It was a little over five years ago, on May 1, 2003, that President George W. Bush was set to speak aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. It was assumed the president would arrive on the aircraft carrier in the way a president arrives on an aircraft carrier -- via helicopter. Instead, the president of the United States, who in the 1970s flew fighter planes in the Texas Air Guard, entered via an SB-3B Viking, which he flew with two other pilots, leaving the landing -- one of the most dangerous feats in aviation, akin to parking a car at a hundred miles an hour -- to one of the co-pilots.
The plane skidded to a screeching halt on the small runway, a few feet from the ship's edge. A beaming Bush emerged in his bomber jacket, tucked his helmet under his left arm, and posed for pictures with the military. He proceeded to give an excellent speech under a banner marked "Mission Accomplished." The president correctly reported that major combat operations in Iraq had ended.
At the time, Bush's landing received rave reviews -- a fact today conveniently forgotten. Conservatives, naturally, enjoyed it, but so did many liberals.
"We saw some very powerful pictures," reported CBS's Bob Schieffer. "I think this was a remarkable moment. I mean, it really was.... [H]ere you have the president flying onto the aircraft carrier. The first president to fly on to an aircraft carrier in a fixed wing jet like he did, climbing out in that flight suit, looking very dashing. This whole day was quite an event.... We saw a little spontaneity today. We saw a little showmanship that we haven't seen in a long time in politics, and frankly, I think that's kind of good."
MSNBC's Keith Olbermann, later a fierce Bush critic, called it "a great moment," as did his colleague, Chris Matthews. Matthews, in fact, was effusive. He colorfully characterized the landing as a dare to Democrats hoping to challenge Bush's bid for two terms, as if the president were saying to them, "Try to do this. Look at me. Do you really think you've got a guy in your casting studio ... who can match what I did today?" Matthews went on, entertainingly:
"Imagine Joe Lieberman in this costume, or even John Kerry. Nobody looks right in this role Bush has set. [Bush has] medium height, medium build, looks good in a jet pilot's uniform, has a certain swagger, not too literary, certainly not too verbal, but a guy who speaks plainly and wins wars. I think that job definition is hard to match for the Dems.... We're proud of our president. Americans love having a guy as president, a guy who has a little swagger, who's physical.... Women like having a guy who's president. Check it out. Women like this war. I think we like having a hero as our president. It's simple. We're not like the Brits. We don't want an indoor prime minister type.... We want a guy as president. And by the way, Democrats for years have made fun of Republicans, like Ike, who defeated the Nazis, and Ronald Reagan, who was probably the most evocative person for the World War II generation, and this guy. They always make fun of them for being simple. And guess what? They always win two terms, and they're always right."
Yet, aside from those accolades -- a natural, honest response -- something else was stirring. In the New York Times, the angry Frank Rich dismissed the landing as Hollywood hype: "The Bush presidency," growled Rich, "might well be the Jerry Bruckheimer presidency," referring to the producer of Hollywood features like "Top Gun," "Black Hawk Down," and "Armageddon."
Of course, it is hard to take Rich seriously on anything, including references to the dramatic arts -- his specialty. Rich observed the scourging of Jesus in The Passion of the Christ and literally thought about gay porn. (Don't believe me? Click here.) Nonetheless, the op-ed page of The Times has a Scripture-like influence on liberals, and this salvo by Rich was the start of something: Much of the left, for the first time since the Iraq invasion a few weeks earlier, now began to descend on Bush, especially those who had predicted a bloodbath in Iraq and didn't get one. They would excoriate the landing, from its message to its symbolism, and they would not cease and desist for the next five years.
From the Senate, Robert Byrd (D-WV), who had harshly criticized Bush war policy, called the Lincoln landing a "spectacle" that was an "affront to the Americans killed or injured in Iraq." At the House, Henry Waxman (D-CA) lost his mind, actually demanding a Congressional investigation of the landing.
