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President Bush Makes Surprise Thanksgiving Visit To Troops In Iraq

Aired November 27, 2003 - 13:00   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Let's get back to Kelly McCann who look at national security matters for us and has a background with the Marines and in this realm. One of the things that's interesting to me, this report from the pool that was on Air force One is coming in. And Kelly, one of the things that -- one of the communications folks on the president's staff -- actually, the communications director, Dan Bartlett, told the reporters while they were on the flight to Baghdad was, if this breaks while we're in the air on our way in, we're turning around.
I guess that wouldn't come as a surprise to you.

KELLY MCCANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: No. Because the way this was set up, miles, it was deception, right down to using unmarked cars to leave Crawford, Texas. If you think about it, there are a lot of president watchers. And those people, including the media, are accustomed to that motorcade having a particular signature. So who knows whether he came out in a van, maybe a follow car, but it looks like normal secret service traffic could have looked just like secret service agents going out themselves to get a cup of coffee, or anything like that. So even from that standpoint, they closely control it from a counter surveillance standpoint and any advance notice not getting out.

Another point that I just wanted to add on was, when you lead in an area where we are doing war terror and there is war in Iraq, it's important that you share risk. The men respond to people who share risk with them. And this was a very risky thing for the commander in chief to do from the United States. And I think that's the strength of what it did. It showed that I will be there with you, too, no matter how brief, I'll come there, even though there is a risk. We just have to maneuver a little bit and there he was. I think it was a strong thing to do.

O'BRIEN: Here's an interesting point that's been brought up, too, Kelly. Talk about a need to know basis kind of situation. The first lady, Laura Bush who had been preparing Thanksgiving dinner, was not told until Tuesday or Wednesday. The president's parents, the former president, George H. W. Bush and Barbara Bush, were invited to the ranch, but were not informed. That's a tightly held secret.

MCCANN: Well, it's a pebble in a pond. If you think about it, if you tell one person, maybe they -- that affects the volume of food that's going to be prepared. Or maybe it has a runoff that you can't possibly predict. The way that those operations are always run is there is only a need to know by so many people and other people are intentionally kept out of it, because they may unwittingly have a signature that's picked up by someone looking for it and then they can do the math and figure out, hey, something's changed, someone is not going to be there. And that's exactly why they did it this way.

All right, Doug Brinkley, presidential historian is on the line with us too. He is in New Orleans today, enjoying his Thanksgiving. We appreciate him being here to give us a little historical perspective. I don't know if you heard that last bit that comes out of the pool report -- Doug. But the first lady was told right at the last minute and then the president's parents, according to this dispatch, were not advised at all, they showed up for dinner in Crawford.

DOUG BRINKLEY, PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Well, it's a perfectly executed and staged event. It's a classic kind of Bush planning. I can't imagine the White House having a better PR Thanksgiving. Michael Jackson is not going to be leading our Thanksgiving. It's going to be dominated, even with football games on today, the fact that president Bush did this. It's an historic moment. The fact that Kelly McCann said that he shared risk is very important. I couldn't help but thinking back to the Civil War when Abraham Lincoln had to kind of sneak in under a ruse. He even had a body double to just get into Washington, to try to throw people off his scent. This was a perfectly executed plan. It was the right thing to do.

And, you know, you just have to imagine for those 600 soldiers there in the hangar, the kind of joke of it all -- which will become part of the mythology of President Bush now. This day is going to be one of the major moments in his biography, when Paul Bremer is there pretending, you know that he's the big cheese of the day, and suddenly from behind the curtains pops the president of the United States. And you can imagine for the men and women of the 81st Airborne, and the 1st Armored Division, just what an incredible thrill that was.

O'BRIEN: Yes, you can only imagine. We're hopefully going to be seeing tape very shortly -- and I don't know what we're seeing here right now, nobody's told me what this is. But, apparently, that's troops just having Thanksgiving dinner generically, not the visit that we've been talking about. Doug Brinkley, stand by for just a second, because it is a little past the top of the hour. We should tell folks what we're talking about. The president of the United States, George W. Bush, managed to sneak out of the ranch, Crawford, Texas, yesterday evening. Got on a plane to Washington. Changed planes at Andrews Air Force Base and just popped into Baghdad for a 2 1/2-hour visit at the Baghdad International Airport.

