A Very Slight Change in the Script

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, August 23, 2005; 1:24 PM

President Bush's visit to Utah yesterday offered a great example of the White House's version of highly stylized Japanese Kabuki theater.

Although the speech Bush gave was largely an amalgam of previous addresses, White House reporters were urged to note the extraordinary significance of the president -- for the first time anyone can remember -- actually acknowledging the number of soldiers who have died in Iraq.

Yes, after months of painstakingly avoiding specific mention of the extent of American casualties in the war, Bush somewhat startlingly had this to say yesterday:

"We have lost 1,864 members of our Armed Forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and 223 in Operation Enduring Freedom. Each of these men and women left grieving families and loved ones back home. Each of these heroes left a legacy that will allow generations of their fellow Americans to enjoy the blessings of liberty. And each of these Americans have brought the hope of freedom to millions who have not known it."

Here's the text of the speech, given to a Veterans of Foreign Wars convention in Salt Lake City.

Bush's tone was matter-of-fact. He didn't spend a lot of time expressing his sympathy for the dead or their families. His speech included no new plans to stem the loss. In fact, Bush went on to invoke the dead soldiers as reason to stay the course in Iraq -- a policy that will inevitably create many more of them:

"We owe them something. We will finish the task that they gave their lives for. We will honor their sacrifice by staying on the offensive against the terrorists, and building strong allies in Afghanistan and Iraq that will help us win and fight -- fight and win the war on terror."

Bush critics have never suggested that the president was literally not aware of the number of dead -- after all, it's in the paper every morning.

But in this era of meticulous, artful and deliberate crafting of each and every presidential pronouncement, the unprecedented insertion of hard numbers obviously was meant to signify something.

And indeed, after the speech, White House officials spun it as hugely significant evidence that -- in spite of his refusal to meet with grieving mother Cindy Sheehan -- the president is sensitive to the sacrifices imposed by his policies.

Today's Coverage

Mike Allen and Sam Coates write in The Washington Post: "President Bush acknowledged the human toll of the Iraq war in blunt numerical terms on Monday, a gesture that advisers said was aimed in part at deflecting criticism that he is not sensitive to the sacrifices imposed by his policies.

"Breaking with the previous White House approach of putting little public emphasis on fatalities, Bush said the nation has 'lost 1,864 members of our armed forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom, and 223 in Operation Enduring Freedom' in Afghanistan. . . .

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