Liberals were lunging, reaching, grasping for something to criticize. They had been shown up. They would wait stubbornly until something bad developed in Iraq, and got just what the doctor ordered once the body bags began piling up in Iraq from 2005-7 in the occupation/reconstruction that followed. They would incessantly, mercilessly pound the "Mission Accomplished" episode as an example of a brazenly, arrogantly premature celebration by George W. Bush.
In point of fact, Bush had been correct in that the mission had been accomplished. The military effort to remove Saddam Hussein and liberate Iraq was over. That was Phase 1, a separate, successful mission, altogether different from the much more treacherous, difficult period when the United States sought to stabilize Iraq, fighting Al-Qaeda on a daily basis, and seeking to establish a rare oasis of sustainable democracy in the sick powder keg that is the Arab-Muslim Middle East. In its typical lack of sophistication on matters military, the left simplified the whole thing-Phase 1, Phase 2, Phase 3, Phase 15-as "The War."
But here's what everyone seemed to miss: a crucial marker was indeed laid on the deck of the Lincoln that day. In retrospect, the landing provided a profound example of the major, ultimately most destructive liability of the two-term Bush presidency: the utter failure of the president and his administration to respond to critics, to fight back, to engage not Al-Qaeda but domestic detractors on the left.
Rather than counter the likes of Senator Byrd, even with benign, humorous one-liners to defuse the situation -- "Senator Byrd is just jealous that he doesn't look that good in a fly-suit..." for instance -- this president and his team set the standard for their prototypical response over the next five years: they curled up in a fetal position. As they did, George W. Bush was kicked unceasingly, by Byrd, then Howard Dean -- "George W. Bush is not my neighbor!" -- then MoveOn.org, then John Kerry, then Ted Kennedy, then a re-emergent Al Gore, then Cindy Sheehan, then Michael Berg -- "My son [Nick Berg] died for the sins of George Bush" -- then Arianna Huffington, then George Soros, then the New York Times, then David Gregory, then Dana Milbank, and then-good Lord, what an embarrassment! -- Hugo Chavez and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and no less than the president's own turf.
As someone who has studied the faith of George W. Bush very carefully, I can affirm that he truly takes seriously the Judeo-Christian ethic, and perhaps this was his way of turning the other cheek. When Bush in December 1999 called Jesus Christ his favorite philosopher, he really meant what he said. For the next five years, he handed over his check -- and his backside -- to a venomous left filled with rage, looking to unleash its torrent of hatred upon the man. While I admire Bush's virtuosity, he should know that nowhere in Scripture are Christians called upon to be doormats for domestic extremists and fanatical dictators. Yet, too often, he became just that.
That's what the landing on the Lincoln seems to have signaled: President Bush became a whipping boy, one who took the beating without ever punching back. It was as if he crashed on that landing deck. The landing signaled the start of a kind of presidential no-response team, ceding the battle to the president's ravenous critics, who for five years now have been permitted to frame public perception and ultimately win the debate. Even now, well into a period when the nasty occupation/reconstruction has turned the corner, seemingly for good, and when it alas looks as though we have persevered and won -- thanks in large part to this same president, who has finally gotten the right general -- George W. Bush's approval ratings continue to nosedive, to where he is now the most unpopular president since Harry Truman. That's what happens to a president who refuses to respond -- whether by himself or through his communications team -- to vicious, unrelenting critics.
And it is quite ironic, though no coincidence, that the fifth anniversary of the Lincoln landing arrived at almost the exact same time that CNN-Gallup released its poll revealing that President Bush had surpassed Truman's record-low disapproval rating.
In the end, a mission was indeed accomplished five years ago: the left learned that it would be able to pummel this president and get away with it, to his long-term detriment. It was, as typical of the left, an emotion-driven response, but it was also goal-oriented: it sought several victories, including the White House itself. The left's venom would not poison the well enough to win the White House in November 2004, but it may achieve the job in November 2008, as the Republican Party under President Bush seems stuck on the landing deck.