He met there with the civilian administrator of Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, and the Iraqi Governing Council, as well as about 600 U.S. troops, members of the 1st Armored Division and the 82nd Airborne and served them up some Thanksgiving food as part of all this. Gave a very rousing speech, which was greeted with a standing ovation. Which he said in part, "I can't think of a finer group of folks to have dinner with. I'm especially thankful for those who defend us. They ..." -- referring to the guerrilla campaign under way in Iraq - "... are testing our will and hoping we will run. We didn't charge hundreds of miles into Iraq, pay a bitter cost of casualties, defeat a ruthless dictator and liberate 25 million people, only to retreat before a band of thugs and assassins."

That brought the house down there. And not long after that speech, having and having an opportunity to speak with some of those troops personally, the president boarded the plane we are accustomed to seeing as Air Force One, 747. Of course, any plane that the president is on that is flown by the air force is considered Air Force One. Although they didn't call it that on the radios, we're told. He flew back out. Best we can tell by now, he's well clear of Iraqi airspace, on his way back.

Major General Don Shepperd has been with us this morning. We've interrupted his Thanksgiving. And we're glad that he's willing to spend a little time with us, and away from his family. General Shepperd, it's kind of a remarkable story. Caught us all off-guard.

MAJ GENERAL DON SHEPPERD, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, it really is Miles. Very secret all the way for obvious reasons. A couple of thoughts on this thing. When the president landed, he had to have a place to meet with the people. One place he could have met is right on the airport there, right to the east of the runways is the presidential palace that's being used by joint task force. It's very secure, well protected. He could have done all the meetings there. On the other hand, when he met with the Iraqi Council it would be interesting to know whether the Iraqi Council was flown out to the Baghdad airport or whether he went in -- and he would have had to go by helicopter, to go into the green area downtown, which is, again, highly protected. But as we've seen, even attacks have taken place against that.

That would have been the greatest security risk, because the Iraqi Council would have to be told that something important is coming, they would have to be assembled. Of course, those people are from all over the regions there. And they don't live in any one central place in Baghdad. So that would have been the greatest place, the greatest danger of leaks, had anyone known who they were going to meet with. So interesting to find out whether he was helicoptered in to downtown Baghdad, or whether people were brought out to meet him. Either way, there was a risk of compromise there.

O'BRIEN: I would think so. And I suppose if the president's own parents did not know that he was going to be there, the Iraqi Governing Council would not be let in on this. I think that's safe to say. I suppose they could have been brought out to the airport on the assumption they would be meeting with Paul Bremer, the civilian administrator. That would be enough to get them there. There's all kinds of little ruses within ruses that would have made this actually be pulled off the way we see it being pulled off, right, General Shepperd?

O'BRIEN: Indeed. But the danger is, you would have to say, hey, something important is going to happen. And so that makes him a target right there for information to leak out. The place leaks like a sieve. And it is dangerous no matter where you go. You can get these rockets. You can get mortars that type of thing thrown in. So there was a risk no matter where you went. Again, the minimum risk of the airplane going in, because it went in at night. Of course, it's got the most sophisticated protection mechanisms as well on it. Still, the golden BB can get you anytime. So, there's a risk anytime you do something like this.

O'BRIEN: All right, General Don Shepperd, we're glad there was no golden BB on this occasion for sure. Thanks very much for spending a little time with us.

We're not leaving this story. We are especially interested to see the tape as it comes in. So we're going to keep all of our experts close by. We're going to take a quick break. Once again, guess who came to dinner in Baghdad? The president of the United States. Stay with us.


O'BRIEN: we're following the president's journeys, journeys that caught, quite frankly, the significant press corps, except for a small group which were handpicked, off guard. A tight pool went with him, as they say. As the president made his way for a 2 1/2-hour short - and, yet, I'm sure if you ask anybody there -- sweet visit to the Baghdad International Airport to meet with the civilian administrator there. Some of the key military commanders, the Iraqi Governing Council, and perhaps, most important, 600 troops who are a part of the effort over there, the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

The president is on his way back to Crawford, Texas as we speak. He is safe and sound. He pulled this trip off without a hitch and with all of us pretty much unaware. We did not even know about it, until he was safe and sound and on his way back to the United States. We've got -- we've been talking to some of our experts about all of this. And joining us now is -- we have Doug Brinkley in New Orleans. Doug Brinkley who watches the presidency from a historic perspective, he's a presidential historian. When they write the history books on George W. Bush's presidency, I'm sure this will be a prominent part of it, won't it?

