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Bush Still Pleased With Visit to Carrier

The president waves aside criticism of his appearance on the Abraham Lincoln.

May 08, 2003|Edwin Chen | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Bush on Wednesday jauntily rejected Democratic criticism of his appearance aboard an aircraft carrier off the California coast, as the controversy continued swirling six days later.

"I'm glad I did it," he declared during a brief joint news conference with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar.

"No, listen, it was an honor for me to go on the USS Abraham Lincoln. I appreciate the chance to thank our troops," Bush said.

"It was an unbelievably positive experience. And not only was I able to thank our troops, 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."

Democrats lambasted the White House on Tuesday after presidential Press Secretary Ari Fleischer conceded that Bush's dramatic landing on the Lincoln wasn't necessary. They accused the White House of staging a political event aimed at bolstering Bush's expected reelection bid by creating stirring images likely to end up in his campaign ads.

After arriving in an S-3B Viking jet, Bush -- clad in a green flight suit, helmet tucked under his left arm -- strolled the flight deck, surrounded by jubilant service members. Several hours later, they turned out by the thousands to cheer the president during his televised remarks declaring an end to the major combat phase of the Iraq war.

Some Democrats dismissed it as a "circus stunt photo-op." And Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W. Va.), in a Senate speech Tuesday, questioned "the motives of a desk-bound president who assumes the garb of a warrior for the purposes of a speech."

When the president's plans were first announced, Fleischer told reporters that Bush would have to take a jet from San Diego to the Lincoln because the carrier would be "hundreds" of miles at sea, beyond a helicopter's range.

But under renewed questioning Tuesday, Fleischer explained that the Lincoln had made faster progress toward San Diego than anticipated, due in part to favorable weather.

As a result, it was only about 30 miles offshore, and easily within helicopter range, by the time Bush arrived in San Diego.

But the president, a onetime pilot in the Texas Air National Guard, was determined to take a Navy jet, Fleischer said.

He also dismissed accusations that the Lincoln's arrival in San Diego was delayed by a day because of Bush's visit. The delay, according to David J. Sirota, a Democratic spokesman on the House Appropriations Committee, ran up more than $1 million in unnecessary costs.

But Fleischer said the Lincoln had been scheduled to reach San Diego on Friday.

"It was not kept at sea for an extra afternoon, evening or a night," he said Wednesday.

"The carrier was always, always, always scheduled to come back on May 2. And could you imagine what would have happened if it arrived earlier? Sailors would have gotten off the ship without their family being there."

Fleischer also dismissed as "not serious" a call by Rep. Henry A. Waxman of Los Angeles, the top Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, for an investigation of the presidential visit. Waxman called it tainted by "clear political overtones."

Fleischer added: "There's not a Republican that Congressman Waxman doesn't want to investigate."

The spokesman refused to speculate, however, on whether the Republican Party or the Bush reelection campaign would reimburse taxpayers if images of that visit made their way into campaign ads in 2004.

"The campaign is a long way away," Fleischer said.

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