“Presidents Just Don’t Get No Better Than This!” And all those whining, pencil-necked draft-dodgin’, excuses for talking heads that think they’re “real” reporters and are critical of our fine Commander In Chief can just K-M-A!
November 28, 2003
Bush Returns From Secretive Trip to Visit Troops in Iraq
By ELISABETH BUMILLER
CRAWFORD, Tex., Nov. 28 — President Bush returned to the United States early this morning from Iraq, after spending Thanksgiving dinner with hundreds of soldiers in a military mess hall in Baghdad.
Ending one of the most secretive presidential trips in American history, Mr. Bush arrived back in Waco, Tex., at 4 a.m. local time, then flew on Marine One to his ranch here.
Mr. Bush, the first American president to visit Iraq, was the surprise guest at a Thanksgiving dinner Thursday at Baghdad International Airport, where he told about 600 stunned, whooping soldiers from the First Armored Division and the 82nd Airborne that he was happy to be with them — “I was just looking for a warm meal somewhere” — and that he was grateful for their service.
Mr. Bush flew to Baghdad under intense security on Wednesday to thank them for standing up against the “band of thugs and assassins” they are fighting in Iraq.
“Thank you. I was just looking for a warm meal somewhere,” the president told the troops when he appeared as the surprise guest. “Thank you for inviting me to dinner.”
Mr. Bush’s national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, who accompanied him on the trip, said today in remarks to CNN that the trip was the result of a long planning effort and there were obvious security concerns, especially after a cargo plane recently came under missile attack at the airport.
But she said the president wanted to personally thank the troops fighting the war on terrorism on the front line.
The trip came at a time when the president is under sharp criticism about the attacks on American troops in Iraq and for his absence from the funerals of American soldiers killed in the conflict. To that end, it showcased Mr. Bush’s personal connection to the struggle.
Asked if soldiers had asked her when they would be coming home, Ms. Rice said that she was only told they were thinking about their families and missions, and that they understood the difficulties. “Nothing of lasting value is ever born without sacrifice,” she said.
The administration did not announce the trip until Mr. Bush had left Baghdad, about midday Thursday, Eastern time. Only a few reporters were allowed to accompany Mr. Bush.
Mr. Bush told reporters aboard Air Force One as it returned from Baghdad on Thursday night that his parents did not know about his trip beforehand. But he said that he told his daughters, Barbara and Jenna, on Wednesday before he left and that his wife, Laura, had been aware of the trip all along.
“I had to tell my family, that would be wife and daughters, that I would not be there for Thanksgiving today,” Mr. Bush said. “My mother and dad came over from College Station, thinking they would see me. They did not know that I was not going to be there.”
The trip highlighted the continuing dangers of Iraq. Mr. Bush’s trip was conducted under extraordinary security, even for a president who routinely travels under some of the tightest security in the world. Air traffic controllers in Baghdad did not know the plane heading for the runway was Air Force One, and it then landed without its lights in darkness, but for a sliver of moon.
On the flight over, Air Force One had come within sight of a British Airways plane, Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, told reporters on the trip, according to the transcript.
The British Airways pilot radioed over and asked, Mr. Bartlett said, “Did I just see Air Force One?” There was silence from the Air Force One pilot, who then replied, “Gulfstream 5.”
There was a longer silence from the British Airways pilot, Mr. Bartlett said, who, seeming to get that he was in on a secret, then said, “Oh.”
Mr. Bush, who spent only two and a half hours in Baghdad, all in the secure area around the airport, also met with members of the Iraqi Governing Council, including Ahmad Chalabi, the exile leader who is close to senior officials at the Pentagon.
The trip, which was a tightly held secret until the very end among only a few aides, began about 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday in Crawford. Mr. Bush left his ranch in an unmarked car, not the usual presidential limousine, for the private airport he uses near Waco, Tex. Aides said they did not want to attract attention, so there was no motorcade and no blocked streets. Mr. Bush said he even tried to disguise his appearance, as did Ms. Rice. ,
“They pulled up a plain-looking vehicle with tinted windows,” Mr. Bush told reporters. “I slipped on a baseball cap, pulled ‘er down — as did Condi. We looked like a normal couple.”
Mr. Bush also noted that without his usual motorcade, he experienced pre-Thanksgiving Texas traffic.
“The president encountered and witnessed traffic for the first time in three years,” Mr. Bartlett told the small group of reporters, photographers and television technicians who accompanied Mr. Bush. “That was a little amusing to those who were riding with him.”
Air Force One then left Texas for Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, where Mr. Bush switched to another Air Force One, a refueled 747. The group picked up a few more reporters, bringing the total number of journalists on the trip, including camera crews, to 13. Reporters on the trip were instructed not to tell their families or their employers where they were going.
The president left Washington on Wednesday night, and arrived in Baghdad about 10 and a half hours later, around 5:30 p.m. on Thursday. On the way, Mr. Bartlett told reporters that if news of the trip leaked out before Air Force One landed in Iraq, the plane would turn around.
Mr. Bush said the idea for the trip first came up in mid-October, when his chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., suggested it to him.
“Andy said, ‘Would you be interested in going to Baghdad?’ ” Mr. Bush told reporters. “I said I don’t want to go if it puts anybody in harm’s way. I said it’s very essential that I fully understand all aspects of the trip, starting with whether or not we could get in and out safely, whether or not my presence there would in any way cause an enemy to react and therefore jeopardize somebody else’s life.”
Mr. Bush said he signed off on the nearly complete plans on Tuesday, and gave the final approval for his trip on Wednesday morning from Crawford in a conference call with Vice President Dick Cheney, Ms. Rice and Mr. Card.
Those on the trip to Baghdad included Ms. Rice, Mr. Card, Mr. Bartlett, the White House doctor, Dr. Richard A. Tubb, and Joe Hagin, the White House deputy chief of staff. Those who knew of the trip included Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and Gen. John P. Abizaid, head of the United States Central Command.
Mr. Bush was asked by reporters if there was any point during the trip’s planning when he thought it was too risky and that he should not go. He had a ready reply.
“Yeah, all along,” he said. “I mean, I was the biggest skeptic of all.”
Richard W. Stevenson and David E. Sanger in Washington and Richard A. Oppel Jr. in Crawford, Tex., contributed reporting for this article.