BRINKLEY: Well, of course. And he's been on the defense as of late. All one had to do was watch this past week's Democratic presidential debate, and just see how the president's been getting flogged on his postwar Iraq policy. This is a president who has always been better on the offensive. I think this was an offensive strike. They pulled it off. It was done in great secrecy. It's astounding and heartening that the media doesn't know everything these days that a secret like this can be pulled off. And imagine his landing there in the morning at an airport that used to have Saddam Hussein's name on it and image everywhere, into a town where, the major hotel, people used to walk on his father's face. And there he is, in the city that's been so much a part of his presidency.

This war will be known as Mr. Bush's war. Baghdad has become synonymous with these last few years in our country. And there he was in the city he's watched on television like the rest of us. He wasn't there, of course, for the statues of Saddam Hussein being pulled down, or he's not there when the suicide bombers and terrorists wrecked havoc on our troops, but he was there for Thanksgiving. And it's going to be very hard for people to criticize President Bush for doing this. When he did his mission accomplished moment too soon in some people's minds, when he stood on the "Lincoln." He set himself up for criticism. It's hard to see how this White House is going to catch flack for at least coming to visit our troops on Thanksgiving and boosting morale for men and women over there. I think Democrats and Republicans alike have to say job well done here.

O'BRIEN: Fair enough. Let's go to CNN's Dana Bash. We've finally got communication fully established with her, picture, sound, all that good stuff. Dana Bash, I'm still a little bit -- I suppose everybody there. What's the talk among the press corps about how the president was able to pull this off?

DANA BASH, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Shock and awe, how about that, Miles? We just got a little bit more information from the person -- one of the reporters who is part of that small pool we've been talking about. And he essentially said that when they were on Air Force One on the way to Baghdad they were told by a senior White House official that if any of this information leaked out, the plane was going to turn around and head back to the United states, that this simply would not happen if anybody back on the ground knew. And just to sort of give you a little more of the detail of the secrecy of this brief trip - and he was on the ground for two hours and 32 minutes in Iraq, that was it. We are told, once again, that he left Crawford last night in unmarked vehicles in the darkness, went to the airport, flew back to the Washington area to Andrews Air Force Base. And that is where he took off from.

And we are told it was so tightly held, some of the secret service didn't even know about it. The first lady was not informed about it until just hours before the president left. Only a handful -- according to the reporter on the plane, the number of senior officials in the White House could be counted on one hand who knew about this trip. And even Ricardo Sanchez, who is the head of the U.S. forces in Iraq, was not informed about this until 72 hours before the mission, 72 hours ago he was told about it. And this happened -- he landed in the darkness. Air Force One went in with no lights on. They did not use the regular call letters that they normally use for Air Force One because of the intense security and the -- obviously, the concerns about security for Air Force One landing.

When they got there, they landed in a remote part of the airport. The president was immediately taken over to the mess hall, which is where he spent most -- all of his time while on the ground there. He spoke to about 600 U.S. troops who were gathered there who were gathered there. They were gathered there, they were told, in order to have dinner with Paul Bremer who is the American civil administrator there, and with Ricardo Sanchez. And Paul Bremer began to read a statement, a Thanksgiving statement from the president. And then said he was perhaps looking for somebody more senior to do it. Turned around and called for the president essentially to come out from behind a curtain.

And as you can imagine, the troops who were gathered there greeted him with a round of applause. And they were certainly quite surprised by that. Now while the president was there, he shook, we are told, almost every hand in the room. He didn't actually sit down and eat with them. Instead, he was serving the food, some sweet potatoes and other typical Thanksgiving fare. And after that, he had two other meetings in the same area. He met with some of the U.S. commanders on the ground there. And he also met with four members of the Iraqi Governing Council, including Ahmad Chalabi.

And after that, he went back to the plane, and took off and he is on his way back to the United States at this time. So it was a cloak- and-dagger mission if you will, something that they wanted to keep under wraps. And, clearly, Miles they were very successful at doing that.

O'BRIEN: Shock and Awe. Dana Bash, thank you very much for filling out those details for us.

Let's send it back over to Walt Rodgers for a moment. Walt, we talk a lot about the dangers of Baghdad, clearly. We talked about Saturday, that heat-seeking missile that struck that DHL cargo plane, as it was -- I believe it had just taken off from Baghdad International Airport. But just give me a sense, once you're on the ground at that airport, how secure a piece of real estate is that in Baghdad?

