President Celebrates Years 60 And 230

At Fort Bragg, N.C., President Bush extinguishes candles on a white cake soldiers gave him two days ahead of his  birthday.
At Fort Bragg, N.C., President Bush extinguishes candles on a white cake soldiers gave him two days ahead of his birthday. (By Pablo Martinez Monsivais -- Associated Press)
By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 5, 2006

FORT BRAGG, N.C., July 4 -- President Bush celebrated the nation's birthday and his own Tuesday with a tribute to the heroism of U.S. forces fighting abroad and a fireworks-filled display with some of his oldest friends.

Bush flew to this Army base to spend part of the holiday with U.S. troops and to rhetorically link the nation's current conflicts with its storied origin -- "from Bunker Hill to Baghdad, from Concord to Kabul," as he put it. Surrounding himself with uniformed men and women, he again vowed to resist calls to withdraw from Iraq.

"I'm going to make you this promise: I'm not going to allow the sacrifice of 2,527 troops who have died in Iraq to be in vain by pulling out before the job is done," he told 3,500 troops and relatives. Noting the death of al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, he added: "This moment, when the terrorists are suffering from the weight of successive blows, is not the time to call retreat. We will stay. We will fight. And we will prevail."

His appearance here came more than three years into a war that has proved more difficult than he imagined and sapped support among the U.S. public. Violence continued to plague Iraq on Tuesday as the deputy electricity minister and 19 bodyguards were abducted in Baghdad; the minister and most of the guards were released. And the U.S. military absorbed another blow a day earlier when a former soldier was arraigned in nearby Charlotte on charges that he raped an Iraqi woman and killed her and her family.

Against this backdrop, the White House has searched for a formula that will preserve Republican control of Congress in November's midterm elections, with Bush and his allies once again trying to portray themselves as the party of national security. In the last week, Senate Republicans pushed for a constitutional amendment to ban flag burning while Bush attacked Democrats for wanting to "wave the white flag of surrender" in Iraq.

Most polls show more Americans now trust Democrats than Republicans on national security as the opposition party accuses Bush of incompetence in handling the war and of cynical manipulation in debating its merits. But Democrats have not unified around a single alternative plan, with some favoring a timetable for a troop pullout and others resisting that.

To make his case, the president eschewed his usual civilian Fourth of July events and visited the 82nd Airborne Division and U.S. Special Operations Command here at Fort Bragg, where a year ago he delivered a prime-time television address intended to reverse the slide in support for the war.

The picture this time was carefully drawn. Appearing in an olive shirt drenched with sweat, Bush spoke in front of scores of troops in camouflage uniforms and red berets, a massive U.S. flag and a 27-foot sculpture of a World War II airborne trooper known by the nickname "Iron Mike."

The president singled out Capt. Chip Eldridge, a Special Operations officer who lost a leg in Iraq in 2004 but plans to return to combat duty in Afghanistan next year. "With men like this leading our forces in the battle," Bush said, "the enemy doesn't have a chance."

While Bush celebrated the nation's 230th birthday, others began celebrating his 60th. After the speech, he stopped in a dining hall for lunch and a photo op with soldiers. As he served himself salad and macaroni and cheese in the chow line, Bush appeared annoyed when a reporter asked if he planned to treat himself for his birthday, which is Thursday.

"Generally, I celebrate my birthday on the birthday itself," he scolded. Reminded that Laura Bush planned a celebration when he returned to the White House later in the day, he allowed, "There may be a surprise party."

The troops here serenaded the president with "Happy Birthday" and presented him with a white cake emblazoned with a frosted U.S. flag and two candles, "6" and "0." Bush laughed and held it up for the cameras. "Anybody want a piece?" he called out.

Bush then flew home to the first lady's party, a relatively low-key event with about 150 old friends, relatives, close advisers and Yale University schoolmates in the executive mansion. Four of them traveled with Bush earlier on Tuesday: Bradford M. Freeman, Joe O'Neill, Mike Weiss and Charles Younger.

In contrast to President Bill Clinton, whose 50th birthday in office was celebrated with an extravagant, star-filled, televised gala, Bush kept his party off-camera and out of the public eye. "It's no Madison Square Garden," White House press secretary Tony Snow said Monday. "It's going to be family and friends up in the residence."

Doffing the sweat-soaked shirt from Fort Bragg, Bush showed up in the East Room in a red-and-white short-sleeved Hawaiian shirt and slacks. Guests ate fried chicken, Cajun shrimp, biscuits, salad and a three-tier chocolate cake covered with a variety of decorations, including a replica of the White House and topped with the number 60, according to a White House official.

Guests toasted the president and gave him gifts, but officials provided no details and released only a handout photograph.

After the party, Bush went out onto the Truman Balcony along with Laura, his daughter Jenna, her boyfriend, Henry Hager, Vice President Cheney and Lynne Cheney to wave to a crowd of holiday guests gathered on the South Lawn to watch fireworks. The crowd serenaded him with "Happy Birthday."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company