Former President George W. Bush unveiled his presidential library April 25 to a beaming crowd of supporters. It was, as former President Bill Clinton called it, "the latest, grandest example of the eternal struggle of former presidents to rewrite history."
If there's one day in particular Bush could choose to rewrite, it might be May 1, 2003.
It was a sunny day off the coast of San Diego. Congress had authorized what would become the Iraq war a few months earlier, in October 2002. The invasion had begun in March 2003. On May 1, President Bush had landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln in the co-pilot's seat of a Navy fighter jet.
After landing, Bush changed out of his combat suit and stepped up to the podium, surrounded by a crowd as receptive as the one in Dallas last week.
Having marched U.S. troops through Iraq and deposed of Saddam Hussein's regime (and his statue), Bush called Operation Iraqi Freedom "a job well done."
"Major combat operations in Iraq have ended," Bush said, the infamous "Mission Accomplished" banner hovering over him. "In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed."
At the time, the theatrics seemed effective, in the eyes of U.S. News. Democrats were disappointed, as Ken Walsh wrote, that the photo-op went so smoothly.
"The top gun cut a striking figure in his Top Gun duds, surrounded by admiring men and women in uniform—an image that's likely to turn up in Republican campaign advertising next year," he wrote.
Instead, the speech and the banner became a symbol of the unpopular war, which would last another eight brutal years. The image came to encapsulate not just the war, but the mistakes of the Bush administration as a whole, as even Bush himself admitted at his final press conference as president.
"Clearly, putting a 'mission accomplished' on an aircraft carrier was a mistake," Bush said, when asked about his errors while in the White House. "It sent the wrong message. We were trying to say something differently but, nevertheless, it conveyed a different message."
This article originally appeared in the May 12, 2003, issue of U.S. News & World Report.
The President on the Flight Deck
By Kenneth T. Walsh
President Bush's visit to the USS Abraham Lincoln last week had a movie-set feel reminiscent of those Clintonesque extravaganzas choreographed by the former president's Hollywood pals and Ronald Reagan's patriotic iconography. Rejecting the customary VIP helicopter, Bush swooped onto the aircraft carrier's deck in a Navy jet after taking the controls for a few minutes, then strutted in his green flight suit and aviator boots toward a swarm of welcoming sailors.
"In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed," the commander in chief declared. "Because of you, our nation is more secure. Because of you, the tyrant has fallen and Iraq is free." Democrats fumed that Bush was diverting attention from the economy and getting a pass on his sketchy Air National Guard background. "We hoped that at least he'd look foolish getting out of the airplane," sighed a Democratic congressional aide. (Like that onetime Democratic presidential nominee looked tooling around in a tank?) No such luck. The top gun cut a striking figure in his Top Gun duds, surrounded by admiring men and women in uniform—an image that's likely to turn up in Republican campaign advertising next year.