It was four years ago – see the 2003 CNN coverage (story, video of the speech, the landing, an audio slide slow and photo gallery). The details are well known. On May 1, 2003, George W. Bush landed on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, in Navy One, a Lockheed S-3 Viking, wearing a flight suit. A few minutes later he gave a speech announcing the end of major combat operations in the Iraq War. Clearly visible in the background was a banner – “Mission Accomplished.” It seemed like a good idea at the time. Oops.
But something was a tad off from the start – the carrier was well within range of Bush’s helicopter, and a jet landing was kind of silly. Originally the White House had said that the carrier was too far off the California coast for a helicopter landing and a jet would be needed to reach it. But then, on the day of the speech, the Lincoln was only thirty miles out. The White House spokesman at that time, Ari Fleischer, admitted that the president “could have helicoptered, but the plan was already in place – plus, he wanted to see a landing the way aviators see a landing.” That was in the days before the White House press corps laughed out loud. We needed our theater.
The giant banner saying “Mission Accomplished” was another problem. Navy Commander and Pentagon spokesman Conrad Chun later said that the banner referred specifically to the aircraft carrier’s ten-month deployment (the longest deployment of a carrier since the Vietnam War) and not really to the war itself – “It truly did signify a mission accomplished for the crew.” Ah, an honest mistake. The White House story was a bit different – the banner “was requested” by the crew of the ship (a classic “not our fault”). That morphed into the administration and naval sources staying that (1) that the banner was the Navy’s idea, and (2) White House staff members made the banner, and (3) it was hung by Navy personnel. As White House spokesman Scott McClellan told CNN – “We took care of the production of it. We have people to do those things. But the Navy actually put it up.” John Dickerson, then with Time Magazine, reported that the White House later conceded that they actually hung the banner – but still insisted it had been done at the request of the crewmembers. You could look it all up.
In any event, Chris Mathews at MSNBC, sitting with Ann Coulter and Bob Dornan, practically wet his pants –
MATTHEWS: Let me ask you, Bob Dornan, you were a congressman all those years. Here’s a president who’s really nonverbal. He’s like Eisenhower. He looks great in a military uniform. He looks great in that cowboy costume he wears when he goes west. I remember him standing at that fence with Colin Powell. Was [that] the best picture in the 2000 campaign?
MATTHEWS: Ann Coulter, you’re the first to speak tonight on the buzz. The president’s performance tonight, redolent of the best of Reagan – what do you think?
COULTER: It’s stunning. It’s amazing. I think it’s huge. I mean, he’s landing on a boat at 150 miles per hour. It’s tremendous. It’s hard to imagine any Democrat being able to do that. And it doesn’t matter if Democrats try to ridicule it. It’s stunning, and it speaks for itself.
MATTHEWS: We’re proud of our president. Americans love having a guy as president, a guy who has a little swagger, who’s physical, who’s not a complicated guy like [former President Bill] Clinton or even like [former Democratic presidential candidates Michael] Dukakis or [Walter] Mondale, all those guys, [George] McGovern. They want a guy who’s president. Women like a guy who’s president. Check it out. The women like this war. I think we like having a hero as our president. It’s simple. We’re not like the Brits. We don’t want an indoor prime minister type, or the Danes or the Dutch or the Italians, or a [Russian Federation President Vladimir] Putin. Can you imagine Putin getting elected here? We want a guy as president.
On the May 1 edition of CNBC’s The News with Brian Williams, Williams, now anchor of NBC’s Nightly News, said of Bush –
WILLIAMS: And two immutable truths about the president that the Democrats can’t change: He’s a youthful guy. He looked terrific and full of energy in a flight suit. He is a former pilot, so it’s not a foreign art farm – art form to him. Not all presidents could have pulled this scene off today.
The item also quotes Washington Post staff writer Karen DeYoung on May 2, 2003 –
Bush, who had taken off his helmet and thus avoided photographic comparisons to presidential candidate Michael S. Dukakis’s unfortunate episode with a tank helmet during 1988 campaign, jumped down in full flight regalia, a smile splitting his face. The Navy had planned an official greeting, with Bush being piped aboard and walking through two rows of “sideboys” saluting him – a tradition that dates from the days when visiting officers were hauled up the side of the ship in a boatswain’s chair.
