The Image Bush Just Can't Escape

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 4, 2007

For the White House, explaining away that "Mission Accomplished" banner has become Mission Impossible.

Bad enough for President Bush that critics regularly hold up his aircraft carrier speech four years ago as a symbol of hubris and miscalculation. Now it turns out the White House is in conflict with its own former defense secretary, Donald H. Rumsfeld, about just what happened that day.

The episode in question, of course, was the president's dramatic, made-for-television arrival on the USS Abraham Lincoln, decked out in Top Gun-style flight suit, on May 1, 2003, to declare beneath a "Mission Accomplished" banner the end of major combat operations in Iraq, a judgment that in hindsight looks a tad premature. Democrats gleefully used the anniversary of that this week to send their Iraq pullout legislation to the White House for Bush's veto, a move the White House called a "political stunt."

Bush never actually used the words "mission accomplished" that day, and the White House has long argued that although it created the banner, it did so only in response to a request by the ship to indicate that its long deployment was over and not to indicate that the mission in Iraq was complete. But that explanation has been undermined by none other than Rumsfeld, who was in charge of the Pentagon at the time.

In a little-noticed interview with The Washington Post's Bob Woodward published last year in Woodward's book "State of Denial," Rumsfeld said the phrase "mission accomplished" was not about the ship's deployment but in fact was a White House message originally included in Bush's speech. "I took 'Mission Accomplished' out," Rumsfeld said. "I was in Baghdad and I was given a draft of that thing and I just died. And I said, it's too inclusive. And I fixed it and sent it back. They fixed the speech but not the sign."

This week, for the first time, the White House publicly disagreed. "It's not true," said Dan Bartlett, the president's counselor, who helped organize the Abraham Lincoln event. "I think he's gotten confused. There was discussion about how to phrase the end of major combat operations" but not whether to say "mission accomplished."

After Woodward's book came out, Bartlett said, he went back to the files. "I looked at every draft of the speech, every draft that was sent to the principals, the Cabinet secretaries," he said. "There was never 'mission accomplished' in any draft of the speech." Rumsfeld could not be reached for comment yesterday.

Whether it was originally in the speech or not, the phrase will mark that day indelibly. And Bush did use a variation of it just a month later during a speech to troops in Kuwait. "America sent you on a mission to remove a grave threat and to liberate an oppressed people, and that mission has been accomplished," he said on June 5, 2003.

The White House sees that as a correct statement because, in fact, Saddam Hussein had been removed and that part of the mission was accomplished, even if the rest of the mission of securing a democratic Iraq remains elusive four years later. White House spokeswoman Dana M. Perino said this week that the president does not regret the speech aboard the Abraham Lincoln. "I've never heard him describe it that way, absolutely not," she said.

But for his foes, it remains a political gift that keeps on giving. Americans United for Change, an

anti-Bush group, aired an advertisement this week featuring Bush's picture from that day as it lambasted his veto of the Iraq withdrawal legislation. Democrats paraded to the House and Senate floor Tuesday to remind any who were listening about the misjudgment of that day.

"When will they finally understand that 'Mission Accomplished' was just a myth of their own imagination, born of delusion and denial?" Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) asked on the Senate floor in front of an easel displaying a blown-up photograph of the president in front of the banner.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company