The White House site doesn't have the transcript or the video up yet (I'll post it when they do: since it's a family day I know many folks may miss the coverage.) In the interim, here's a piece from MSNBC's site, but I strongly recommend you take a look at the video and watch, not just read, the speech when it's available. (It's an important thing to keep in mind about presidential rhetoric that, unlike most prose, it is written for the rhythym of a particular person's voice, like music, it is written to be performed, not read silently to yourself. With most pieces it is enough to keep that in mind as you read, with some pieces, to get the full power of the moment, you really should watch or listen to the original performer performing the piece. This is, I believe, one of those texts.)
There are two real money lines in the speech, and one money moment, and it looks to me so far as if everyone is including them in their coverage. The money moment, of course, is General Sanchez and Amb. Bremer playing the surprise up for all it's worth, looking around in pretend confusion for a "more senior official" to read the president's Thanksgiving Day greeting to the troops, and the reaction of the soldiers when the realize who's in the house. Two things to note here. First, love the man or hate the man, critics might want to consider that it really is just past time to end the debate over whether this President adequately respects the troops. There's a reason the White House looks to military bases when they want a friendly crowd -- these troops don't doubt for a minute that this man respects them. Second, when the subject comes up (and it will) as to whether this was a PR stunt, consider that it was an awful lot of trouble to go to for a stunt that would be covered by the B, C, or D team on every network, when one cable network isn't even staffed, on what has to be the worst watched news night in American family life of the year with the exceptions of Christmas Eve, Christmas, and New Years Eve. And then look at the tears welling up in the man's eyes and tell me you think this was a cynical ploy, even if you think everything else he has done in Iraq has been a terrible mistake.
The money line for the troops was
""We did not charge hundreds of miles into the heart of Iraq, pay a bitter cost of casualties, defeat a ruthless dictator and liberate 25 million people only to retreat before a band of thugs and assassins," a line which lit the place off.
And then there was a wonderful line to the Iraqi people about this being a moment that they had available to themselves to seize, and when I can find a full transcript I will insert the actual wording as an update, because it was wonderful.
This visit was a master stroke. Any presidential event must account for the fact that it will be watched by, and interpreted by, multiple audiences. If it is hugely persuasive to it's primary audience, while being offensive to other important audiences, it may have to be judged a failure, unless the White House has for some reason decided that there is no way to get out it's message to it's critical audience without offending another audience and that that risk simply has to be taken for some reason. But there is, in a wired world, no way for a president to speak to a single audience any longer. But when a president can speak to multiple audiences successfully -- that's a good day.
The troops were told their Commander in Chief stands with them. So much so that today he was willing to share some of the risks they face, just to speak with them. The people of Iraq, the ones who support us, and the ones who don't, were given a fairly visible and direct symbol of exactly how serious this president is of making sure this mission succeeds. So were the people at home. Support the troops? How's this for supporting the troops? Any American president, under any circumstance, wherever he goes, is always at risk. This one went all the way to Baghdad to stand with the troops under his command to say "we aren't going anywhere. No one is scaring off the United States of America. Not on my watch."
Was it a gesture? Sure. A lot of what presidents do are gestures and symbols, and if you don't think that matters at the presidential level you haven't been paying attention. This one was powerful, and it was grand. And to be clear, keep in mind my field is rhetorical studies. So when I say something was "rhetoric" I don't quite mean the same thing as other people mean when they use that word. I tend to mean more the "very stuff that makes politics and the national life go." So, was it a gesture? Yes. But it was also a gesture that involved real risk. When was the last time a president did that to be with the troops on a holiday? It surely was grand.
HOW'D THE PRESS DO?