WALTER RODGERS, CNN SNR. INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: it's relatively secure. Remember, if the president of the United States is coming in here, the military can throw up this huge bubble of protection. He would have had helicopters zooming all over head. Again, the Iraqi insurgents in the area of the airport were extraordinarily unlikely to have the kind of artillery it would have taken to do any damage at the airport at all. That hasn't happened for months here. One thing I have to point out, Miles -- and I hate to be puckish about this, but it is interesting that President Bush's visit here this day happened to come just one day ahead of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton's visit to Baghdad tomorrow. Now, she was in Afghanistan yesterday. But it is perhaps coincidence, but perhaps political. The president came here, again, and no matter how you looked at it, he will have upstaged Senator Clinton's visit here, as I say, the day after Thanksgiving.

One other footnote I would add, I was listening to Professor Brinkley. I should point out there is precedence for this kind of presidential visit. Recall during the Vietnam War, then president Lyndon Banes Johnson paid a surprise visit, sat down and ate dinner with the troops in Vietnam in those days. And I hate to be a spoil sport, but I can also remind you that made no difference in the outcome of the events there. This is definitely not Vietnam, but a presidential visit short and sweet doesn't really have that much affect on the outcome of events in places like this -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Well, that is a point worth making, both LBJ and Richard Nixon paid those visits. And in the final analysis, of course, wars are much more complicated than any brief presidential visit can take care of. The former first lady currently in Afghanistan. Now, we know in a very public way where she is headed, headed in this direction. What about the security concerns for the likes of her, as a former first lady especially? RODGERS: They'll be very, very stringent. And the military here is probably more than capable of protecting both of them. I just find it more than a little ironic that the president came here. And whether deliberately or unconsciously, has upstaged senator Clinton's visit to Baghdad, again, scheduled for tomorrow -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: All right. Maybe a little bit of political stuffing in that turkey. Walt Rodgers in Baghdad, thank you very much. Stay close. We're going to take a quick break. We'll continue our talk. We're waiting to see that tape. It should be happening very soon. Stay with CNN. The moment it comes in, we'll show you pictures on this surprising visit by the president to Baghdad of all places. Stay with us.


O'BRIEN: Air Force One is currently on its way from Baghdad International Airport, ultimately to bring the president of the United States back to Crawford, Texas. There will probably be a stop in Washington along the way. Nevertheless, the president has pulled off a surprise, 2 1/2-hour visit to Baghdad. Specifically, the left part of your screen there, the Baghdad International Airport, where he met with the civilian administrator for Iraq, the Iraqi Governing Council, some of his military commanders and 600 members of the 1st Armored Division and the 82nd Airborne. There to be served by the president of the United states, sweet potatoes and other items.

The president didn't even have time to eat, he just talked and dished out some food. And surprised all of us. As Dana Bash put it just a few moments ago from Crawford, Texas, members of the media there are shocked and awed by all of this. Doug Brinkley is a presidential historian. We were thinking, Doug, when we talked just a few moments ago, we were harkening back to 1990. The senior President Bush, George H.W. Bush, in the run-up to the first Gulf War in Saudi Arabia, the desert there staging a surprising visit at that time, with troops, to share some Thanksgiving with them. I don't remember how tightly held a secret that one was. Do you?

BRINKLEY: Well, no, it was already rumored he was going to go there. At that point, it was nothing anywhere near as dangerous as this mission. Not long ago, we had Paul Wolf in a hotel where a bomb blew up there in Baghdad. We had international peacekeeping agencies wanting to close offices. I don't think anyone thought President Bush would suddenly appear there on Thanksgiving. Clearly, this is seen by the Bush White House as, I think, an offensive move, and it's a public relations coup. We don't know what's going to happen in the war in Iraq. And postwar Iraq is still a mess. This doesn't solve anything, a 2 1/2-hour visit by the president.

But the fact he gave a speech to the 82nd Airborne and 1st Armored Division, and he used that old Bush language, the cowboy rhetoric as it's called by the media, calling them the terrorists a band of thugs and assasins. That harkened back to his wanted dead or alive kind of rhetoric. He's been criticized for that kind of, if you like, Texas tough guy slang lately. And the fact he delivered that kind of message in Baghdad today, I think, points to the fact that he sees this as, once again, he's crossed the line at the Alamo, and he has stood there with the troop, telling them we're going to hang in to the bitter end here.

And it's a significant moment. Whether it will affect long-term policy in building a postwar Iraq is another issue.

O'BRIEN: And, Doug, we should explain to our viewers, we saw briefly what we thought was the beginning of this pool tape, which is about to be fed, which will show the president's remarks in their entirety. We're waiting for that to happen. Stay tuned. It's coming any minute. It looks like they were just kind of queuing up the tape there. A matter of fact, is this what we're seeing now? All right. The feed is just about to occur. We're monitoring it. As soon as they get things kind of stabilized and we see the president's introduction, we're going to bring that to you.