Bush ignored it all, swaggering forward and pumping hands with everybody in sight before they could salute. “Here’s a man with a birthday,” he yelled at a television cameraman as he swung his arm around a sailor. “Put him on C-SPAN.” For once, there were no security concerns to keep Bush from pressing flesh, and he made the most of it, hugging and patting everyone on the back – from the greasy flight deck crew to F-18 pilots waiting to fly home this afternoon.
“Great job, great job,” he kept saying. “I flew it,” he shouted back to a reporter’s shouted question about his flight. “Yeah, of course I liked it. It was fantastic.”
There is also the May 4, 2003, edition of CBS’ Face the Nation – Bob Schieffer and Time columnist Joe Klein –
SCHIEFFER: As far as I’m concerned, that was one of the great pictures of all time. And if you’re a political consultant, you can just see campaign commercial written all over the pictures of George Bush.
KLEIN: Well, that was probably the coolest presidential image since Bill Pullman played the jet fighter pilot in the movie Independence Day. That was the first thing that came to mind for me. And it just shows you how high a mountain these Democrats are going to have to climb. You compare that image, which everybody across the world saw, with this debate last night where you have nine people on a stage and it doesn’t air until 11:30 at night, up against Saturday Night Live, and you see what a major, major struggle the Democrats are going to have to try and beat a popular incumbent president.
And on the May 4, 2003, edition of CNN’s Reliable Sources, syndicated radio host Laura Ingraham –
INGRAHAM: Speaking as a woman, and listening to the women who called into my radio show, seeing President Bush get out of that plane, carrying his helmet, he is a real man. He stands by his word. That was a very powerful moment.
So what happened to all that? “In the Battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed.” The Democrats were dead and gone. All those who opposed the war should apologize and hang their heads in shame, and in perpetual silence. Things didn’t work out that way.
It should be noted that when he received an advance copy of the speech, Donald Rumsfeld, of all people, took care to remove any use of the phrase “Mission Accomplished.” Later, when Bob Woodward asked him about that, Rumsfeld explained – “I was in Baghdad, and I was given a draft of that thing to look at. And I just died, and I said my God, it’s too conclusive. And I fixed it and sent it back… they fixed the speech, but not the sign.”
Even Karl Rove has said he wished the banner had not been up there, and the White House has realigned the video on its site – the banner is no longer in the frame when you watch the speech.
This is all old news, but people do mark anniversaries. On the fourth anniversary of this “it seemed like such a good idea at the time” bit of theatrics, the president vetoes the supplemental spending bill to fund the war, as it contains a timeline for packing it in, and he will not accept anyone saying this just didn’t work out. He wants open-ended funding until the mission actually is accomplished, or until the next president has to deal with it all and he’s long gone.
Will he get that? He probably will. All he has to do is manage the theatrics better. On the anniversary, Gary Kamiya explains – “Bush is trying to convince the American people that Iraq is the WWII of our time, and Democrats are craven defeatists.” And perhaps both claims are absurd.
That goes like this –
According to the Bush administration and its supporters, the Democrats and a majority of the American people are a cross between Benedict Arnold, Neville Chamberlain and Tokyo Rose. What set the Bushites off was a one-two punch from the Democrats – the bill that would require American troops to begin withdrawing from Iraq by Oct. 1, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s statement, “As long as we follow the president’s path in Iraq, the war is lost.” The words were barely out of Reid’s mouth when the Bush dead-enders – a peculiar group now consisting of less than a quarter of the American people, two GOP congressmen and two GOP senators – began Googling “great traitors of history.” Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., called on Reid to resign. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the spending bill amounted to “a surrender” to al-Qaeda. White House spokesperson Dana Perino said, “Tonight, the House of Representatives votes for failure in Iraq, and the president will veto its bill.”
And Kamiya notes more – a headline at the conservative website Townhall, “Dem Senate Votes for Retreat and Defeat.” Then there was Hugh Hewitt calling Reid a “defeatist cheerleader.” Rich Galen saying Reid is “invested in failure” and lots of talk of Democratic “traitors” and “treason.”
