Bush Carrier Trip Under Scrutiny

President Bush smiles after landing in a U.S. Navy S-3B Viking on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, in this image from video, Thursday, May 1, 2003, in the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California. The S-3B Viking is dubbed Navy One because of its presidential passenger
APTN
President Bush's use last week of the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln for a triumphant speech has come under fire from Democrats, who claim the White House wasted taxpayer dollars and sailors' time on a publicity stunt.

Despite initial claims that the ship was too far out to sea for a helicopter landing, forcing the president to use a jet, the Lincoln was actually within helicopter range when Mr. Bush arrived on May 1.

The jet flight was much more dramatic than a helicopter arrival would have been, as the president took the control stick for part of the flight and emerged on deck wearing a flight suit and helmet.

He then addressed the nation flanked by cheering sailors and backed by a sign reading: "Mission Accomplished."

Rep. Henry Waxman, D.-Calif., has called for an General Accounting Office investigation of the cost of the trip. Sen. Robert Byrd, D.-W.Va., has called the journey a case of "flamboyant showmanship."

"I am loath to think of an aircraft carrier being used as an advertising backdrop for a presidential political slogan, and yet that is what I saw," Byrd said on the Senate floor.

Besides the cost issue, Democrats are also charging the president's presence delayed homecomings for the sailors aboard.

Pentagon officials told the Washington Post that after the president's speech, the Lincoln waited offshore for hours while he slept rather than heading into port after its 10-month voyage.

But the Pentagon says the ship was merely trying to arrive at its scheduled 9 a.m. time, as is customary.

"We're not doing the families any favors by tricking them and coming in sooner," Rear Adm. Stephen R. Pietropaoli, the Navy chief of information, told The Post. "From the get-go, the White House staff was very sensitive to the Lincoln's schedule and wanted to accommodate the president's schedule to the Lincoln's schedule."

Responding to the criticism, the White House said the visit was a "wonderful, proud day" and asserts Democratic criticism won't "diminish" it.

On April 30, spokesman Ari Fleischer said: "The ship will be hundreds of miles from shore when the president arrives. It will be steaming the entire time."

On May 6, he said: "The President wanted to land on it, on an aircraft that would allow him to see an aircraft landing the same way that the pilots saw an aircraft landing. He wanted to see it as realistically as possible. And that's why, once the initial decision was made to fly out on the Viking, even when a helicopter option became doable, the President decided instead he wanted to still take the Viking."

Asked about the controversy on Wednesday, Mr. Bush said, "it was an honor for me to go on the USS Abraham Lincoln. I appreciate the chance to thank our troops. It was an unbelievably positive experience."

"And not only was I able to thank our troops, I was able to speak to the country and talk about not only their courage, but the courage of a lot of other men and women who wear our country's uniform. I'm glad I did it. It was also a really good landing," Mr. Bush said.

"I think it does a disservice to the men and women of our military to suggest that the President of the United States, or the manner in which the President visited the military would be anything other than the exact appropriate thing to do," Fleischer said Wednesday. "And I think that the 5,000 sailors on that ship recognize this for what it was — the president going out there to say 'thank you' to those who risked their lives."