The Bush administration sought yesterday to deflect growing criticism of the President's "Top Gun" moment when he arrived by jet on a US warship to declare that the war against Iraq was over.
Democrats have condemned the flying visit as an expensive and unnecessary political stunt, which cost US taxpayers $1m. They said he could just as easily have visited the ship by helicopter and that the vessel, USS Abraham Lincoln, was kept circling offshore throughout Mr Bush's visit.
Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, said the presidential visit had not forced the ship to change its schedules and it had always been due to dock at 9am last Friday after returning from the Gulf. "Imagine what would have happened to families who were waiting to come in the next morning, maybe not even arrived yet into California, if the ship had pulled in early," he said.
The White House had originally defended the visit by a S-3B Viking jet by claiming the Abraham Lincoln was hundreds of miles offshore and out of range of a helicopter. It later transpired that the ship was less than 30 miles off San Diego. Mr Fleischer said the Viking was just $7 (£4.30) an hour more expensive than a Marine One helicopter – $6,559 an hour compared with $6,552. But he failed to answer claims from Democrats that the visit also required delaying the Abraham Lincoln, paying for an extra day of air patrols, keeping the crew at sea and paying for Presidential security. The West Virginia Democratic Senator Robert Byrd said: "I am loath to think of an aircraft carrier being used as an advertising backdrop for a presidential political slogan."
The Lincoln visit was widely considered a success for Mr Bush. "I'm glad I did it. It was also a really good landing," the President said. "I appreciated the chance to thank our troops. It was an unbelievably positive experience, and not only was I able to thank our troops but I was able to speak to the country and talk about not only their courage but the courage of a lot of other men and women who wear our country's uniform."
Many observers in Washington believe that the controversy plays well for the White House, as the footage of Mr Bush addressing the sailors is replayed every time the story is raised.
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd