Saturday, Nov. 01, 2003

Bush's 'Bannergate' Shuffle

When George Bush landed on the deck of the U.S.S. Lincoln last spring, Democrats fibrillated. They denounced the scenes of a triumphant Commander-in-Chief surrounded by cheering troops as crassly choreographed for 30-second campaign ads, and fumed that the whole stunt had been paid for by the taxpayers. Now,the same critics can't wait to cue the tape. As American casualties mount and bombs shake Baghdad, the image of Bush's flight suit strut under a banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished" is so discordant, his opponents believe, it says more about the administration's arrogance and incompetence than any stump speech could. "Never has government money been spent so well," snickers one operative for a Democratic presidential candidate.

The perfect photo-op has flopped. Engineered by the most image-conscious White House in history, the carrier landing portrayed Bush as master and commander, an ideal bookend to his spontaneous performance with a bullhorn in the rubble of the World Trade Center after 9/11. Instead, the hothouse tableau already sharply at odds with the reality in Iraq did even more damage to White House credibility last week. Asked at a news conference whether the "Mission Accomplished" banner had been prematurely boastful, the president backed away from it, saying it had been put up by the sailors and airmen of the Lincoln to celebrate their homecoming after toppling Saddam's regime.

Not long afterwards, the White House had to amend its account. The soldiers hadn't put up the sign; the White House had done the hoisting. It had also produced the banner — contrary to what senior White House officials had said for months. In the end, the White House conceded on those details, but declared them mere quibbles. The point was, they said, that the whole thing had been done at the request of the crewmembers. Even that explanation didn't sit well with some long-time Bush aides. "They (the White House) put up banners at every event that look just like that and we're supposed to believe that at this one it was the Navy that requested one?" asked a senior administration official. Others remember staffers boasting about how the president had been specifically positioned during his speech so that the banner would be captured in footage of his speech.

The administration's two-step was quickly dubbed "bannergate," winning a suffix that the partisan and the bored often use to puff up the puniest of non-scandals. But while the banner business means little by itself, the shifting and shading could become a symbol of Bush's suddenly growing credibility problem, coming as it does in the wake of the controversy over claims in the president's State of the Union address and other pre-war speeches about Iraq's yet-to-materialize weapons of mass destruction and leaks from White House officials about the identity of a CIA operative. Errant spin also undermines White House efforts to insist its account of post-war progress in Iraq is the most accurate one. "At a time when the economy is getting better and our policies are being vindicated," says a White House official, "this kind of stuff is killing us."

The president's opponents surely hope so. "He blamed the sailors for something that his advance team staged," said General Wes Clark. "I guess that next thing we are going to hear is that the sailors told him to wear the flight suit and prance around on the aircraft carrier. This is a president who does not want to take accountability." White House officials dismiss criticism from the president's opponents. "They have ten different positions on the war that they can't get straight," said a senior Bush aide. "I'm glad they can keep a single position on the banner." Communications Director Dan Bartlett, who approved the hanging of the controversial banner does not back away from it or the carrier celebration. "That was an important moment to mark in time," he says, noting the speed, bravery and success with which the soldiers and airmen prosecuted the war. "We're not going to take anything away from celebrating them. There are no regrets."

Some Bush allies are not so steadfast. As criticism of the president's visit to the Lincoln has grown, so too has the number of voices from the president's own camp who argue that, regardless of what message may have been sent to the troops, the White House sent an even bigger one of self-satisfaction and boastfulness to the rest of the world. The image-making may backfire for the White House because it broke one of its own cardinal rules. "When you're in the end zone act like you've been there," say senior officials of the confident repose they strike after any White House triumph. But after Saddam's statue fell, says one administration official picking up on the football analogy, the Bush team staged "an end zone dance. The problem is that they spiked the ball on the ten before they crossed the goal line." In the end, no matter how good the celebration may have looked, it could still be ruled a fumble.