To understand why questions about George Bush's time in the National Guard are legitimate, all you have to do is look at the federal budget published last week. No, not the lies, damned lies and statistics — the pictures.
By my count, this year's budget contains 27 glossy photos of Mr. Bush. We see the president in front of a giant American flag, in front of the Washington Monument, comforting an elderly woman in a wheelchair, helping a small child with his reading assignment, building a trail through the wilderness and, of course, eating turkey with the troops in Iraq. Somehow the art director neglected to include a photo of the president swimming across the Yangtze River.
It was not ever thus. Bill Clinton's budgets were illustrated with tables and charts, not with worshipful photos of the president being presidential.
The issue here goes beyond using the Government Printing Office to publish campaign brochures. In this budget, as in almost everything it does, the Bush administration tries to blur the line between reverence for the office of president and reverence for the person who currently holds that office.
Operation Flight Suit was only slightly more over the top than other Bush photo-ops, like the carefully staged picture that placed Mr. Bush's head in line with the stone faces on Mount Rushmore. The goal is to suggest that it's unpatriotic to criticize the president, and to use his heroic image to block any substantive discussion of his policies.
In fact, those 27 photos grace one of the four most dishonest budgets in the nation's history — the other three are the budgets released in 2001, 2002 and 2003. Just to give you a taste: remember how last year's budget contained no money for postwar Iraq — and how administration officials waited until after the tax cut had been passed to mention the small matter of $87 billion in extra costs? Well, they've done it again: earlier this week the Army's chief of staff testified that the Iraq funds in the budget would cover expenses only through September.
But when administration officials are challenged about the blatant deceptions in their budgets — or, for that matter, about the use of prewar intelligence — their response, almost always, is to fall back on the president's character. How dare you question Mr. Bush's honesty, they ask, when he is a man of such unimpeachable integrity? And that leaves critics with no choice: they must point out that the man inside the flight suit bears little resemblance to the official image.
There is, as far as I can tell, no positive evidence that Mr. Bush is a man of exceptional uprightness. When has he even accepted responsibility for something that went wrong? On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that he is willing to cut corners when it's to his personal advantage. His business career was full of questionable deals, and whatever the full truth about his National Guard service, it was certainly not glorious.
Old history, you may say, and irrelevant to the present. And perhaps that would be true if Mr. Bush was prepared to come clean about his past. Instead, he remains evasive. On "Meet the Press" he promised to release all his records — and promptly broke that promise.
I don't know what he's hiding. But I do think he has forfeited any right to cite his character to turn away charges that his administration is lying about its policies. And that is the point: Mr. Bush may not be a particularly bad man, but he isn't the paragon his handlers portray.
Some of his critics hope that the AWOL issue will demolish the Bush myth, all at once. They're probably too optimistic — if it were that easy, the tale of Harken Energy would have already done the trick. The sad truth is that people who have been taken in by a cult of personality — a group that in this case includes a good fraction of the American people, and a considerably higher fraction of the punditocracy — are very reluctant to give up their illusions. If nothing else, that would mean admitting that they had been played for fools.
Still, we may be on our way to an election in which Mr. Bush is judged on his record, not his legend. And that, of course, is what the White House fears.
Originally published in The New York Times, 2.13.04