It was the talk of the town Friday, as politicos marveled at the footage of President Bush aboard the Abraham Lincoln, calling it a brilliant piece of stagecraft not seen since President Reagan’s speech at the Berlin Wall.
“I can’t think of anything that trumps it,” said Jennifer Duffy at the Cook Political Report. Referring to Mark McKinnon, the consultant who produced Bush’s 2000 campaign ads, Duffy added, “We were all wondering if McKinnon had film or video.”
For the record, White House Communications Director Dan Bartlett told the Boston Globe that there was no political media team onboard. But nobody was taking liberal pundit Bill Press’ bet, on a local radio station, that footage of Bush would not wind up in 2004 campaign ads. It was too tempting -- a president emerging in a flight suit from a small jet, helmet in hand, posing for pictures with adoring sailors he had sent off to war, and was bringing home to their families.
Television’s cable news channels didn’t merely cover the speech, but devoted much of their air time Thursday to preparations on the ship, and then continually showed footage Friday of the president’s visit.
“It seems to me in one brilliantly staged incident they cut production costs for commercials in the 2004 campaign by 50%,” said Terence Smith, media reporter for PBS’ “Newshour with Jim Lehrer.” “It was vintage presidential theater and it worked magnificently because it put one over on the media. News organizations treated this like a huge deal when in fact the speech was riddled with unproven assertions about a link between Iraq and 9/11.”
Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for People & the Press, thought the pictures “played very well. This is a war that had Bush’s name on it. There he was, celebrating with people responsible.” Kohut evoked Ronald Reagan’s 1984 campaign theme, saying that with these shots, “instead of Morning in America, we’re going to have Warring in America.”
Democrats were privately fuming, suggesting that perhaps the Bush campaign should reimburse the military for use of the aircraft and the carrier. They were also feeding on reports, unsubstantiated by the White House or the Pentagon, that the carrier had slowed down so Bush could spend the night aboard, extending by one day the crew’s 10-month deployment.
But conservatives were outraged too. David Brooks, senior editor of the Weekly Standard, took to that magazine’s Web site to vent about his fellow pundits who talk about the marvel of the photo-op instead of the sacrifice of the troops.
“Most of us are basket cases if we’re on a business trip, away from our families for four days,” he wrote. “These people were gone nearly a year. And they did it to defend the country. They did it to liberate the people of Iraq ....the greatest victory for human rights since the defeat of the Soviet Union.”
One thing most experts agreed on is that the footage looked presidential because it fits a perception of Bush as a bit of a cowboy who surprised no one by passing his underwater training, flying the plane, or sleeping overnight in the carrier’s quarters. Some attempts at stage-managing don’t work -- such as Democratic candidate Michael S. Dukakis riding in a tank during the 1988 campaign -- because they ring hollow.
Mark Effron, vice president for live news programming at MSNBC, noted that “there’s a certain amount of cynicism by looking at an event and calling it presidential theater. When a president of the United States has just come through a decisive war, and what he did was in keeping with what he is, it is extraordinarily newsworthy. It doesn’t matter if we want him to be president next year or not. As a presidential event, it was very ... emotional.”