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By Ciro Scotti Say what you want about George W. Bush. I have. Like a lot of other Americans, my feelings about him have run the gamut. Cool guy who would win the 2000 election. Stand-up guy (after September 11). Vindictive guy, when I said here that George soon would go after Saddam because he tried to kill Poppy Bush. And not-so-bright guy.
Whatever you say or think about the President, the man has a set of cojones. The facedown in Florida. The enormous tax cut he pushed through in 2001 that so many said was unwarranted. The second and third tax cuts in the face of an economy slip-sliding away. The storming of Afghanistan. The cakewalk through Iraq in defiance of all that is internationally holy. The run-up of the federal deficit to heights that would give high-wire walker Philippe Petit pause. And how about that night flight to Baghdad in time for Thanksgiving with the troops?
Yes, the orchestrated stunt on the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1 and the mission-accomplished declaration were probably misguided. But landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier, even if you're a passenger, isn't for the faint of heart. And if getting all trussed up in that flight suit was a turkey of a move, the Prez made up for it in a hangar at Baghdad International Airport on Turkey Day. Was it another shameless, vote-getting photo op? Well, yes, but Bush knew his enemies would say that -- and he went anyway. Was it the right thing to do? Absolutely.
SILVIO'S SYMPATHY. Driving to New England on a glorious Thanksgiving morning, the Bush-hater beside me and I were taking the President to task for not attending any of the funerals of servicepeople shipped back from Iraq. What's worse, as the papers reported, some 40 of those troops have been buried at Arlington National Cemetery -- a full four miles from the White House. That's a little longer than the President's frequent run.
And we noted how Silvio Berlusconi, the Prime Minister of Italy and a billionaire who's not exactly Mr. Touchy-Feely, stood on a rain-swept tarmac in early November waiting for the remains of 18 of the 19 Italian soldiers blown away in Nasiriyah, Iraq. What a contrast, we remarked.
What kind of a knucklehead commander-in-chief, we wondered, avoids mourning his dead soldiers for fear he'll draw more attention to the situation in Iraq? And I pooh-poohed the pathetic White House line that Bush hasn't wanted to disrupt the private grieving of the lost troopers' families.
THE COUNTRY CARES. While we cruised and criticized in our leather bucket seats, however, the President was on a mission that has gone miles toward redeeming him in a lot of eyes. A piece in one of the papers talked about the minimal risk he took flying on Air Force One, a plane equipped with the most sophisticated technology known (actually mostly unknown) to man. And a story last week revealed, to the delight of Bushwhackers, that the bird on the platter he was carrying when he served the troops was a seared-on-the outside, raw-on-the-inside decorative turkey -- a photo-op prop.
These are the kinds of stories that make the public hate the press. What was he supposed to fly in -- an ultralight? And who cares if the turkey wasn't for eating? The truth is the man left his wife and daughters and flew through the night to be with his soldiers. The risks should not be minimized.
Photo op? Sure. But if it was grandstanding, then it was grandstanding with physical risk -- and certainly political risk after the flight-suit blowback. And if it was grandstanding, then it was grandstanding that made the 600 troops at dinner and all the other sand-flea-bitten grunts in Iraq feel like the country cares about them.
The President still ought to attend some of the funerals of men and women who lay down their lives for the policies he thinks are worth fighting for. But I'd like to believe he went to Baghdad for the right reasons. And even if he didn't, the man has cojones. Scotti is senior editor for government and sports business for BusinessWeek. Follow his column, only on BW Online