For most of his political career George Bush, was most easily categorized by his detractors as a wimp. The name symbolized an ineffectual politician who takes direction but never gives any.
His "gee whiz" language and high, reedy voice that got even thinner under stress made it worse. He was known as a get-along, go-along Republican. Even when his image was pushed to the forefront of the 1988 presidential campaign, Newsweek published a lengthy profile piece with Bush on the cover and the embarrassing title, "George Bush: Fighting the `Wimp Factor.' "It was unusual, considering the fact that he had been a college athlete and a hero as a naval flier during World War II.
It took the Persian Gulf war to destroy Bush's wimp image forever. As commander-in-chief of the first successful American war since World War II, how could he miss? It is to be expected, then, that his old war-hero image as a Navy flier should be revived.
Joe Hyams has done it in a major way in a book released Monday called "Flight of the Avenger: George Bush At War," (Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich, $16.95). In it, he places Bush next to the most recent president with a Navy-hero image - John F. Kennedy of PT 109 fame.
PT boats were extremely light, maneuverable, nocturnal boats designed to move along the water at better than 40 knots, the equivalent of 45 miles per hour on land. They could move in on targets silently with muffled engines, launch torpedoes and then skim away smoothly, outmaneuvering pursuers.
Lt. John F. Kennedy commanded one of these boats in the South Pacific, and became a legitimate hero after his boat was split by a Japanese destroyer. When Kennedy's political career took off, John Hersey wrote a riveting account of the incident for The New Yorker, which was then given greater distribution through Reader's Digest.
A TV version followed, and then when Kennedy geared up for a presidential run, Robert Donovan wrote a best selling book, "PT 109: John Kennedy in World War II." Eventually, it became a full-blown Hollywood movie with Cliff Robertson as Kennedy.
George Bush's wartime exploits had to wait for big-time treatment, but Hyams' book fills the bill. What could be more palatable than a commander-in-chief who actually saw action himself?
It was Sept. 2, 1944, when Lt. George Bush piloted his Avenger, in the toughest flight of his career. The TBF Avenger was the largest single-engine carrier-based plane in the world. Since it weighed eight tons when loaded, the standard joke was that it could fall faster than it could fly.
According to Joe Hyams, the mission was a dangerous one - a divebomb attack over the island of Chichi Jima. As he approached his target, Bush's engine was hit and caught fire. He radioed a bailout command to his two crewmen, but when his parachute hit water, there was no one else in sight.
As Hyams describes it, Bush hand-paddled a small yellow life raft against tides "that were pulling straight in the direction of the island he had just bombed. Several hours later, an American submarine sighted and, in a dramatic rescue, pulled the wet young pilot out of the sea. There, still wearing his flying helmet and Mae West life jacket, was the future president of the United States."
His reward was the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Although Hyams was himself a World War II correspondent in the South Pacific, he is anything but objective. He has produced an overly loving account of a flawless hero that has been stretched to book length by the old device of starting out with Bush's Sept. 1, 1944, mission in chapter one - then reverting in succeeding chapters to his childhood, his family experiences, his Yale years, his courtship of Barbara Pierce - and finally getting to the climactic Sept. 2nd mission in chapter seven.
An article in the New Yorker that was then reprinted in Reader's Digest would have done more justice to a story that is actually very short. But it is one worth telling, and does help us understand George Bush.
I just hope the movie doesn't star Dana Carvey of "Saturday Night Live."