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By Thomas Burdick and Charlene Mitchell
Simon & Schuster
384 pages, $22.95

GEORGE BUSH, as the ultimate commander of America's war on drugs, should be deeply troubled by this book.

It contends that Donald Aronow, a close buddy of Bush, was a big-time drug smuggler with strong Mafia connections.

And that Aronow was up to his neck in drug smuggling at the same time he was building boats for use in the U.S. government's drug interdiction program.

If it's true, Bush can be viewed as a celebrity-worshiping goof, a bad chooser of friends, or both.

Any way you look at it, this fast-paced book is an eyebrow-raiser. Its subtitle is an accurate one: "How the Mafia Owned and Finally Murdered Cigarette Boat King Donald Aronow."

Aronow, 59 at the time of his murder in 1987, was a handsome, jet-setting Miami speedboat racer and designer of the sleek racing craft known as the cigarette boat. Described in the book as an elusive, Gatsbyesque character, he is considered by many as the man who put speedboat racing on the map as an American spectator sport.

To be fair, Bush was hardly the only powerful person to be taken by Aronow. Aronow lived an extraordinary double life -- hobnobbing with foreign royalty, politicians and members of Miami's high society one day and working deals with members of Florida's most violent drug gangs the next. The book links him to the late gangster leader Meyer Lansky, and to Ben Kramer, a notorious mob drug kingpin.

But that didn't stop the federal government from hiring Aronow in 1984 to design "Blue Thunder," a boat that was used by drug-busters from the U.S. Customs Service to patrol the waters off Florida.

Prominently displayed in the book is a staged photo of Aronow and a peacock-proud Bush, taking one of the "Blue Thunder" catamarans out for a test run in the Atlantic Ocean. Bush, as Ronald Reagan's vice president, was then the overseer of the nation's battle against drugs.

Some ugly information about Aronow began to arise after he was rubbed out in an ambush attack in Miami's Thunderboat Alley in February 1987, allegedly because he was about to testify before a grand jury investigating the Florida drug trade.

Three weeks before he was murdered, Aronow had a pensive, reflective talk with his wife, Lillian, a former girlfriend of Jordan's King Hussein. Aronow told her that if he was to die he wanted to be cremated, with no memorial service or eulogy. He also told her that if anything happened to him, she should contact one person immediately: Bush.

Burdick's and Mitchell's investigation into Aronow's life, his Bush connections and his death makes for a fascinating and disturbing mystery story. The writers are a hard-charging pair of investigative journalists who have written pieces for Playboy, Vanity Fair, Savvy, Ms., the Washington Times and other publications.

If their story is to be believed, Burdick went far beyond the efforts of any police agency in his probe into the slaying of Aronow. The author claims police have pinned the murder on the wrong man, and he presents what appears to be convincing evidence that two Chicago hit men fired the shots that killed Aronow.

Left open is the question of how much Bush knew -- or, hopefully, didn't know -- about Aronow's drug involvement. A series of warm letters sent from the then-vice president to the boat builder he called his "dear friend" avoids the topic of drugs.

One point is made with crystal clarity -- Bush (and other public officials) should be a lot more careful in choosing their friends.

The only weakness in this fine book is the authors' failure to explain how Aronow became such a big shot in the first place. We learn that he came from humble beginnings, owned a construction company in New Jersey and then -- miraculously -- became Florida's most famous boat racer. The jump from Jersey to Miami left this reader scratching his head.

Otherwise, it's fine reading, with interesting insights into the Mafia, its relationship with Miami's so-called "respectable" folks, and the squabbling among police agencies that are supposed to be investigating the mob.

If we saw all this on a "Miami Vice" rerun, we'd smirk and dismiss it as a flashy fantasy. But the Donald Aronow story really happened.