President Bush chose to make a jet landing on an aircraft carrier last week even after he was told he could easily reach the ship by helicopter, the White House said yesterday, changing the explanation it gave for Bush's "Top Gun" style event.
Bush's televised landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln, for which the president wore a flight suit and a helmet and took underwater survival training in the White House swimming pool, was the dramatic start to a visit to the carrier that included an air show and a televised speech to the nation. In his address, the president declared victory in Iraq in front of cheering sailors and a banner proclaiming "Mission Accomplished."
White House officials had said, both before and after Bush's landing in a Navy S-3B Viking jet, that he took the plane solely to avoid inconveniencing the sailors, who were returning home after a deployment of nearly 10 months. The officials said that Bush decided not to wait until the ship was in helicopter range to avoid delaying the troops' homecoming.
But instead of the carrier being hundreds of miles offshore, as aides had said it would be, the Lincoln was only about 30 miles from the coast when Bush made his "tail-hook" landing, in which the jet was stopped by cables on deck. Navy officers slowed and turned the ship when land became visible.
Bush wanted "to see an aircraft landing the same way that the pilots saw an aircraft landing," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said yesterday. "He wanted to see it as realistically as possible. And that's why, once the initial decision was made to fly out on the Viking, even when a helicopter option became doable, the president decided instead he wanted to still take the Viking."
Fleischer said the carrier had come hundreds of miles closer to shore than expected because of the weather.
Citing Fleischer's revised explanation, Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) wrote to the General Accounting Office to ask for a "full accounting" of the cost of the trip.
After Fleischer's remarks, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) delivered an impassioned speech on the Senate floor, saying he was "deeply troubled" by Bush's actions, which he called "flamboyant showmanship." The octogenarian lawmaker criticized the White House for using the carrier "as an advertising backdrop" and the military "as stage props" for Bush's speech.
"To me, it is an affront to the Americans killed or injured in Iraq for the president to exploit the trappings of war for the momentary spectacle of a speech," Byrd said. "I do not begrudge his salute to America's warriors aboard the carrier Lincoln . . . but I do question the motives of a deskbound president who assumes the garb of a warrior for the purposes of a speech."
Replying to Byrd, Fleischer said: "More than 100 Americans paid the ultimate price to defend our country, and the president is proud to have visited the Abraham Lincoln to say 'thank you' in person."
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