In any case, Doug Brinkley, this -- the rhetoric is so key here. You know what, I think we should show this. Let's bring this up right now, because there's General Sanchez. And beside him is L. Paul Bremer, they call him Jerry, he's the civilian administrator there. I believe this is the run-up to the introduction. Let's listen for just a moment.


GENERAL RICARDO SANCHEZ: Your families that are putting up and giving us a source of strength. As I talked to our soldiers, there's nobody more dedicated than you are. I want to now introduce Ambassador Bremer. A special welcome for the Governing Council Members here that are here for you tonight -- Ambassador.

L. PAUL BREMER, IRAQ CIVIL ADMINISTRATOR: Thank you, General. And happy Thanksgiving to all of you. I can't tell you how much those of us on the civilian side appreciate the sacrifices all of you are making to make this place safer for us. Now General Sanchez, it says here I'm supposed to read the president's Thanksgiving proclamation. But I thought the deal was it was the most senior person who reads it. Is that you ...

SANCHEZ: I don't know ...

BREMER: Let's see if we have anybody more senior here to read the president's Thanksgiving speech -- is there anybody back there who is more senior than us?


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I was just looking for a warm meal somewhere.


BUSH: Thanks for inviting me to dinner. General Sanchez, thank you, sir, for your kind invitation and your strong leadership. Ambassador Bremer, thank you for your steadfast belief in freedom and peace. I want to thank the members of the Governing Council who are here. Thank you for joining us for one of our nation's great holiday, a chance to give thanks to the almighty for the many blessings we receive. Particularly proud to be with the 1st Armored Division, the 2nd ACR and the 82nd Airborne. I can't think of a finer group of folks to have Thanksgiving dinner with than you all. We're proud of you.

Today, Americans are gathering with their loved ones to give thanks for the many blessings in our lives. And this year, we're especially thankful for the courage and the sacrifice of those who defend us -- the men and women of the United States military.


BUSH: I bring a message on behalf of America -- we thank you for your service. We're proud of you. And America stands solidly behind you.


BUSH: Together, you and I have taken an oath to defend our country. And you're honoring that oath. The United States military is doing a fantastic job. You are defeating the terrorists here in Iraq so that we don't have to face them in our own country. You're defeating Saddam's henchmen so that the people of Iraq can live in peace and freedom. By helping Iraqi people become free, you're helping change this troubled and violent part of the world. By helping to build a peaceful and Democratic country in the heart of the Middle East, you are defending the American people from danger and we are grateful.


BUSH: You are engaged in a difficult mission. Those who attack our coalition forces and kill innocent Iraqis are testing our will. They hope we will run. We did not charge hundreds of miles into the heart of Iraq, pay a bitter cost in casualties, defeat a ruthless dictator, and liberate 25 million people only to retreat before a band of thugs and assassins.


BUSH: We will prevail. We will win because our cause is just. We will win because we will stay on the offensive. And we will win because you're part of the finest military ever assembled.


BUSH: And we will prevail because the Iraqis want their freedom.


BUSH: Every day, you see first hand, the commitment and sacrifice that the Iraqi people are making to secure their own freedom. I have a message for the Iraqi people. You have an opportunity to seize the moment and rebuild your great country, based on human dignity and freedom. The regime of Saddam Hussein is gone forever.


BUSH: The United States and our coalition will help you, help you build a peaceful country so that your children can have a bright future. We'll help to find and bring to justice the people who terrorized you for years and who are still killing innocent Iraqis. We will stay until the job is done.


BUSH: I'm confident we will succeed. Because you, the Iraqi people, will show the world that you're not only courageous but that you can govern yourself wisely and justly. On this Thanksgiving, our nation remembers the men and women of military, your friends and comrades who paid the ultimate price for our security and freedom. We ask for God's blessings on their families, their loved ones and their friends. And we pray for your safety and your strength, as you continue to defend America and to spread freedom. Each one of you has answered a great call, participating in an historic moment in world history. You live by a code of honor. Service to your nation for the safety and the security of your fellow citizens.

Our military is full of the finest people on the face of the earth. I'm proud to be your commander in chief. I bring greetings from America. May God bless you all.



O'BRIEN: Well, that moment when Paul Bremer was ostensibly to read a proclamation from the president of the United States, and said, geez, do we have anybody more senior here -- he's not going to get an Oscars for his acting performance by the way. But, nevertheless, that moment when the president suddenly appeared, and the reaction of that crowd is something to remember. I don't know if we have the capability of reracking that as we say in our business.

