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Photo-op patriotism: President Bush's artfully choreographed speech aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln was a brazen propaganda stunt worthy of Bill Clinton. (Executive Branch).

Robert "Buzz" Patterson, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force, served in the Clinton White House as the military aide in charge of the nuclear "football"--a briefcase containing the launch codes for our nation's nuclear arsenal. Patterson was thus given the dubious privilege of observing Bill Clinton and his staff in unguarded moments when what passed for their character was clearly revealed. As Patterson's memoir Dereliction of Duty reveals, this spectacle was somewhat less than edifying. Summarizing the attitude of Clinton and his handlers, Patterson observes: "This presidency was all about them."

Many observers of Bill Clinton's presidency concluded that Clinton was an individual driven entirely by ego, appetite, and personal ambition. Those traits were nauseatingly on display during Clinton's notorious "victory walk" before his speech at the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles. In this narcissistic exercise, the television camera followed Clinton during what seemed an endless swagger through the bowels of the Staples Center, as on-screen captions listed his supposed achievements.

Such self-aggrandizing spectacles were quite common during the Clinton era, and many of them used the military as props. In late 1995, for instance, Clinton staged a photo-op on the White House lawn in which he strutted at the head of a group of GIs who had recently returned from Bosnia. In his book, Patterson describes a White House attempt to stage an even more ambitious photo-op during the November 1996 Asian Pacific Economic Conference in the Philippines.

As Patterson recounts the event, a young White House political staff member, a "Cecil B. DeMille type when it came to orchestrating events' requested that the U.S. Navy divert a battle group from Australia into Manila Bay. "Then ... we could helicopter the president out for a quick 'grin and grip' with the sailors on the flight deck," enthused the political hack. "It would be awesome."

Since Patterson was the military aide in charge of arranging the logistics for Clinton's visit to the Philippines, it fell to him to shoot down the young aide's idea. "I was finally able to convince him that whatever political hay he might make through the resulting CNN sound bites would be greatly outweighed by the cost in dollars and common sense," Patterson relates. "His dreams dashed, slump-shouldered and with a defeated look on his face, he agreed."

That unnamed Clinton flunky can take a measure of satisfaction knowing that his proposal--like many other dubious Clinton-era initiatives--has been acted on by the Bush administration. President Bush's May 1st visit to the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, ostensibly to deliver a post-war speech, was essentially a more grandiose version of the abortive Clinton photo-op in the Philippines.

Needless Delay

There was no necessity for a presidential visit to the Lincoln, which was steaming home after nearly 10 months at sea. As the AP pointed out: "The sailors' journey was a little longer due to Bush's trip.... The carrier slowed down so that Bush could spend the night on board before it docked Friday."

President Bush said nothing aboard the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln that he could not have said from the Oval Office, or in a televised address to Congress. It was, of course, a privilege for the crew to receive a presidential visit. But many of them doubtless would have foregone that privilege in order to be reunited more quickly with their families, some of which grew during their absence. According to one account, 54 of the sailors aboard the Lincoln left expectant wives behind, and their children arrived during the deployment. But the fighting men aboard the Lincoln were required to spend an extra day away from their homes to serve as props in future Bush campaign advertisements.

Thirty years ago, George W. Bush served as a pilot in the Texas Air National Guard, and his original plan for the photo-op aboard the Lincoln was to fly to the carrier aboard a two-seat F-18 fighter jet. Since security guidelines require that a Secret Service agent always accompany the president, a four-seat Viking S-3B aircraft was used instead.

White House officials initially insisted that it was necessary for the president to hitch-hike a ride on a warplane to the Lincoln because it was too far from shore to be reached by helicopter. But, as previously noted, it was the White House that ordered the carrier to slow down to facilitate the presidential visit. In fact, according to news reports, the Lincoln was only 30 miles from port when the president's plane landed. And according to the May 12th issue of Time, prior, to the presidential speech the aircraft carrier's position had to be changed "to obscure any view of the nearby coastline and ensure a picture-perfect azure backdrop."

In any case, the White House image doctors got the "money shot" they were after--an image of the president, clad in a green flight suit bearing the legend "Commander-in-Chief," climbing out of a warplane that had just made a dangerous tailhook landing aboard a moving aircraft carrier. While Navy pilot Commander John Lussier executed the landing, President Bush shouted to reporters as he emerged from the aircraft, "Yes, I flew it." That is, he got to take the controls during the brief flight.

A White House Production

The Bush administration's taxpayer-subsidized political theater earned rave reviews from the Fox News Channel (which is, in effect, an unofficial propaganda subsidiary of the Bush White House). "I'll tell you what, [First Lady Laura Bush] has a hottie on her hands--look how good he looks," swooned E.D. Hill, a co-host of the morning program Fox & Friends. In a line that the White House could have scripted, Miss Hill's co-host Steve Doocy exclaimed: "If you're a Democratic presidential candidate ... maybe you should just join a lobbyist group for the next four years or something. 'Cause I don't think you're going to be taking that man's lob anytime soon."

Interestingly, President Bush's propaganda stunt aboard the Lincoln represents the consummation of another of Bill Clinton's unfulfilled photo-op fantasies. In a 1996 interview with NBC correspondent Tom Brokaw, Clinton discussed the sci-fi film Independence Day, in which a U.S. president--a former fighter pilot and decorated Gulf War hero--personally led a counterattack against invading extraterrestrials.

This rousing cinematic spectacle, Clinton mused, "made me wonder if I should take flying lessons."

Lest the Independence Day overtones of the president's visit to the Lincoln be lost on the public, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, in a post-speech commentary for (what else?) Fox News Channel, explicitly drew the comparison between President Bush and Independence Day's fictional commander-in-chief. The transparent purpose of Mr. Bush's gratuitous visit to the Lincoln was to create campaign-advertisement images conveying the message that he is no mere politician, but rather a hands-on commander-in-chief--indeed, a modern warrior-king.

This conceit is quite common among third-world despots. One particularly apt illustration can be found in familiar photographs of Saddam Hussein brandishing a shotgun or grenade launcher.

The administration's image makers doubtless believe that the images from the Lincoln visit will redefine the meaning of the term "presidential." In a sense, they're right. That term once conveyed the modest solemnity of an official who soberly carried out his sworn duty to protect and defend our Constitution. President Bush's photo-op conduct, which flows perfectly from Clinton's example, conveys the message that the presidency is all about him.
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Author:Grigg, William Norman
Publication:The New American
Date:Jun 2, 2003
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