Sunday, May 01, 2011

The legendary May 1, 2003 Mission Accomplished speech

Out of curiosity, I went back to check the PBS Newshour commentary from Sleepy Mark Shields and David "Bobo" Brooks on May 2, 2003, where they gave their considered evaluation of Bush's Mission Accomplished speech the day before. I expected to hear Bobo praising the speech and Shields, who seemed to be more often fully conscious in those days than now, to be more critical. After listening to their commentary, I'm struck by what a measure of the depth of both their judgments it represented.

Today, of course, the Mission Accomplished speech is a subject of ridicule, generally regarded as one of the silliest and most ill-advised Presidential stunts ever. Fortunately, viewers of the Quality TV offered by the PBS Newshour were treated to the sober judgments of Bobo and Sleepy Mark, who could obviously see beyond the superficial judgments of the moment:

The president's victory speech

JIM LEHRER: All right. What did you think of the president's victory speech last night?

DAVID BROOKS: It was actually an interesting aesthetic debate over whether him flying into the boat was gimmicky and demeaning, which is what mature people thought or gimmicky and cool, which is what I thought. And so there is sort of an aesthetic judgment there. To me, the important things were the fact that he recognized these sailors who have been away from their families for ten months, some of them missing ... 150 missing the birth of their children. To me when this whole war proceeds into history, this cultural moment will be defined by those sailors and soldiers and the young people who are looking at this war will have their world view shaped by what they see of those people. And it will be totally different the way the Vietnam era saw the world. That will be an interesting thing.
The other substantive thing Bush said, he called this action in Iraq a battle. He said it was part of a longer war and you really got a sense of his mentality. Afghanistan was part of it. The al-Qaida fight was part of it. But we now got a lot more parts to go. And he said significantly the tide is turning. The tide... but you get the sense that he doesn't feel that something is over. He is in the middle of something Iran, Iraq, Syria. It is all not militarily but it's part of a life-long process for him.

JIM LEHRER: How do you feel about it?

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, I thought it was just in view of presidential presentation, it was spectacular. I mean, it was visually arresting. The president did the right thing. He struck the right note by not taking a victory lap himself, but offering a victory salute to the sailors, who, as David pointed, to the point of exhaustion. I mean these are people that have been out there ten months; 150 children have been born while they were at sea off this crew alone.

JIM LEHRER: No carrier has been out as long as this one.

MARK SHIELDS: No carrier has been out this long. And it was a symbolism that was heavy. The Abraham Lincoln; that did not go unnoticed. The fact that it was the only carrier that had been in both Afghanistan and Iraq -- but, you know, will it be a success? I thought of other great presidential moments. I thought of Jack Kennedy at Berlin in 1963. Ronald Reagan at Berlin in 1987 and Normandy....

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Gorbachev, bring down this wall.

MARK SHIELDS: One thing missing. I talked to professor Robert Schmuhl today, who's the author of "Stagecraft" and "Statecraft," and sort of an expert on this, and he pointed out two things to me. One, 9:00 Thursday night is the most viewed television hour of the entire week, so it was very shrewd scheduling on the part of the White House; they had their maximum audience then. But the other thing was there was not a memorable line that came from the speech. There wasn't "Ich bin ein Berliner". There was not a "tear down that wall." And I think we'll see this footage over and over again, probably with a voiceover of this is the president who is comfortable with his troops.

JIM LEHRER: Rather than hearing his words --

Assessing the criticisms of the speech

DAVID BROOKS: One of the nice things he did was talk about the action as the activation of America's true nation, not a Republican thing, not a Democratic thing. He talked about FDR's four freedoms, he talked about the Truman Doctrine; the Reagan Cold War policies. This -- he cast this as part of a long-term American project advancing the tide of democracy and on the Lincoln made researches to the Gettysburg Address as part of the founding of that.

JIM LEHRER: Some of the punditry suggested that the president and his handlers used these sailors and that aircraft carrier and all of the circumstances, props for his presidential reelection campaign -- cheap shot?

DAVID BROOKS: Not entirely. I went home last night in a terrible mood because I thought a lot of the pundits had ignored the sailors, had treated them as they were bunting in a big campaign event. Whereas the president paid tribute to the sailors. I wrote this up on a spasm of anger on the magazine's Web site and I got a lot of thoughtful commentaries -- well a minority of thoughtful commentaries -- some of which said the president started the politicization of this with the gimmick of flying in and treating it as a campaign prop. That's not an illegitimate shot.

It was -- some people who support the war believe he cheapened it in by flying in, by not delivering it from the Oval Office, by landing in military uniform, but I do think he at least paid tribute to those people unlike the pundits.

MARK SHIELDS: The most recurring criticism I heard of the president was the uniform, that you recall during the 2000 campaign, questions he was missing from the meetings in Alabama when he went to work on a political campaign there, didn't show up for reserve meetings. There was a question just exactly what his commitment was to the Texas Air National Guard, especially in the very important Battle of Amarillo. And so that was raised by some critic. I have flown in on to the Abraham Lincoln, I've spent a night on the Abraham Lincoln.

JIM LEHRER: I didn't remember watching you doing it live.

MARK SHIELDS: I didn't have the cameras. One shrewd thing the president did do when he got off in his flight suit was he had the helmet off, you know, the helmet. Because when you leave the helmet on, Condi Rice left the helmet on for the picture and nobody.... I don't care who it is --

JIM LEHRER: Looks good in a helmet?

MARK SHIELDS: Chuck Yeager doesn't look good. John Glenn didn't look good. I mean, it just dwarfs the person, so he was smart enough to do that. But sure, it is a legitimate question, but I don't think there is any question overall that last night was a smashing success politically for the president.

Looking ahead to the 2004 election

JIM LEHRER: And the polls, there is a new poll today, Washington Post/ABC Poll that shows the president enormously popular with the public, enormous confidence the public has in his ability to handle foreign affairs but not so much with domestic affairs. Why don't the two carry over?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, there are a number of things. The president said he wanted to be uniter not a divider when he ran. That hasn't worked out. It's his fault whether he has been a divisive figure as Democrats were charged or whether in fact the Democrats have been polarized. The president never got the boost out of this war that his father got for his leadership, in large part because his father did not have that same level of antipathy and opposition from the Democrats. And the reality is, Jim, if you're Karl Rove going into 2004, you want it to be about George W. Bush commander in chief on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln. You don't want to be about 6 percent unemployment today.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. But the Democrats, who are now the nine who want to take President Bush's job, are going to have a debate this weekend in South Carolina, are going to be talking about domestic things, are they not?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. And they'll have an advantage. They start way behind; 69 percent of the registered Democrats can't name one of the people running for the nomination. So they're just beginning.

JIM LEHRER: Now that is really being behind --

DAVID BROOKS: 9 percent is the John Kerry, they can name John Kerry tied with Al Gore, the number of people who still think Al Gore is running. So they're just starting. The advantage they have is that there have been two George Bushs. There has been the foreign policy Bush who has been a progressive, bold, very moralistic person -- somewhat taking Democratic rhetoric of human rights and liberation of peoples, using it for his own purposes and to me, reducing the Democrats to seeming somewhat churlish and conservative; but on the domestic side, the moral progressive, bold vision just hasn't carried over. The Republican domestic policy, the White House domestic policy is the same basic Republican orthodox policy that you had five years ago or ten years ago. There hasn't been sort of a new post-9/11 George Bush on domestic policy. To me, that's why he is still vulnerable [my emphasis]

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