But if we can at least make an effort to move in that direction so folks can hear that whoop that we heard from troops who were there inside that mess tent at the Baghdad International Airport. Probably the last things on their minds was a visit from the president of the United States at that moment. So truly caught -- surprised, and surprised in every good sense of the word. Dana Bash was supposed to be keeping tabs on the president in Crawford, Texas, but he managed to slip away from her gaze. She's still there, and has been getting the details as the White House has released this. Of course, releasing it for security reasons only after the president was wheels up, as they say, from Baghdad. Dana, what more are they telling you there?

BASH: Well, Miles, that was obviously videotape. And he left Baghdad about an hour and a half ago. He is making his way back here at this time. But what was note worthy in that speech he made to about 600 members of the U.S. military in Baghdad was -- obviously, it was a message to them, a morale booster, saying to them that the United States isn't going to run as he said, that Saddam Hussein's loyalists are hoping that the United States will do. And also the message was -- very clearly, he said explicitly, to Iraqis as well, another part of the goal, clearly, for this mission was to ensure and to give the message to Iraqis that the United States isn't going to run.

He said that he wants them to seize the moment in Iraq and rebuild the country. Also saying very clearly Saddam Hussein is gone forever. Clearly a message to the Iraqis, as the insurgency seems to be, obviously, picking up over the past month or two. The United States, the president himself, has been attributing that to not only foreign terrorists, as he calls them, but also some former Ba'athist loyalists. Clearly, a double message, a morale booster for the troops, but also on the ground a very powerful message for the president of the United States to be on the ground in Baghdad, speaking to the Iraqi people. Assuring them that Saddam Hussein isn't there, he is gone, even though he hasn't yet been found.

And that is part of the reason why the president obviously went. After the speech, the president did spend some time. We're told he shook almost every one of the 600 hands in that room. And he also had some private meetings with senior members of the U.S. military and with the Iraqi Governing Council. This is a critical time for them as they begin to turn over power, governing power to the Iraqi people, from the coalition provisional authority and Paul Bremer -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: CNN's Dana Bash in Crawford, Texas, where the president will be soon enough. We'll keep you posted on his travels, as best as we're able. Obviously, we can't cover every last step he takes.

Walt Rodgers in Baghdad. At what point did reporters there become aware of all this? Walt Rodgers, do you hear me?

RODGERS: Yes, miles. I'm sorry. Ask your question again, please.

O'BRIEN: The question was, at what point did reporters in Baghdad become aware of this presidential visit? Was it after the president had left before you even knew?

RODGERS: That's pretty much the case, yes. The president's plane was wheels up, Air Force One was wheels up from Baghdad International Airport. And, in truth, the only way we knew was an Associated Press bulletin which crossed first. Then of course we check with the White House and the White House was pretty quick to confirm that the president had been here 2 1/2 hours and he had come and gone -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Well, yes, that AP bulletin coming through that tight pool, that group of reporters. And I know you've had experience with these kinds of things in the past. Imagine that group of reporters sitting on this wonderful story, not able to say a peep until they were told to. That goes against the grain for reporters, doesn't it?

RODGERS: That's true. But these are reporters who make their living at the White House and they know how to play by the rules. So they're not going to break the rules in this. As I was saying earlier, Miles, one of the interesting vignettes associated with the president's stunning visit here to Iraq, is that deliberately or unconsciously, it has the very real effect of upstaging Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, who is due here in Baghdad tomorrow. Now, she is on a tour of this part of the world. She was in Afghanistan for Thanksgiving dinner with the troops, and she is due here in Baghdad tomorrow. It is going to be a tough act to follow for Senator Clinton.

There's also a message in this for any Democrat running for president next year. And that message is very simply, this is a very capable and good politician. By the way, we're also told that the president and Ambassador Bremer were in tears. Very interesting, of course, that the president said he is going to -- when he spoke to the Iraqi people, addressed the words to the Iraqi people. He said to them, the regime of Saddam Hussein is gone forever. That may play well back in the United States. But the Iraqi people know Saddam Hussein is still out there. The American Army, 130,000 troops, still have not found him for over seven months now.