Oliver North jumped in with his column on “Losers” – America would reject the Democrat’s Iraq stance because Americans hate losers. His thought – “If the Democrats continue their current course, we may well lose this war – and they will have embraced defeat and all that comes with it.” It was a World War II thing. He quoted a soldier in Ramadi – “Good thing this guy Reid wasn’t around in 1940 when Winston Churchill promised the people of Great Britain nothing but ‘blood, toil, tears and sweat.'”
Kamiya sees the cheap theatrics as more of the same –
Bush supporters have been labeling war critics defeatists, appeasers and surrender monkeys ever since 9/11. Chickenhawk conservatives discovered they could attack even decorated war veterans with impunity, as the shameless smearing of triple amputee Vietnam War vet Max Cleland proved. Who could forget that glorious day when newly elected Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, attacked Rep. John Murtha, a war hero, by saying, “Cowards cut and run, Marines never do”? Congress and the media’s gutless reaction to these attacks is one of the main reasons they rolled over during the run-up to the war in Iraq.
Kamiya has argued that before – the media and congress folded on key issues because the administration had stage-managed so well. They set up all-or-nothing apocalyptic scenarios, and sold them well. No one wanted to look like a traitor, coward or fool.
Then people stopped believing any of the storylines. Too many things turned out to be just not so. And now they’re trapped, with “no choice but to pretend victory is at hand, attack those who say otherwise, and make up apocalyptic scenarios about what al-Qaeda will do to us if we don’t stay the course.”
As Kamiya puts it –
The gap between reality and Bush spin, always large, has become a Grand Canyon. As a result, the Orwellian rhetoric so beloved of the Bush administration is rapidly becoming devalued. “War is peace” just doesn’t have that inspiring ring it once did.
Until this year, the Democrats were cowed into silence by the GOP’s attacks. No more. Like Murtha, who was the first Democrat to directly challenge the GOP’s fear-and-smear tactics, Reid and House leader Nancy Pelosi have realized that the best way to respond to a blustering bully is to hit him in the face. After Cheney attacked Reid, Reid not only defended himself but also gave Cheney a sharp kick in the snout. He called the vice president an “attack dog,” then added, “I’m not going to get into a name-calling match with somebody who has a 9 percent approval rating.”
That hurt. Enter David Broder, the “dean of American political correspondents,” at the Washington Post. Broder blasted Reid – Reid was an amateurish loose cannon compared to utterly professional and suave, and honest, Alberto Gonzales (really). “As long as we follow the president’s path in Iraq, the war is lost.” Saying such things showed Reid was a fool., and the Democrats were turning against him and would throw him out on his ear. Everyone could see that. Then Broder’s column was rebuked in a letter signed by all fifty members of the Senate Democratic caucus. Oops.
Look at the polls – the overwhelming majority of Democrats and a sizable minority of Republicans, no longer believe most anything Bush or Cheney say about the war –
They believe it is lost, they want the United States to get out, and they want their voice to be heard. And more and more of them have had it with the rigged game in which the Bush administration is given carte blanche to issue one highhanded and false statement after another about the war, while the Democrats are expected to tug their forelocks, salute the flag, and speak in an manner approved by their betters.
Elsewhere, many did remember a quote from Border from 2003 in Harper’s –
BRODER: “Let me disclose my own bias in this matter. I like Karl Rove. In the days when he was operating from Austin, we had many long and rewarding conversations. I have eaten quail at his table and admired the splendid Hill Country landscape from the porch of the historic cabin Karl and his wife Darby found miles away and had carted to its present site on their land.”
That might be why he said everyone “owed Rove an apology” in 2006 when Rove wasn’t indicted like Scooter Libby.
You can set the stage and manage the theatrics, but the “wiling suspension of disbelieve” all theater depends on has been withdrawn. Kamiya calls it exasperation and cites the Newsweek poll taken right after the State of the Union address at the end of January –
More than half the country, 58 percent, said they wished the Bush presidency were simply over. This group included 86 percent of the Democrats who responded, 59 percent of the independents, and even 21 percent of the Republicans. And 64 percent of Americans said they thought Congress had not been assertive enough in challenging Bush’s conduct of the war.
