Welcome to the Virtual U.S.A.
     by Gene Lyons

 George W. Bush's swaggering, cinematic landing aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln last week
 dramatized more than the end of the Iraq war and the beginning of Bush's 2004 campaign. It also
 represented the triumph of symbol over substance in American politics. The president's handlers
 appear to believe that a public giddy with TV images of U.S. military omnipotence can no longer
 distinguish between reality and make-believe.

 Evidently, Bush will run as a one-man reunion of the Village People, the dreadful disco act.  Having
 previously costumed himself as a Businessman (his ventures mostly failed), and Owner of  the Texas
 Rangers (he had a one percent share), he's added Cowboy and Fighter Pilot to his repertoire.
 In reality, his Texas ranch was acquired in 1999; Bush's time in the saddle is limited to golf carts.

 The Fighter Jock pose has more substance, as Bush did learn to fly F-102s during his foreshortened
 service in the Texas Air National Guard's renowned "Champagne Brigade" 30 years ago. The White
 House seemed to hint that the president himself would perform the landing aboard the Abraham Lincoln
 hundreds of miles at sea--far beyond helicopter range, Ari Fleischer assured the press.

 That would have been a reckless stunt. Formally grounded for failure to take a required medical exam
 soon after completing his pilot's training, Bush hasn't flown a military aircraft since. As you'd think Junior's
 handlers wouldn't want to remind anybody, the Boston Globe pretty conclusively proved in May 2000
 that Bush went AWOL for more than a year during 1972-73-arranging a transfer from the Texas to the
 Alabama Air National Guard, but never showing up for duty.

 The commanding officer of the Alabama unit, Gen. William Turnipseed, unequivocally told the newspaper
 that Bush failed to report. Back in Texas, Walter Robinson wrote, "his two superior officers at Ellington
 Air Force Base could not perform his annual evaluation covering the year from May 1, 1972 to April 30,
 1973 because, they wrote, 'Lt. Bush has not been observed at this unit during the period of this report.'"

 Having falsely assured the press that his Guard enlistment involved no preferential treatment (former Texas
 House Speaker Ben Barnes has since admitted making phone calls on Junior's behalf) Bush also claimed to
 have done light duty in Alabama, but could provide neither documentary evidence nor witnesses.

 This is a dead giveaway. As somebody roughly Bush's age with no eminent connections, I could easily
 prove my whereabouts, job or institutional affiliations at any time since entering kindergarten. The
 conclusion is inescapable: Bush took a powder.

 Speaking of powder, there's been considerable speculation, based on what he says and doesn't say that
 Junior took may have experimented with the drug known as "Peruvian marching powder" or cocaine.
 His failure to submit to a physical exam coincided with the Pentagon's decision to begin drug testing.
 He's denied using illegal drugs only since 1974, by which time he'd returned to Houston and been granted
 an honorable discharge.

 Does it matter thirty years later? Not much, unless you consider the lying important. Many people did things
 30 years ago they wouldn't want in the newspapers. Even so, national media's eagerness to protect Junior
 from his youthful folly approaches the pathological. Amply documented, the Globe article was all but ignored
 during the 2000 campaign by a Washington press clique obsessed with made-up tales about Al Gore
 "inventing the internet" and such.

 So does it matter that the Abraham Lincoln was only 39 miles out to sea, and that the Navy admits turning  the
 ship so as to afford President Fighter Jock a backdrop of open ocean instead of the San Diego skyline for his
 speech? Or, as Paul Krugman points out in the New York Times, that Bush's posturing in military garb breaks
 an American tradition dating back to the Revolutionary War? Presidents George Washington, Ulysses S. Grant
 and Dwight D. Eisenhower never did. Real soldiers, they emphasized their civilian status as commander-in-chief.

 Not so ex-Lt. Junior of the Champagne Brigade. Meanwhile, cable TV pundits swooned. Bob Somerby's
 dailyhowler.com lampoons the way Chris Matthews of MSNBC's "Hardball" gushed over Bush's rugged
 masculinity. Casting the presidency in purely cinematic terms, Matthews doubted that a Democratic "casting
 director" could match Junior: "Nobody looks right in the role Bush has set for the presidency--commander
 -in-chief, medium height, medium build, looks good in a jet pilot's costume--or uniform, rather--has a certain
 swagger, not too literary, certainly not too verbal, but a guy who speaks plainly and wins wars."

 The enraptured Matthews specifically derided Sen. John Kerry, who won the Silver Star, Bronze Star and
 three Purple Hearts in Vietnam, and George McGovern, whose heroic exploits as a WWII bomber pilot are
 documented in Stephen Ambrose's book "Wild Blue Yonder."

 Reality sucks. Welcome to the Virtual U.S.A.

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