A little soon to tell. As I say, MS seems to be unstaffed, CBS has a game on, CNN's crown jewel isn't on until 10 (and, ok, I haven't really been monitoring at full speed. What do you want, it's Thanksgiving?). But I have some interesting tidbits. The reporters on the plane were providing pool coverage (meaning instead of representing outlets, they represented mediums. So, there was a reporter to provide coverage from "television," from "print," from "radio" and whatever those folks come up with is then made widely available, but their material can then be crafted by the specific outlet as the outlet sees fit; it is raw material.) As an interesting tidbit, the television pool coverage was provided by Fox. Fox's White House reporter left behind at Crawford was asked how the White House presscorps felt and responded upon realizing what happened. Surely his response is subjective, unverifiable, to be taken with a grain of salt. But how interesting that he reports, "anger, denial, betrayal," then quickly backtracks on himself "but reporters love a good story." Yeah, sure, when they're the ones covering it.
The reason I found that interesting is that ABC in their quick tease running through what happened notes that this was all made possible by the provision to reporters of a "phony" story. I thought that an odd choice of words. Doesn't that sound like a bit of sour grapes to you? No one else I heard surfing around provided an adjective to the planted story. But then after the substance has all been covered we get this from Charlie Gibson in the anchor chair, that this was made by possible through the president's "misleading the press. Perhaps in the future [or perhaps right now as we listen to ole Charlie] critics will use words stronger than mislead." This is the introduction to a Jake Tapper story on whether "national security outweighed truthfulness" in this case or whether critics will be right in saying this was "pure propaganda, a way to get bad news off the front page," at which point such a critic is duly produced. Ever ready presidential historian Michael Beschloss has examples of lies told to protect FDR while he was at Yalta and other places, and no conclusions are reached.
Oh, please. Yes, the White House press corps was told the president was at home doing nothing. They were given menus for a meal for four that was in fact a meal for three. What's their real beef? That they were lied to ? Or that they were kept out of the loop for twenty hours? There were White House reporters on Air Force One. The American people were told the truth as soon as practicable. The presence of reporters made it impossible for any events to be lost to history or for the White House or military to ever lie about what took place. Is it the egregiousness of lying? Or is it the egregiousness of making live coverage impossible? Is it the lack of coverage? Or is the lack of coverage by those left behind?
Update: From CNN's perspective, we can't lose sight of the fact that the president is, after all, also a "presidential candidate." And, sure enough, "some Democrats are privately calling it a stunt [how interesting they don't feel strongly enough about this to say that on the record] designed to push this moment [image of the president landing on the Lincoln] off" the stage. I especially like the title CNN gives this John King piece -- it's titled "Kodak Moments." In other words, while they are saying that the argument that what the president did today is also a political move, just like the Lincoln landing, is an argument made by Democrats not by them, the title of the piece, suggesting that both were photo ops (get it? kodak moment(s) plural?) says otherwise, says that this is a story about multiple photo opportunities, and of course, we generally assume photo opportunities to be grand standing, pure politics, self-centered opportunism. Anchor Carol Lin in fact asks, "how much staying power do these images have going into 2004?" suggesting the lens through which this story is to be read is now that of the horse race.
But then comes the absolute stunner. Says King (and he repeats it, just to be sure you're following along) "If there's a series of attacks in the days to come the president might hve provoked those attacks." After all, after the "bring it on" comment, there were family members upset, who saw it as unnecessary machismo, the same could happen here. How does the president get around this standard, exactly? Since according to King terrorists frustrated at word they missed a swipe at the Commander in Chief will come gunning for the troops, then new attacks at the troops will be Bush's fault for having gone to Baghdad and provoked them. Does anyone believe there are not going to be new attacks in the coming days? This is perfect! It's a test Bush can't possibly pass! As soon as there are attacks it can be noted that there was after all a suggestion he may have provoked them. Only if there are now no attacks can it be said his going to Baghdad actually helped the situation. Way to go, CNN. It's an airtight way to set up "some critics are saying" stories in the days ahead.
Can they really believe that the president going to Baghdad today will provoke attacks on the troops tomorrow in this "we couldn't get the boss, so we'll have to settle for you" kind of way? If anything, the attitudes and behavior of the bad guys will be impacted by a realization that the will of this administration to stay the course is real. Will that change the level of violence, it's intensity? It has before, as the panic has set in, the realization that the clock was running and the race was on appeared to set in. But that was hardly the argument that was being made here. We'll have to see what CNN decides to do after the next round of attacks on US troops. Hopefully forget they ever raised the subject.