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Thursday, December 04, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Bush's turkey in Iraq images was for show, not for eating

By Mike Allen
The Washington Post

PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS / AP
The Thanksgiving turkey President Bush hoisted in Baghdad, Iraq, thrilled troops but doesn’t go down easy with critics.
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WASHINGTON — President Bush's Baghdad turkey was for looking, not for eating.

In the most widely published image from his Thanksgiving Day trip to Baghdad, the beaming president is wearing an Army workout jacket and surrounded by soldiers as he cradles a platter with a golden-brown turkey.

The bird looks perfect, with bunches of grapes and other trimmings completing a Norman Rockwell image that evokes bounty and security in one of the most dangerous parts of the world.

But as a small sign of the many ways the White House maximized the impact of the 2½-hour stop at the Baghdad airport, administration officials said yesterday that Bush picked up a decoration, not a serving platter.

Officials said they did not know the turkey would be there or that Bush would pick it up. A contractor had roasted and primped the turkey to adorn the buffet line, while the 600 soldiers were served from cafeteria-style steam trays, the officials said. They said the bird was not placed there in anticipation of Bush's stealthy visit, and military sources said a trophy turkey is a standard feature of holiday chow lines.

The scene, which lasted only a few seconds, was recorded by a pool photographer and described by officials yesterday in response to questions raised in Washington.

The foray boosted poll numbers for Bush and flagging morale for troops. But it also has opened new credibility questions for a White House that has dealt with issues as small as who placed the "Mission Accomplished" banner aboard the aircraft carrier Bush used to proclaim the end of major combat operations in Iraq, and as major as assertions about Saddam Hussein's arsenal of unconventional weapons and his ability to threaten the United States.

The White House has updated its account of an airborne conversation in which a British Airways pilot was said to have wondered into his radio if he had just seen Air Force One and was told that it was a Gulfstream 5, a much smaller plane. White House officials first said the British Airways pilot had talked with the Air Force One pilot. Bush aides now say the conversation occurred between the British Airways pilot and an air-traffic-control worker.

"I don't think everybody was clear on exactly how that conversation happened," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.

British Airways, however, said it has been unable to confirm the new version. "We've looked into it," a spokeswoman said. "It didn't happen."

ANJA NEIDRINGHAUS / AP
The platter of turkey President Bush carried while visiting U.S. troops in Iraq on Thanksgiving was actually a decoration.
White House officials do not deny that they craft elaborate events to showcase Bush, but they maintain that these events are designed to accurately dramatize his policies and to convey qualities about him that are real.

"This was effective, because it captured something about the president that people know is true, that he really cares about the soldiers and gets emotional when he sees them," Mary Matalin, a former administration official, said about the trip to Baghdad. "You have to figure out how to capture the Bush we know, even if it doesn't come through in a speech situation or a press conference. He regularly rejects anything that is not him."

The Democratic presidential candidates tipped their hats to the White House stage managers by refusing to criticize the trip, which dominated weekend newscasts. Aides to Democrats said they concluded that the less said about the trip, the better. They just wanted the moment to pass so they could go back to criticizing Bush's postwar policy.

The trip was pulled off in total secrecy — only a few Bush aides and reporters knew about it in advance, and they were allowed to discuss it only on secure phone lines. Reporters covering the Thanksgiving program in Baghdad were not allowed to report the event until after Air Force One had left.

Some of the reporters left behind at Crawford Middle School, where they work when Bush is staying at his Texas ranch, felt they had been deceived by White House accounts of what Bush would be doing on Thanksgiving.

Correspondent Mark Knoller said Sunday on "CBS Evening News" that the misleading information and deception were understandable, but that he had been "filing radio reports that amounted to fiction."

"Even as President Bush was addressing U.S. personnel in Baghdad, I was on the air saying he was at his ranch making holiday phone calls to American troops overseas," Knoller said. "I got that information from a White House official that very morning."


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