But still we get the theatrics –
Throughout the Bush presidency, there has been one infallible rule: If someone starts talking about World War II, watch your wallet. Ever since Bush invaded Iraq, his supporters have been desperately trying to convince the American people that Iraq is the WWII of our time. They constantly invoke the Blitz, the invasion of Poland, the Hitler-Stalin pact, the fall of France, Pearl Harbor and other momentous events from the Last Good War.
Unfortunately for the GOP, Bush’s own words have rendered the Churchill comparison absurd. Churchill called for blood, toil, tears and sweat. Bush called for tax breaks for the rich and continued shopping.
He didn’t raise taxes, or impose a gas tax, or institute a draft, or in any way put the country on a war footing. Asked by “The NewsHour’s” Jim Lehrer why he hadn’t asked Americans to sacrifice anything for the war, Bush replied, “Well, you know, I think a lot of people are in this fight. I mean, they sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night … And one thing we want during this war on terror is for people to feel like their life’s moving on.” Yes, that certainly has the Churchillian ring to it.
Besides, if there are any legitimate analogies between Iraq and WWII, they aren’t ones that Bush wants Americans to think about. Iraq more closely resembles Stalingrad, where a delusional Hitler refused to cut his losses, or the Maginot Line – that heavily armed defensive wall that the Germans simply went around. The Battle of Britain, Iraq ain’t.
And there are the facts –
Despite all the bluster about World War II, military victory in Iraq simply isn’t possible – a fact confirmed by Bush’s top military man in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus. “There is no military solution to a problem like that in Iraq, to the insurgency of Iraq,” Petraeus said at a news conference in March. And it isn’t just a military victory that is impossible. Bush has defined “victory” in Iraq as the creation of a stable, democratic, pro-American nation – but, as retired Gen. William Odom noted in a piece titled “Victory Is Not an Option,” this war cannot achieve this goal. This isn’t just his opinion. The National Intelligence Estimate, which represents the consensus of American intelligence analysts, reached basically the same conclusion.
And no one is really buying what Richard Clarke has now called the “puppy dog terror theory” – if we don’t defeat al Qaeda there, they’ll follow us home, as in the puppy that will follow you home. Read his item in the New York Daily News –
How is this odd terrorist puppy dog behavior supposed to work? The President must believe that terrorists are playing by some odd rules of chivalry. Would this be the “only one slaughter ground at a time” rule of terrorism? Of course, nothing about our being “over there” in any way prevents terrorists from coming here. Quite the opposite, the evidence is overwhelming that our presence provides motivation for people throughout the Arab world to become anti-American terrorists.
Okay, anyone in theater or film knows what’s most deadly – you present all this “deeply serious” and scary stuff, and the audience starts giggling here and there, at just the wrong times, and it starts to spread, and pretty soon they’re laughing out loud. Some of us got caught up in that watching Mel Gibson’s Hamlet – Franco Zeffirelli reportedly wanted Mel Gibson for the title role after seeing Lethal Weapon. Geez. Richard Clarke got the giggles. They’re spreading. It happens. It may be a similar casting mistake.
But caveats –
Of course, the American people know that pulling our troops out of Iraq is not without risks. The greatest danger is that the country will be ravaged by a civil war far worse even than the one raging there now. And the regional consequences of a meltdown in Iraq, especially if the Bush administration continues to refuse to talk seriously with Iraq’s neighbors, could be far-reaching.
The American people know this. But they know that pursuing “victory” in Iraq – a victory impossible to define – is likely to have so many negative consequences that it will actually amount to a defeat. Among those consequences: the endless casualties, the continued taxpayer-financed training ground for jihadis, and the ever-growing hatred of the United States in the region. Unlike Bush, they are primarily worried about our actual enemy: al-Qaida. Bush’s exhortations to fight “radical Islam” or “terrorism” have been revealed to be incoherent and self-defeating abstractions. Americans may not know much about grand neocon theories, but they know those theories led us needlessly into Iraq, and they don’t want to have anything more to do with them.
And we know who started the war, and didn’t think things out.
