Jewish World Review May 16, 2003 / 14 Iyar, 5763
And how did prez's flight play out at the U.S. Army War College?
The purpose of the college in the words of its founder, Elihu Root, is: "Not to promote war, but to preserve peace by intelligent and adequate preparation to repel aggression ... to study and confer on the great problems of national defense, of military science, and of responsible command."
But what I want the officers to do, at least for a few minutes, is tell me how they feel about George Bush landing on that aircraft carrier and/or the people who have criticized him for it.
Though the landing took place on May 1, it is still being written about. In other words, the event not only had wings, but legs.
There have been news articles, editorials, analyses, columns, political cartoons and discussions on cable TV, accompanied by endless replays of the moment: Bush in his "Top Gun" flight suit, helmet under his arm, striding across the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, a ship named not just for a Republican president, but the founder of the Republican Party.
(I think that was a coincidence, but there are those who believe Karl Rove, Bush's political guru, is a master of creating coincidences.)
The officers are making their annual visit to the magazine I work for -- we usually talk about the media and the military -- and in this discussion, I want to get past the easy stuff like whether Bush had a "right" to use a military aircraft. So I tell a story about Lyndon Johnson.
It has various versions. Sometimes it takes place at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, sometimes at Camp Pendleton outside San Diego and sometimes in Vietnam.
But no matter where it supposedly took place (if it took place at all), the point is always the same.
President Johnson is on the tarmac and an officer approaches him to say, "Mr. President, your helicopter is over here."
"Son," LBJ says, "they're all my helicopters."
And all those jets are George Bush's jets, because he is the commander in chief.
I am not suggesting the president can do whatever he wants with them -- buzzing Tom Daschle's house probably would not be a good idea -- but using one for a photo op is well within parameters established by other presidents of both parties.
And, as one colonel sitting around the table points out to me, the military routinely takes all sorts of VIPs, including corporate CEO's, out on carrier landings because "it is good PR."
And Bush's landing was good PR. Photo ops used to be backdrops for a message. President Reagan would want to talk about the environment (yes, he sometimes did want to talk about the environment), so he went out to some cliffs overlooking the Pacific where waves blissfully crashed against the rocks and delivered his speech.
As the decades passed, however, the photo op became the message.
President Bush's landing on that carrier was about one thing: the picture of President Bush landing on the carrier and the feelings it conveyed -- strength, confidence, courage, compassion.
Can anyone remember a single line Bush spoke on the carrier? (He did give an entire speech.) I doubt it. But almost everybody can describe the picture and how he or she felt about it.
"He got the story out," one colonel said, using phraseology that would make a political advance man weep with joy. "That was the purpose. And the Democrats played into his hands by complaining about it. It just guaranteed that the picture would be used over and over."
Another officer said, "If JFK could have gone out to a carrier on a PT boat, he would have done it."
"There is no doubt it was a photo op," another said. "But the Democrats had to scab-pick it. That's where they went wrong."
Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic Party, issued a release eight days after the carrier landing saying, "Considering the expense to the American taxpayer and the use of American military men and women as 'extras' for this media stunt, the president should pledge that his landing not appear in any presidential campaign commercials and videos."
But, as I tell the war college group, I doubt the Bush campaign will ever use that video. (A much more powerful video would be the one of U.S. forces toppling the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. That says everything the Bush campaign would want to say.)
Let me pose this possibility, however, I tell the group. If Bush does run the carrier landing as a political ad, this is what the Democrats might say in response, especially if John Kerry, a decorated Vietnam vet, were to be their nominee:
"If George Bush wanted to do carrier landings, he could have done so off the coast of Vietnam in the '60s, just as John McCain did. Instead, 12 days before Bush's student deferment ran out in 1968 and at a time when Americans were dying in Vietnam at a rate of 350 per week, Bush volunteered for the Texas Air National Guard and did his flying in Houston."
There was a certain silence around the table, but it did not last long.
"The Republicans could just point out Bill Clinton didn't serve either," one officer said.
"I was never more proud of my president," said another. "You had to have huge cojones to come in on that jet."
Which might be just what the 2004 campaign gets down to: Whose
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