would later corroborate much of this story, but then withdraw confirmation while steadfastly maintaining that Burkett was an honorable and truthful man. Clearly, Conn was in a difficult position, working for the military on a civilian contract, while his wife served as head of the secretarial pool for a large law firm that was a leading bundler of campaign contributions to the Bush campaigns.

"I was there. I know what I saw in the trash. I know what actions I saw taking place," Burkett told me during one of several lengthy conversations. One of the documents that has been missing from the released files, Burkett claims, is a "counseling statement" from a senior officer to Bush, explaining why he was grounded and the changes to his assignment, slot, and pay rate. Burkett told me he glimpsed Bush's counseling statement at the top of the discard stack, but did not have time to read it through. "In a perfect world, I guess I should have just stepped up and grabbed the files and made a federal case of it all right there," he said. "Looking back, I probably would have. It would have been simpler to have confronted the whole mess right then and there."

Copyright © 2008 Russ Baker

The above is an excerpt from the book Family of Secrets: The Bush Dynasty, The Powerful Forces That Put it in the White House, and What Their Influence Means for America by Russ Baker (Published by Bloomsbury Press; December 2008; 978-1596915572). This excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.

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