What do they want of us? Maybe this –
War supporters are counting on a certain level of John Wayne war-movie immaturity on the part of the American people, a Technicolor conviction that America is ordained to be, must be, eternally victorious. But Americans are more grown-up than that. They know America, like every other country, sometimes loses. Many of them lived through Vietnam, and they know that the sky did not fall. They are quite capable of weighing the pros and cons of the Iraq war and making a rational cost-benefit calculation about whether it’s worth continuing to fight. They understand the concept of a tactical retreat, of cutting your losses, of losing a battle but winning the war.
In the business this is what is known as “a tough audience.” They’re not buying the act, not laughing at the jokes, and giggling at all the wrong times. You’re out on stage all alone and “you’re dying,” as they say. This is not the same crowd that bought the banner thing four years ago. Think of it this way –
Bush is talking like Churchill, but it’s an empty act. He’s a defeated man, searching for others to blame for his defeat. He’s stalling, hoping for a miracle that will save him and his bungled war.
But the end is coming. The only question is how many more people will have to die before it does.
Thing have changed.
Of course the president can still have his war, as Jeremy Scahill notes in Why Do Dems Ignore Military Contractors? Scahill is, of course, the author of the bestseller Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. He has been on this beat for a bit.
Just a note –
The 145,000 active-duty U.S. forces are nearly matched by occupation personnel that currently come from companies like Blackwater USA and the former Halliburton subsidiary KBR, which enjoy close personal and political ties with the Bush administration. Until Congress reins in these massive corporate forces and the whopping federal funding that goes into their coffers, partially withdrawing U.S. troops may only set the stage for the increased use of private military companies (and their rent-a-guns) that stand to profit from any kind of privatized future “surge” in Iraq.
… A decade ago, the company barely existed; and yet, its “diplomatic security” contracts since mid-2004, with the State Department alone, total more than $750 million. Today, Blackwater has become nothing short of the Bush administration’s well-paid Praetorian Guard. It protects the U.S. ambassador and other senior officials in Iraq as well as visiting congressional delegations; it trains Afghan security forces and was deployed in the oil-rich Caspian Sea region, setting up a “command and control” center just miles from the Iranian border. The company was also hired to protect FEMA operations and facilities in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, where it raked in $240,000 a day from the American taxpayer, billing $950 a day per Blackwater contractor.
… Since Sept. 11, 2001, the company has invested its lucrative government payouts in building an impressive private army. At present, it has forces deployed in nine countries and boasts a database of 21,000 additional troops at the ready, a fleet of more than 20 aircraft, including helicopter gunships, and the world’s largest private military facility — a 7,000-acre compound near the Great Dismal Swamp of North Carolina. It recently opened a new facility in Illinois (Blackwater North) and is fighting local opposition to a third planned domestic facility near San Diego (Blackwater West) by the Mexican border. It is also manufacturing an armored vehicle (nicknamed the “Grizzly”) and surveillance blimps.
The “tough audience” doesn’t even think about what’s playing in the other room.
They even have their own CIA –
The man behind this empire is Erik Prince, a secretive, conservative Christian, ex-Navy SEAL multimillionaire who bankrolls the president and his allies with major campaign contributions. Among Blackwater’s senior executives are Cofer Black, former head of counterterrorism at the CIA; Robert Richer, former deputy director of operations at the CIA; Joseph Schmitz, former Pentagon inspector general; and an impressive array of other retired military and intelligence officials. Company executives recently announced the creation of a new private intelligence company, Total Intelligence, to be headed by Black and Richer.
See also Liberal Lucy at Daily Kos –
For one man, the War of Bush/Cheney/Haliburton Oil was his golden ticket to massive wealth and an extraordinary level of influence and menacing power. Meet Erik Prince, born and raised in Holland, Michigan, and one of the country’s most dangerous men.
That’s long and comprehensive. Think Amway meets the evangelicals, and three-quarters of a billion spent with no oversight. So, if you bomb on stage, if the audience walks out as no one is buying your act, there are alternatives. Do what you want. Who needs applause and approval anyway?
Hey, four years after “mission accomplished” the room has emptied – folks have moved on. You can still show them all – this ain’t Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard – “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” Or maybe it is.