Ft. Polk Troops Practiced Their Hoo-ahs

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, February 18, 2004; 10:50 AM

This White House is known for going to great lengths to create meticulously crafted, visually resonant backdrops for the president when he's traveling -- backdrops that telegraph the message of the day even if you're not paying attention to the words.

For instance, when Bush went to a window and door factory in Tampa on Monday, Mike Allen noted in The Washington Post that the White House actually brought its own windows. "Strengthening America's Economy" was emblazoned on two fake windows that revealed an inviting blue sky. (See this AP photo.)

A couple weeks ago, on Bush's trip to Charleston, S.C., Allen reported that the "White House staff had to get the Coast Guard to reposition a cutter anchored behind him because it had drifted out of position and was no longer providing a perfect backdrop." (See this AP photo.)

In St. Louis in January, Allen wrote that "Bush began his visit . . . on a low bench with three pupils at his side and 'No Child Left Behind' written in chalk on the blackboard behind him. He spent 22 minutes chatting with parents on a stage in front of a White House set with 'No Child Left Behind' written 10 times so it would appear in almost any camera shot." (Here's a Reuters photo of the chalkboard.)

The most famous backdrop, of course, was the one that backfired. That was the big "Mission Accomplished" banner that the White House placed aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003. (See this AP photo.)

Yesterday, at Ft. Polk in Louisiana, the backdrop was spectacular: thousands of rowdily cheering soldiers yelling "USA!" and "Hoo-ah!" Nothing staged about that, was there? (See this White House photo.)

Well, as William Taylor reports this morning in the Town Talk of nearby Alexandria, La.: "Before President Bush landed at the airfield here Tuesday, Command Sgt. Maj. Iuniasolua T. Savusa gave the troops permission to break protocol.

"'Forget it for this one day,' he said.

"Instead of coming to attention at the sounding of 'Hail to the Chief,' they were encouraged to cheer.

"They even practiced yelling, but the practice wasn't nearly as noisy as the real thing once Bush was introduced by Fort Polk commander Brig. Gen. Jason Kamiya."

And just when did the White House plan this trip, anyway? Before or after the recent controversy over Bush's National Guard duty?

"There's no relation to recent events," insisted press secretary Scott McClellan, who added that the White House had been in touch with the Pentagon for a couple of weeks, although he couldn't vouch for when base officials were brought into the loop.

The print pool reporter for the day, Maura Reynolds of the Los Angeles Times, asked one of the base spokesmen, Samantha Bingham, when they learned of the president's impending visit. "She said they received official notification on Saturday, and heard rumors of it perhaps three days before that. Definitely not more than a week." (For background on the guard issue, see my White House Briefing archives..)

Terence Hunt of the Associated Press took a somewhat skeptical view of the proceedings: "Bush's appearance provided a TV-ready opportunity to emphasize his national security responsibilities and leadership of the war against terror, a role the White House wants to emphasize with voters as he heads into a re-election battle."

In fact, the guard controversy figures prominently in the coverage by the national media.

In The Washington Post, Dana Milbank writes: "Bush, sharing a lunch of beef enchilada MREs with the National Guard soldiers bound for Iraq, delivered another important, if unspoken, message: Service in the National Guard, which Bush did from 1968 to 1973, is honorable."

Milbank notes that Bush "has charged that his opponents are disparaging the National Guard itself. . . .

"At issue in the dispute is whether the modern Guard, which is fighting in large numbers in Afghanistan and Iraq, is the same as the Vietnam-era Guard, which remained mostly at home. Bush, in remarks quoted in the Houston Chronicle in 1994, appeared to describe the Guard in terms similar to Kerry's. 'I was not prepared to shoot my eardrum out with a shotgun in order to get a deferment,' he said. 'Nor was I willing to go to Canada. So I chose to better myself by learning how to fly airplanes.'"

Richard W. Stevenson of the New York Times describes the trip to Fort Polk as " a visit that combined Mr. Bush's role as commander in chief with his political need to rebut attacks on his own service record and foreign policy. . . .

"[B]y producing pictures of Mr. Bush with Guard members who are heading into harm's way, the White House was clearly seeking to repair any damage done to the president's election-year prospects. And in offering a robust defense of his decision to invade Iraq, Mr. Bush seemed eager to get back on the offensive after weeks in which he has had to parry questions about whether he exaggerated the threat from Mr. Hussein's nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs."

Judy Keen writes in USA Today: "President Bush tried to demonstrate Tuesday that controversy over whether he fulfilled his National Guard commitment is not an issue to today's troops."

William Douglas of Knight Ridder Newspapers writes: "President Bush, dogged by questions about his Vietnam-era service in the Air National Guard, surrounded himself with a sea of military olive and beige Tuesday, touting his credentials as commander in chief at an Army base that has sent thousands of troops to Afghanistan and Iraq and lunching with a soon-to-be-deployed group of guardsmen."

