Behind The Scenes: Letting The Shoe Puns Fly

Mark Knoller is a White House Correspondent for CBS News. He was one of the small pool of reporters to accompany President Bush on his trip to Iraq and Afghanistan.
(AP Photo )
It was President Bush's last trip to Iraq and Afghanistan – two places in which Americans were still engaged in wars begun on his watch – and a guy throwing his shoes was the big story.

The jokes on Air Force One about that incident Sunday in Baghdad were flying faster than those shoes.

Even the president couldn't resist – beginning an interview by telling reporters on the flight out of Iraq that he didn't know what the shoe-hurler was saying – "but I saw his sole." (Get it? Shoe sole?)

"It was a bizarre moment," said Mr. Bush, and with mock pride he trumpeted his reflexes in ducking out of the way of the airborne footwear. "So you weren't a lame duck," I kidded the president to the moans and groans of his aides and my colleagues.

Back in the press cabin: "I bet they'll be serving us "shoe-fly pie," said one reporter.

"We'll probably have to go shoe-less to the next press conference," said another.

We wondered if the shoes thrown at the president were "wing tips," and whether the Secret Service would issue agents a new manual on "the taming of the shoe."

And though President Bush was unscathed from the incident, Press Secretary Dana Perino suffered an injury. She was hit in the face by a heavy metal microphone stand that was swung around at her as security personnel rushed the shoe-hurler. It left her with a dark bruise under her right eye.

"Guess you could call that a shoe shiner," a reporter said later.

As so often happens on presidential trips, an unexpected event overshadowed everything else about the mission.

Thirty-seven days before his eight years as president come to an end, George W. Bush headed to Iraq and Afghanistan for the last time as Commander-in-Chief.

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
For obvious reasons, it was a trip cloaked in secrecy and security. President Bush would be an irresistible target for insurgent forces in both of his destinations were advance word of his visits to leak out.

There were no lights and sirens on his motorcade as he headed to Andrews AFB on Saturday evening under cover of darkness. Air Force One was deliberately still in its hangar – so no one could see Mr. Bush as he boarded just after 9:00 p.m.. He was dressed casually – though the 43rd president was wearing his ball cap with the number "43" emblazoned on it. He was excited about the trip, and even made a highly unusual visit to the press cabin to say hello – something he never does.

All the window shades on the aircraft were drawn, and the lights that usually illuminate the familiar exterior of the most recognizable 747 in the world were turned off in the hope the plane's take-off at 9:32 p.m. would draw as little notice as possible.

There was no "Air Force One" call-sign on the radio for this flight. It was listed merely as a Special Air Mission: SAM 2112.

Those of us in the press pool accompanying Mr. Bush were secretly informed of the clandestine trip only a day earlier. We could each inform one executive at our respective news organizations, but no one else. We were instructed to arrive at Andrews about 7:00 Saturday evening, entering the base by an obscure gate that is almost never used and looked closed. The Secret Service confiscated all our photographic and electronic equipment including still and video cameras, cell phones, Blackberries and recording devices. Even an innocuous and inert thumb drive for storing computer data was taken away from me. We would get it all back on the plane once airborne and well out of U.S. airspace. Among the things they didn't want us photographing was the inside of the Air Force One hangar; it's about as secure as the White House itself, with heavily armed Air Police in body armor guarding the facility inside and out. It's a gleaming white cavernous structure, large enough for two 747s. And I was struck by the cleanliness of the floors – more like an operating room than a garage for airplanes.

President Bush had decided some months earlier that he wanted to make a final visit to Iraq and Afghanistan. He denied it was a victory tour, though he repeatedly makes it clear he thinks both nations are on the path to becoming successful democratic nations.

He wanted to thank the leaders of those two nations who share his vision for their countries. And he again wanted to express his gratitude to some of the U.S. military personnel who still put their lives at risk to carry out his vision.

No way did he think that when the wars began in Afghanistan in 2001 and in Iraq in 2003, that the fighting would still be going on within days of the end of his presidency.

He concedes his Administration miscalculated in some of the strategies it pursued in both countries – but he prepares to leave office firmly in the belief that both wars were the right thing to do – and that eventually – history will bear him out – long after we've all forgotten about the thrown shoes.

FOOTNOTE: The first time President Bush made a secret trip to Iraq in 2003, I was left clueless in Crawford, Texas, where most of the press thought he was at his ranch celebrating Thanksgiving with his family. The reporters left behind came to understand the need for secrecy about the trip – but we certainly felt misled about the President's whereabouts and schedule. On this latest trip, those of my colleagues back in Washington were also led to believe President Bush was spending an uneventful weekend at the White House. On Saturday evening, the press office even sent out its perfunctory e-mail to the press – setting a gather time for reporters on Sunday morning – presumably to cover the president's usual trip to church and weekend bike ride – even though he would be landing in Baghdad at 8:00 that morning. For some reason, the deceit didn't bother me this time.
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    Mark Knoller is a CBS News White House correspondent.