SAN DIEGO—Hours before he declared Thursday that major combat in Iraq is over, President Bush celebrated by landing in a Navy jet on the deck of a U.S. aircraft carrier returning home from war.
Clad in a green flight suit and looking every bit the fighter pilot, Bush sat next to the pilot in the cockpit of a Navy S-3B "Viking" jet on the 20-minute flight from San Diego to the USS Abraham Lincoln, 30 miles offshore. Painted on the side of the plane were the words "Navy One" and "George W. Bush, Commander in Chief."
With news cameras broadcasting live, the president's plane made two passes over the carrier before roaring to a safe landing. Its tail hook snagged the last of four cables on the carrier's deck, jolting his plane from 150 mph to a complete stop within about 400 feet.
The drama of Bush's arrival and his war-is-over message gave the moment a red-white-and-blue sheen of patriotic enthusiasm that is destined to highlight political TV ads next year as Bush runs for re-election. Perhaps only Ronald Reagan's tribute to the D-Day veteran "boys of Pointe du Hoc" on the cliffs of Normandy in 1984 rivals this event in melding patriotism and politics into a photo opportunity.
Later, in a primetime TV address to the nation from the ship, Bush essentially proclaimed victory in Iraq, and a major step forward in the broader war on terrorism.
"The liberation of Iraq is a crucial advance in the campaign against terror. We have removed a key ally of al-Qaida, and cut off a source of terrorist funding. And this much is certain: No terrorist network will gain weapons of mass destruction from the Iraqi regime, because that regime is no more," Bush was to say, according to prepared remarks released in advance.
At the same time, the president took pains to note that U.S. efforts are not over.
"We have difficult work to do in Iraq. We are bringing order to parts of that country that remain dangerous," Bush said, according to the speech. "The transition from dictatorship to democracy will take time, but it is worth every effort. Our coalition will stay until our work is done."
If the content of Bush's speech was familiar, his aircraft carrier landing was anything but; it was unprecedented for a president, and Bush made the most of it.
Bush strutted off the plane holding his flight helmet in the crook of his left arm and wearing a broad smile as cameras broadcast his every move nationwide. He shook hands, saluted sailors and posed for photos with pilots on the flight deck before taking a tour of the carrier.
Asked whether he had flown the plane, Bush, a former pilot in the Texas Air National Guard, said, "Yes, I flew it. Yeah, of course, I liked it."
White House aides said security was reviewed thoroughly before the decision to let Bush make the landing; the Lincoln has had over 12,700 takeoff and arrested landings in the last nine months without incident. "If it was not safe, it would not be done," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer.
At least one Democrat bidding to take Bush's job in next year's election, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, was unwilling to cede the day to Bush. In a conference call with political reporters, Kerry contrasted Bush's carrier imagery with less dramatic scenes back on shore.
"The president is going to an aircraft carrier to give a speech far out at sea with military surroundings while countless numbers of Americans are frightened about the economy here at home," Kerry said.
Bush was to spend the night aboard the nuclear-powered carrier. He was to appear Friday at a factory in Santa Clara, Calif., that makes Bradley fighting vehicles. There he is expected to expand on themes he has emphasized during three other campaignlike domestic trips over the past two weeks, when he has stressed both national security and economic revival themes, visiting military-related sites as he calls for Congress to cut taxes.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Steven Thomma and Jessica Guynn contributed to this report from Washington.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20030501 USIRAQ