Maura Reynolds in the Los Angeles Times did some word counting. "In line with the current White House emphasis on the president's wartime leadership, Bush mentioned the Sept. 11 attacks six times in the 25-minute speech. The president also emphasized his 'resolve' -- a word he used four times and a theme reprised in various ways throughout the speech. . . .

"In his remarks, the president defended his decision to invade and occupy Iraq, insisting that the prewar intelligence was incontrovertible that Saddam Hussein posed a threat to the United States. He used the words 'danger' or 'dangerous' 11 times during the speech. . . .

Here's the text of the speech.

Over on Fox News, Jim Angle says that the troops' rousing welcome of the president made it clear the flap over his National Guard service was "not a concern here. . . .

"The president may never satisfy partisan critics on that point, but he seems to have satisfied the one audience that matters most, those in the military, especially those now serving in the national Guard."

The local media in Louisiana, notably, makes little or no mention of the Guard controversy.

The Shreveport Times writes that "the response from soldiers to their commander in chief clearly was positive."

Jeremy Harper writes in the American Press of Lake Charles, La.: "President George W. Bush was greeted with roaring approval from Fort Polk troops and families here Tuesday before reaffirming his support for soldiers fighting abroad and defending his decision to invade Iraq."

Joe Gyan Jr. writes in the Baton Rouge Advocate: "Surrounded by fired-up soldiers, President Bush said Tuesday that Fort Polk is playing a 'vital' role in the global war on terrorism -- a war he pledged will be won."

Jan Moller writes in the New Orleans Times-Picayune: "The speech was generally well-received by the troops, who spent several hours packed into a hangar awaiting the president's arrival."

Bush also met with the families of seven soldiers who died in Iraq. McClellan reported to the pool that Bush "met in one room with the families of seven fallen soldiers, who were grouped on chairs and sofas. There were 12 family members gathered all together -- some were parents and stepparents, some wives, some sons or daughters. There were no small children, and Scott could not say whether any of the fallen soldiers were National Guard. The president went around the room, visiting with each family group individually. 'There were tears, a lot of hugs and a lot of laughter,' Scott said. He declined to say whether the president himself was one of the teary-eyed. He said one mother told the president about a conversation with her son while he was in Iraq in which he assured her that 'we're doing the right thing.' 'Make sure we finish the job,' the mother told the president, according to Scott. The president took pictures with all the families, and then group photos with just the wives and then just the sons and daughters. Scott was asked whether any of the families asked the president questions about the rationale for the war or whether they made any general comments about the war, and Scott said they did not."

The Jobs Picture

The United States has lost about 2.5 million jobs in the last three years.

Edmund L. Andrews reports in the New York Times: "Treasury Secretary John W. Snow distanced himself on Tuesday from the Bush administration's official prediction that the nation would add 2.6 million jobs by the end of this year. . . .

"That prediction, which is far more optimistic than that of many private sector forecasters, was part of the annual economic report released last week by the White House Council of Economic Advisers and was immediately echoed by Mr. Bush himself."

Martin Crutsinger writes in the Associated Press about another reversal, this one by N. Gregory Mankiw: "President Bush's chief economist, who stirred controversy by suggesting that shipping U.S. service jobs overseas could be good for the economy, said Tuesday his comments were 'far from clear and were misinterpreted.'"

Meanwhile, Mike Allen reports in The Washington Post: "President Bush's reelection campaign moved deeper into its general-election playbook yesterday and launched a preemptive defense of his economic record in Ohio ahead of a visit by his likely opponent, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.).

"The decision reflects the Bush campaign's growing concern about Ohio, a state he won by 4 percentage points in 2000 but is among the hardest hit by job losses."

Cheney Intrigue

Will Cheney be on the ticket again? Everyone says yes. But at the same time, Washington is abuzz with speculation about who might replace him, and in what circumstances.

Tom Raum of the Associated Press says "some Republicans are quietly asking whether Cheney will help or hinder the ticket among voters this November." He lists some possible replacements.

(There's more background on Cheney in my Feb. 10 column.)

National Journal weighed in last week, too. " 'Cheney looks like he's a lot of heavy baggage now,' said one GOP lobbyist and fundraiser. 'If you can allow him a courteous exit because of health reasons, it takes away a lot of the Democrats' ammunition.' Echoing the predictions of many who were interviewed for this article, the lobbyist believes that Bush is unlikely to make such a change. . . .

"But, he added, the president is a proven pragmatist when the chips are down: 'If the president believes he's in a tough race, he'll jettison' Cheney."

The Books on Bush

Bob Minzesheimer in USA TODAY yesterday offered a guide to recent and upcoming books about Bush.

Incidentally, Ron Suskind's "The Price of Loyalty" is now No. 1 on the New York Times hardcover nonfiction bestseller list.

On the faster-moving and less-scientific Amazon.com best-seller list, however, it's dropped to 14, one below "American Dynasty: Aristocracy, Fortune, and the Politics of Deceit in the House of Bush" by Kevin Phillips -- and one above "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy: The Fab 5's Guide to Looking Better, Cooking Better, Dressing Better, Behaving Better, and Living Better."

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