When President Bush visits military bases, he invariably receives a foot-stomping, loud ovation at every applause line. At bases like Fort Bragg – the backdrop for his Tuesday night speech on Iraq – the clapping is often interspersed with calls of “Hoo-ah,” the military’s all-purpose, spirited response to, well, almost anything.
So the silence during his speech was more than a little noticeable, both on television and in the hall. On Wednesday, as Mr. Bush’s repeated use of the imagery of the Sept. 11 attacks drew bitter criticism from Congressional Democrats, there was a parallel debate under way about whether the troops sat on their hands because they were not impressed, or because they thought that was their orders.
With Iraq once more atop the political agenda, the Senate on Wednesday gave hasty approval to an additional $1.5 billion for the Department of Veterans Affairs, to cover a budget gap caused in part by unexpected demands for health care by returning Iraqi veterans. The administration has reversed itself, and now plans to seek emergency money from both the House and the Senate. Before the Senate voted unanimously to raise the spending for health care, the head of the veterans administration returned to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to tell House members that, contrary to his testimony the previous day, the agency needs emergency financing for this year and the administration will be submitting a request.
Democrats had seized on the veterans’ spending issue as another example of the administration’s mishandling of the war.
Republicans moved quickly to respond to what was becoming a significant embarrassment.
Capt. Tom Earnhardt, a public affairs officer at Fort Bragg who participated in the planning for the president’s trip, said that from the first meetings with White House officials there was agreement that a hall full of wildly cheering troops would not create the right atmosphere for a speech devoted to policy and strategy.
“The guy from White House advance, during the initial meetings, said, ‘Be careful not to let this become a pep rally,’ ” Captain Earnhardt recalled in a telephone interview. Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, confirmed that account.
As the message drifted down to commanders, it appears that it may have gained an interpretation beyond what the administration’s image-makers had in mind. “This is a very disciplined environment,” said Captain Earnhardt, “and some guys may have taken it a bit far,” leaving the troops hesitant to applaud.
After two presidential campaigns, Mr. Bush has finely tuned his sense of timing for cueing applause, especially when it comes to his most oft-expressed declarations of resolve to face down terrorists. But when the crowd did not respond on Tuesday , he seemed to speed up his delivery a bit. Then, toward the end of the 28-minute speech, there was an outbreak of clapping when Mr. Bush said, “We will stay in the fight until the fight is done.”
Terry Moran, an ABC News White House correspondent, said on the air on Tuesday night that the first to clap appeared to be a woman who works for the White House, arranging events. Some other reporters had the same account, but Captain Earnhardt and others in the back of the room say the applause was started by a group of officers.
While the White House tried to explain the silence, Democrats were critical of Mr. Bush’s use of the Sept. 11 attacks – comparing it to the administration’s argument, before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, that Saddam Hussein had links to Al Qaeda. The independent commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks found no evidence of “a collaborative operational relationship” between Iraq and Osama bin Laden’s organization.
Mr. Bush declared in his speech, as he has many times in recent months, that the Iraq campaign is part of a wider war on terrorism that was brought home to America on Sept. 11, 2001.
Mr. Bush, his aides said, was referring not to the past, but to the arrival in Iraq of terrorists linked to Al Qaeda once Mr. Hussein’s government fell.
“What we need is a policy to get it right in Iraq,” Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, Mr. Bush’s opponents in the 2004 election, said on the NBC morning show “Today.” “The way you honor the troops is not to bring up the memory of 9/11. It’s to give the troops leadership that’s equal to the sacrifice.”