And you don't have to be a very bright fellow -- we sit here and we listen to booms on the air, when you folks are running the tape there in the United States, we're listening to explosions here in Baghdad. The Iraqi insurgents, the Saddam Hussein loyalists, are out there. The president has gone. It's not at all without parallel. Lyndon Johnson went to Vietnam during the Vietnam War, quick trip over, sat down, had a mess hall dinner with the troops. You know, a good story, stunning story, but it had no impact on the outcome of the war in Vietnam.

Now this is not Vietnam. It's a very different military situation. But you still have an urban guerrilla force out there. Saddam Hussein is at large. And it remains to be seen how long the effects are of the president's 2 1/2-hour visit here -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: Walt, let's bring in Doug Brinkley, our presidential historian. I want to bring up this picture, which the Associated Press is now feeding out to newspapers the world over. I'm going to make a prediction that that's going to be on the front page of just about every newspaper in this country tomorrow. Doug Brinkley, that's the kind of picture a president would like to have in the paper, isn't it?

BRINKLEY: Absolutely. It's a Norman Rockwell painting of him with the troops, in the form of a picture. What is interesting about that photograph, and just listening to what occurred, he's wearing the 1st Armored Division jacket. He caught some flack -- quite a bit of it when he went on the "Lincoln" and had the "Mission accomplished" banner behind him and wore that flight suit. But here he is, not a flight suit, toned down a little bit, but nevertheless, wearing an army jacket, showing his solidarity with the troops, showing that he is there with the 130,000 men and women that are in Iraq.

And it was also noticeable there was not too much patriotic bore (ph). Behind him when he spoke, there was no big American flag. In many ways, we felt like he really did just enter the hangar, and was observing the men as they would have gone about their normal day. So I think every single person except for the few that arranged it were totally taken by surprise with this.

O'BRIEN: These little things that you point out are little things that advance people spend a lot of time dwelling on. So nothing we saw in all of this, the garb, the orchestration, the stage managing, I assume was left to chance, right?

BRINKLEY: Well, absolutely. When you listen to how Ronald Reagan gave the famous speech, you know, "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall." Debated for weeks and weeks. And Reagan finally won the day and delivered them, although many people didn't want to. I promise you, the words he said were carefully chosen. The fact that he got the biggest cheers when he, once again, talked about the thugs and assassins, using that tough language, that's when the men and women rose and cheered him the most. The fact that he reiterated the fact that we're not leaving soon, that we didn't charge hundreds of miles only to retreat.

And I saw also a clear indication that he wanted to show the support to the Iraqi Governing Council. Walt Rodgers is of course correct. Baghdad is a dangerous place. As he pointed out, booms going on every minute. But certainly the fact that the president of the United States is willing to make an historic journey on the most traditional and beloved of American holidays, Thanksgiving, and show that he's not afraid to stick his neck out, even if it's only for 2 1/2 hours in Baghdad, has to send a good message to the Iraqi Governing Council that this is not an administration or a country that's going to be pulling out of Baghdad quickly under political pressure.

O'BRIEN: Perhaps, except for his arrival on the stage, the biggest response came when he said this, Doug. "We did not charge hundreds of miles into the heart of Iraq, pay a bitter cost of casualties, defeat a ruthless dictator and liberate 25 million people only to retreat before a band of thugs and assassins." It is not unusual rhetoric for the president of the United States, and yet it is very much - they are harsh words and a harsh characterization. It is, after all, war.

BRINKLEY: Well, absolutely. And, again, he used the words "Saddam's henchmen." On the fact that it was Saddam Hussein who had been defeated, and made that very clear. I can't tell you how many times -- I didn't count, but I -- there were four, maybe five times where he used the word "freedom," which has become his favorite word. When he gave his "Three Pillar" speech in London recently, he was talking about world freedom. It all echoes Franklin Roosevelt's famous for freedom speech, of course, with different connotations.

The only other observation is that when you are watching him serving up food with the troops, there are always two good Thanksgiving photo ops. Being with troops -- and Christmas. Going with the troops in a USO fashion, and being there in a selfless way, or being at homeless shelters where people are hungry, and helping work soup questions across America. So the fact that he's not just with the troops, which would naturally get a positive response from the American public, but he's with the troops in Baghdad, is stunning, is astonishing, is news. And I think this was from all perspectives, both for the morale of our troops and for the -- just the good of our country, and showing our commitment to the war -- the postwar Iraq. This was a very, very smart move for the president.

O'BRIEN: All right. The pictures do speak volumes, but they don't really tell the whole story either. Let's take a break. Doug Brinkley has been with us, Walt Rodgers, Dana Bash, others, helping us walk you through a rather surprising day for all of us. Shock and awe was the term Dana Bash used. We're shocked, we're awed at the fact that the president of the United States snuck out of his ranch in Crawford, Texas and popped into Baghdad. Stay with CNN.


