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Despite criticism, Bush 'glad' he jetted to aircraft carrier

Democrats charge political showmanship

President Bush declared an end to major combat in Iraq during a speech last Thursday from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln.
President Bush declared an end to major combat in Iraq during a speech last Thursday from the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln.

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Political controversy surrounds President Bush's jet flight to an aircraft carrier, CNN's Jonathan Karl reports (May 7)
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Sen. Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, calls President Bush's speech aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier 'flamboyant showmanship' (May 7)
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush offered no apologies Wednesday for his dramatic jet landing last week on the deck of an aircraft carrier, brushing aside Democratic charges that the trip was little more than a taxpayer-funded political stunt.

"It was an honor for me to go on the USS Abraham Lincoln. I appreciated the chance to thank our troops," Bush said at a White House news conference with visiting Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. "It was an unbelievably positive experience."

"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," Bush said. "I'm glad I did it. It was also a really good landing."

The president and several members of his staff flew to the carrier May 1, where he later delivered a nationally televised address announcing that the major combat stage of the Iraqi invasion had ended and the rebuilding process of the country had begun. A Navy jet carrying the president made a tailhook landing on the carrier.

Some Democrats -- including Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia -- have accused the president of political showmanship and charged that the carrier was delayed a day coming into port so the president could give his speech at sea.

"I am loathe to think of an aircraft carrier being used as an advertising backdrop for a presidential political slogan, and yet that was what I saw," Byrd said on the Senate floor earlier this week. (Full story)

Pentagon and White House officials say Bush's speech did not alter the ship's schedule.

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-California, wants the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress, to investigate costs associated with the trip, which he said had "clear political overtones."

Minimal difference

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said the price difference between a jet and helicopter landing on the carrier is $7. Landing the presidential helicopter on the carrier would cost about $6,552 per hour, he said, compared with the $6,559-per-hour of landing the S-3B Viking jet.

However, White House officials told CNN that the Bush administration will not release documents about the trip because such details about presidential travel are "never" disclosed.

And one senior official said if Democrats want to push for an investigation, "bring it on."

"If they think there is something to be gained by investigating and criticizing the president for going out to welcome the troops home, they are even more ridiculous than I thought," the official said.

Democrats seized on the issue after the White House revised its explanation for why Bush flew out to the carrier by jet.

On the day of the speech, the White House said Bush needed to take a jet to the ship because the Lincoln was too far from shore for a helicopter landing. However, the White House has since conceded that at the time of the president's visit, the ship was close enough that he could have used a helicopter, rather than making a dramatic "tailhook" landing on the carrier deck.

Navy officials said Wednesday that the method Bush used to travel to the Lincoln did not add additional costs and did not delay the ship's May 2 docking in San Diego, California.

Both the White House and the Navy said the carrier was closing in on San Diego ahead of schedule and theoretically could have made it to the dock a day early.

Thursday, Fleischer did not deny a report that the carrier moved in "lazy circles" some 30 miles off the California coast while Bush spoke and slept on the vessel, but said it was in keeping with Navy protocol.

Navy officials said carrier arrival dates are firmly set and are rarely changed because of logistics and the hardship it puts on families who fly to the port of arrival from all over the country to greet loved ones.

Privately, some Republicans say they are thrilled with the continuing criticism from Democrats, because it resurrects pictures of the president in a "top gun" flight suit, which they say only helps his image.

-- CNN White House correspondents John King and Dana Bash, and Pentagon Producer Mike Mount contributed to this report.

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