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By Bill Gallagher

DETROIT -- You could just hear the excitement as the deck crew on the aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln got the tailhook ready for the landing of the commander in chief.

He was an Air Force guy, but what the heck. It's gutsy under any circumstances to land on a carrier and the visual opportunity for campaign purposes was irresistible.

Then the moment.

President George W. Bush strutting across the deck in his flight suit, toting his helmet, beaming and waving. He was a skilled, highly trained pilot himself and he felt comfortable in his flight suit.

History will remember May 1, 2003. The president in his flight suit and with the pictures to prove it.

But I wondered when the last time was that George W. Bush wore a flight suit.

The cheerleaders (they are not reporters) on the cable television networks were gushing. They could not find enough superlatives to describe the flying president. They all mentioned over and over that the president had served his nation valiantly in the Texas Air National Guard, and the man who defeated the godless and absent Iraqi Army loved military service.

The cable news networks have become essentially the government news service, the American Pravda. No one asks the tough questions or questions the "official" version of the truth. Which is the worst? I'll report. You decide.

So it wasn't surprising that the corporate-bought shills for the administration made no mention of the fact that the commander in chief went AWOL and neglected the final two years of his military obligation. Too delicate and too embarrassing to bring up at such a triumphant moment.

George W. Bush's official biography shows he served as a pilot with the Texas Guard from 1968 to 1973. As the son of a wealthy and influential congressman, his daddy's influence entitled him to such a slot. No Bush could ever be an Army grunt in the jungles of Vietnam.

The American taxpayers spent $1 million to train George W. Bush to fly planes and, by all accounts, he was a pretty good pilot when he chose to fly. He went to weekend meetings at the Fighter-Interceptor Squadron at Ellington Field in Houston from June, 1970 until April, 1972.

Then Bush suddenly and inexplicably stopped flying and the unsolved mystery began.

He left Texas to go to Alabama to work on the Senate campaign of one of his daddy's pals. Bush claims he performed service at a Montgomery Air Guard unit, but there is no record that he ever showed up.

One of the values he learned in the Air National Guard, Bush has said, was "the responsibility to show up and do the job." From 1972 to 1973, he did neither.

In Alabama, a group of Vietnam veterans is offering a reward to anyone who can verify Bush's claim that he served there. Just one picture of him in his flight suit. One witness. Just one scintilla of evidence. Please, someone, step forward now, so we can all rest with the certainty that the commander in chief did what he says he did.

The entire year of 1972 remains a blank for George W. Bush. It might be hard for anyone to pinpoint a week or a month, but a whole year?

Come on.

In 1972, my daughter Amy was born. I lived on 10th Street, worked at Carborundum, served on the Niagara Falls City Council and campaigned for George McGovern.

Most people can provide that sort of general information. George W. Bush won't or can't.

Was he fasting and praying in the desert?

Did some strange, induced spell black out his memory?

Did he choke on a pretzel?

Was he on a secret mission for the Nixon re-election campaign?

The president, Karl Rove and all his handlers have never come clean. It would be a great book: "George Dubya: The Missing Year."

If this were Bill Clinton, there would already be an entire library about the unexplained time, and every right-wing wacko writer on earth would have an entangled theory about it.

Let's see. Clinton was really hiding out in Moscow for secret training as a commie plant, certainly looking up whatever skirt was handy, and already plotting the Whitewater land deal.

The dittoheads never talk about Bush's missing year, because Rush Limbaugh would have to explain how he ducked military service. (He had an ingrown hair in a very delicate spot that he failed to treat and that neglect got him classified 4-F, unfit for military service.)

It is fair game to revive these questions about Bush's sabbatical from military service, since they have never been answered. We know the lame sycophants from the White House press corps and cable network types will never offend Ari Fleischer by asking them.

I give the Bushies credit for using the flight suit image. It's effective and they'll use it to the hilt in the campaign. But every time you see it, ask yourself when George W. Bush last donned a flight suit and what happened to that missing year.

The president left the aircraft carrier and headed for the campaign trail, with a visit to a military contractor in California to unleash his rhetorical weapons of mass distraction -- his jobs and growth plan, pinned on more tax cuts that will benefit the wealthiest Americans.

Even Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan now says the economy is poised to grow without further large tax cuts, and budget deficits resulting from the tax cuts will damage the economy.

If enacted, the Bush tax cuts and spending plan would add $2.7 trillion in deficits over the next decade. The first round of tax cuts wiped out an anticipated $5 trillion surplus, and the river of Republican red ink will flow indefinitely.

Remember, in their hallowed contract with America, Republicans promised they would end federal deficits. Another broken promise.

The "Jobs and Growth Plan" is more accurately described as a "Deficits and Borrowing Plan" that will saddle future generations with debt to finance tax cuts for Bush's pals at the Houston Petroleum Club.

Bush is pushing for a $550 billion tax cut while he's running up a $300 billion deficit. If we're going to have a raid on the public treasury, why not do some good?

A much better way to help the economy and suffering people is for the federal government to infuse the same amount of money into state and local governments for job programs.

Those governments, already facing massive cutbacks, could use the help, and some of the 8.8 million unemployed Americans would get a paycheck.

Unemployment benefits should also be extended, as the jobless rate shot up 6 percent in April and the nation is experiencing the deepest job slump in 20 years.

George W. Bush is set to preside over the first presidency since Herbert Hoover's in which the American economy actually lost jobs. He's already far surpassed his daddy's records for deficits and job destruction.

Republicans cringe when they hear Hoover comparisons, since he and Bush the Elder were the only Republicans in the 20th century to lose re-election bids.

But it's really unfair to Hoover to compare him to George W. Bush. Hoover was everything Bush is not. Hoover was accomplished, self-made and truly a "compassionate conservative."

Long before he had the misfortune of being president when the world plunged into the Depression he was unfairly blamed for, Hoover led the humanitarian efforts to feed starving Europeans in the wake of World War I. He was revered on the continent that George W. Bush now disdains.

And unlike our present president, Hoover could actually remember and account for every year in his distinguished life.

Bill Gallagher, a Peabody Award winner, is a former Niagara Falls city councilman who now covers Detroit for Fox News. His e-mail address is gallaghernewsman@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com May 6 2003