President Bush's military records, including personal flight logs just released by the Pentagon, paint a picture of a solid, if hardly outstanding, pilot who energetically performed his duties for much of a six-year stint with the Air National Guard. Then, in the spring of 1972, the picture changes.
After initially expressing his intention to make flying "a lifetime pursuit," Bush checked out an F-102 interceptor jet for an 80-minute spin on April 6, 1972, in Texas , and never piloted a military plane again.
Why Bush stopped flying and failed to take an annual physical necessary for him to remain a pilot have become the object of much speculation and reporting that spiked in intensity last week, as it did during the 2000 campaign.
The topic was back in the headlines after CBS News footage included documents -- whose authenticity is now hotly disputed -- asserting that Bush failed to perform to National Guard standards.
Yesterday, another retired Air National Guard officer came forward to attack the network's credibility. Retired Maj. Gen. Bobby W. Hodges, who was cited by a senior CBS official on Thursday as the network's "trump card" in verifying the documents, said in an interview that he was "misled" by CBS and believes the documents to be forgeries.
Hodges said that he was read only excerpts of the documents and never saw the documents. A CBS spokeswoman said the network stands by its report.
A review of the authenticated documentary record for Bush's guard service and interviews with former guard members suggest that the president and his aides have been less than fully candid about unexplained gaps in his military service, and have made misleading and sometimes inaccurate statements that have helped fuel the controversy.
At the same time, Bush's critics have been unable to come up with definitive evidence showing that he failed to meet his minimum obligations to the guard after being suspended from flying for failing to take the physical.
"The records that I have been able to see show a young lieutenant who was very aggressive, a good participant in the program for 3 1/2 years," said retired Maj. Gen. Paul A. Weaver Jr., who headed the Air National Guard between 1998 and 2002. "Then, near the end, the records show that he was a minimally satisfactory participant."
Weaver said Bush's records suggest a pilot whose interest in flying waned in early 1972 and whose commanders "did everything possible to assist Bush in obtaining the necessary satisfactory time for his remaining obligatory service." In the end, Weaver said, Bush's paperwork was acceptable to personnel officers in Denver, who granted him an honorable discharge at the end of 1974.
The White House now says that Bush left Texas, where he was first assigned when he joined the Air National Guard, for Alabama in the spring of 1972 because his priorities changed and he wanted to work in the political campaign of a family friend, Winton "Red" Blount, who was running for the U.S. Senate.
But in his 1999 autobiography, Bush omits mention of his suspension from flight status. He says only that "I continued flying with my unit for the next several years" after being turned down in 1970 for a program known as "Palace Alert" that might have taken him to Vietnam.
White House spokesmen said there was no point in Bush taking his required pilot's physical in 1972 because he had already decided to move to Alabama, where there were no F-102 planes. To fly another plane, he would have had to undergo extensive retraining.
Whatever Bush's reasons for failing to take the physical, he seems to have put in minimal service at best in Alabama. According to his official personnel records, made public by the White House and the Pentagon, he failed to show for any drills between May and October 1972, even though Air Force regulations required him to attend 90 percent of scheduled drills, barring events "beyond his control."