O'BRIEN: If you are just joining us, we've been talking for the past couple of hours now about a very surprising visit by the president of the United States to Baghdad, specifically, the Baghdad International Airport. Just in time for dinner over there, Thanksgiving dinner, spend some time with some of the senior commanders there, 600 troops, members of the 1st Armored Division, 82nd Airborne, Iraqi Governing Council. A lot accomplished in 2 1/2 hours time. The president of the United States introduced, surprisingly, by the civilian administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, who, at that point, hadn't let on to the fact the president was there. Let's listen to how this introduction. He was supposed to be reading a proclamation from the president.


BREMER: It says here I'm supposed to read the president's Thanksgiving proclamation. But I thought the deal was it was the most senior person who reads it. Is that you ...

SANCHEZ: I don't know ...

BREMER: Let's see if we have anybody more senior here to read the president's Thanksgiving speech -- is there anybody back there who is more senior than us?



O'BRIEN: The president, then, went on to address the obviously surprised and excited troop, offering up a speech which offered them an endorsement of their mission. And a clear signal that the president feels staying the course is the way to go. Let's listen to a little bit of that speech.


BUSH: Every day, as you see first firsthand, the commitment and sacrifice that the Iraqi people are making, to secure their own freedom. I have a message for the Iraqi people. You have an opportunity to seize the moment and rebuild your great country, based on human dignity and freedom. The regime of Saddam Hussein is gone forever.


BUSH: The United States and our coalition will help you, help you build a peaceful country so that your children can have a bright future. We'll help you find and bring to justice the people who terrorized you for years and are still killing innocent Iraqis. We will stay until the job is done.



O'BRIEN: Our CNN's Nic Robertson is a person who stays until the job is done. He is in Baghdad right now. Getting a sense of whether word is leaking out on the streets of Baghdad about the presidential visit. Nic, does the average Iraqi know the president was there?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Miles, one Iraqi we told him that President Bush had visited and what did we think about that? We had to show him the television set with President Bush on it meeting with the troops, and convince him he was actually in Iraq, before he was ready to believe it. But he did actually say to us that he thought this was excellent. He said he was surprised and he thought it was excellent for Iraq, because if President Bush was there he said that had a whole lot more meaning when President Bush says Iraq is free, than when President Bush is in Washington and says Iraq is free.

He said it also carried a very strong message that it means if President Bush comes here that he is committed to Iraq, he is committed to turning the situation around in Iraq. And this particular man thought that was very good. The other reactions we've had from people is that this is great, other people have been surprised, they say the situation is very, very good. We haven't been out to some of the more outlying areas around Baghdad. It is very likely we would find differing opinions around the city. But, certainly, the initial reactions we've found, Miles, have been very very, very positive. Both surprise, but a feeling that this shows a great commitment to Iraq at this particular time, Miles.

O'BRIEN: You know, you alluded at the start there to a healthy dose of skepticism that continues to exist among Iraqis. Will there be those who say, you know, prove to me he was in Iraq that could have been anywhere?

ROBERTSON: I don't think that's going to be the case, Miles. One of the interesting details that's begun to emerge this evening is that among the different pool reporters that were there was a crew from Iraq, from the new Iraqi media station here that's run by the coalition. They were brought on to the base to the air base, expecting to cover Paul Bremer meeting with members of the Governing Council holding a Thanksgiving dinner with them. And instead, they found President Bush. Of course, these pictures will be broadcast by Iraqi journalists on the coalition's Iraqi television station here. They have a daily news broadcasts that normally lasts about half an hour or so. And those pictures will be broadcast along with reports from their reporters on their television news.

So I think it's not something people are going to doubt. They perhaps in a few days may begin to question what is the lasting impact of it, what good has it brought them? But as messages go, Iraq has looked for reassurance that the world cares, really cares, enough to change the situation here. Right now, a lot of people question really whether the United States, whether the coalition, is committed. They see the move to provisional government next summer as an indication the coalition wants to get out of Iraq quickly and they question the motivation. But this, reassuring -- from what we've seen, reassuring Iraqis that the United States, in particular, President Bush, is committed. But I think it will be the lasting impression that will perhaps give us the best idea of what Iraq has truly thought about this particular visit by the president, Miles.

O'BRIEN: Nic Robertson, in Baghdad, with the first cut on Iraqi reaction to all of this.


In Iraq>

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