How would you like to be the well- meaning, but over zealous sailors aboard the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln who came up with the bright idea that resulted in embar rassing the com mander-in-chief?
At his news conference last week, President Bush revealed that the "Mission Accomplished" banner strung behind him the night of May 1 while he addressed the carrier's crew and a nationwide television audience was not his or the White House's idea at all.
"I know it was attributed somehow to some ingenious advance man from my staff - they were not that ingenious, by the way," the president said.
So, now, six months later, the truth is finally out: It was not the president declaring that the war in Iraq was over. It was just some exuberant seamen trying to impress the folks on shore by taking credit for routing Saddam Hussein.
To hear Bush tell it, he wasn't even aware that the ship's crew had strung the banner. Correcting the record after the news conference, the president's spokesman, Scott McClellan insisted that the banner was the crew's idea, and that the advance team had merely approved it, created it and paid for it.
The White House had, in fact, gone to elaborate lengths to make sure every detail was perfect for Bush's dramatic landing aboard the aircraft carrier as the co-pilot of an S-3B Viking jet. Bush emerged from the cockpit to the cheers of sailors and Marines whose trip back to port had been delayed several hours to set up ideal lighting and network TV timing for the celebration.
As the New York Times' Elizabeth Bumiller reported, "Bush's Top Gun' landing on the deck of the carrier Abraham Lincoln will be remembered as one of the most audacious moments of presidential theater in American history."
Bumiller's account said that "a variety of people including the president came up with the idea" of having the First Pilot swoop down from the sky to deliver the speech. To make sure no detail was overlooked, Scott Sforza, a former ABC producer hired by the White House for just such occasions embedded himself on the carrier to make preparations.
As Bumiller described it, "Sforza and his aides had choreographed every aspect of the event, down to the members of the Lincoln crew arrayed in coordinated shirt colors over Bush's right shoulder and the celebratory two words in a single shot."
The image makers routinely turn Bush's public appearances into extravaganzas with expert lighting, camera angles and wallpaper backgrounds that deliver a visual message, such as, "Strengthening Our Economy," even if the Dow is faltering that day. In one publicized incident, Bush came to a St. Louis warehouse to praise U.S. small businesses against a fake backdrop of boxes, each prominently marked, "Made in the USA." Reporters discovered that the Bush advance team had taped over the "Made in China" lettering actually stamped on the boxes.
So, why would the president go out of his way to demean "some ingenious advance man from my staff" and to lay the blame on overzealous seamen? Maybe it's because that triumphal landing, once thought to be the photo opportunity that would practically guarantee the president's re-election, has become a political albatross.
In retrospect, Bush's May 1 declaration that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended" may rightfully be said to have marked not the end of the war, but the beginning. In the months since, more American soldiers have been killed and wounded in Iraq than before, with no end in sight.
Time magazine reprinted a photo of a jubilant Bush surrounded by cheering sailors on its Oct. 6 cover, but with a headline that gave the celebration an entirely different cast, "Mission NOT Accomplished: How Bush Misjudged the Task of Fixing Iraq."
Daily reports of continuing violence and death in Iraq have made Americans increasingly less confident in Bush's ability to stabilize Iraq and get American troops out, according to polls.
Bush's landing aboard the USS Lincoln has been commemorated in a 12-inch action figure of Bush in his flight suit. But instead of drooling in anticipation over heroic campaign ads featuring Bush as Top Gun, Republican operatives worry that the president may come off looking more like Michael Dukakis in an infamous photo opportunity during the 1988 campaign.
Dukakis' test drive in a tank made him look silly and contributed in some measure to Dukakis' defeat at the hands of the first President Bush.
While not conceding that Bush's premature victory lap aboard the USS Lincoln was a mistake, Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, was quoted by CNN as saying, "Sometimes pictures have a way of coming back in a way which is very difficult."
Brazaitis, formerly a Plain Dealer senior editor, is a Washington columnist.