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Profile: Loren Russell

Loren Russell was a participant or observer in the following events:

President Bush holding the fake turkey.President Bush holding the fake turkey. [Source: AP / Anja Niedringhaus]President Bush makes a surprise visit to Iraq to have a carefully staged “Thanksgiving dinner with the troops” at the Baghdad International Airport. [White House, 11/27/2003] Most of the 600 or so troops present for the meal are from the Army’s 1st Armored Division and 82nd Airborne units. For security reasons, Bush never leaves the airport, and leaves shortly after the meal. Bush’s entrance is carefully choreographed, with Coalition Provisional Authority head Paul Bremer telling the gathered troops that the most senior official present should read Bush’s Thanksgiving proclamation. Then, turning to a curtained-off area and asking, “Is there anybody back there who’s more senior than us?” Bush enters the area wearing military fatigues. [USA Today, 11/27/2003]
Fake Turkey - Bush poses with a lovely, huge, golden-brown turkey. The turkey is not real, but merely a prop prepared by the food service arm of Kellogg, Brown and Root. The troops actually eat turkey and vegetables from a cafeteria-style steam tray. White House officials later claim not to have known about the enormous decorative bird, and say that Bush’s memorable photo-op of him holding the fake turkey was an impromptu moment that was not planned in advance. Military sources later say that such decorative turkeys are standard features of holiday “chow lines.” [CBS News, 11/27/2003]
Some Soldiers Denied Dinner - Not all the soldiers at the airport are able to eat with the president, or in fact are able to eat at all. In December, Sergeant Loren Russell writes in a letter to Stars & Stripes that soldiers from his unit were denied entrance to the Bob Hope Dining Facility, where Thanksgiving dinner was being served, “because they were in the wrong unit.” Russell writes that his soldiers “understand that President Bush ate there and that upgraded security was required. But why were only certain units turned away? Why wasn’t there a special meal for President Bush and that unit in the new dance hall adjoining the 1st Armored Division’s band building? And all of this happened on Thanksgiving, the best meal of the year when soldiers get a taste of home cooking.” [Stars and Stripes, 1/27/2007]
Secret Flight - The trip to Iraq is conducted under conditions of extreme secrecy; only Laura Bush and a very few top officials are told of the planned visit. Had word leaked of the trip, it would have been canceled. Most White House officials and reporters are told that Bush would spend the holiday at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. Instead, Bush, accompanied by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, is driven away in an unmarked vehicle. At a nearby airport, he boards Air Force One from the back stairs instead of the usual front entrance. After stopping at Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington, where the entourage picks up a few aides, and four reporters and one camera crew sworn to secrecy, the aircraft departs for Iraq. In all, the press corps traveling with the president totals five reporters, five photographers, a TV producer, and a two-person camera crew. All the media members in the group had agreed to surrender their cell phones and wireless e-mail devices beforehand in order to keep them from surreptitiously reporting on the impending trip. [USA Today, 11/27/2003; PressThink, 12/3/2003; Associated Press, 6/14/2006]
Public Relations Effort - According to New York Times columnist and media reporter Frank Rich, the trip was set in motion by the White House’s public relations team and its desire to chase the Chinook tragedy (see November 2, 2003 and November 2, 2003) off the front pages. [Rich, 2006, pp. 110] White House officials say that Bush had been talking about such a visit for weeks, and the final decision to go was reached the day before in a conference call between Bush and Vice President Cheney. [USA Today, 11/27/2003] Journalism professor Jay Rosen later observes that the willing participation of reporters in this kind of event destroys the boundaries between reporters and the subjects they cover. Rosen will write: “The whole notion of the trip as an independently existing thing that could be ‘covered’ is transparently false, as the White House warning to journalists demonstrates. If word leaked out, the trip was to be canceled—it would no longer exist—and the airplane would turn around and head back to Washington. That does not mean the trip was illegitimate to undertake or to treat as news; but it does mean that its potential legitimacy as news event lies outside the logic of ‘things happen and we cover them’ or ‘the president took decisive action and the press reported it.’ Here, the press took action and it was equally decisive. It agreed, first, to go along and record the scene and then to keep the flight a secret; and these decisions by journalists were not incidental to Bush’s decision to go but integral to it. Would the trip have made sense, would the danger have been justified, if reporters and camera crews were not taken along? The answer is clearly no. But this means the press is part of the presidency, an observation that, while true enough, makes it harder to cover the presidency as an independently existing thing.” [PressThink, 12/3/2003]
Negative Reactions - An Army nurse at the American hospital in Landstuhl, Germany, which receives and treats wounded US troops coming from Iraq and Afghanistan, has a different take on Bush’s visit. In an e-mail to the Boston Globe, the nurse, who does not wish her name made public, will write: “My ‘Bush Thanksgiving’ was a little different.… I spent it at the hospital taking care of a young West Point lieutenant wounded in Iraq. He had stabilization of his injuries in Iraq and then two long surgeries here for multiple injuries; he’s just now stable enough to send back to the USA. After a few bites of dinner I let him sleep, and then cried with him as he woke up from a nightmare. When he pressed his fists into his eyes and rocked his head back and forth he looked like a little boy. They all do, all 19 on the ward that day, some missing limbs, eyes, or worse.… It’s too bad Mr. Bush didn’t add us to his holiday agenda. The men said the same, but you’ll never read that in the paper. Mr. President would rather lift fake turkeys for photo ops, it seems. Maybe because my patients wouldn’t make very pleasant photos… most don’t look all that great, and the ones with facial wounds and external fixation devices look downright scary. And a heck of a lot of them can’t talk, anyway, and some never will talk again.… Well, this is probably more than you want to know, but there’s no spin on this one. It’s pure carnage.… Like all wars, the ‘shock and awe’ eventually trickles down to blood and death. But you won’t see that. I do, every single day.” Globe columnist Joan Vennochi will add: “How much of this is enough for the president of the United States? It depends whether the goal is public relations for a presidential campaign or public acknowledgment of the consequences of war—the human consequences. They are convalescing in places like Landstuhl.” [Boston Globe, 12/11/2003] In 2007, author Annia Ciezadlo will recall her Thanksgiving in Baghdad during the same time. Ciezadlo, who spent the holiday with an Iraqi family, will write: “We saw pictures of him later, serving Thanksgiving dinner to American soldiers, posing like a waiter with a great big [turkey] on a tray. He never left the base. ‘You are defeating the terrorists here in Iraq,’ he told the troops, ‘so we don’t have to face them in our own country.’ An Iraqi friend once told me it was that line about fighting in Iraq to make America safer that turned his adoration of Mr. Bush into hatred.” [New York Times, 11/27/2007]

Entity Tags: Dan Bartlett, Frank Rich, George W. Bush, Annia Ciezadlo, Kellogg, Brown and Root, Condoleezza Rice, Richard (“Dick”) Cheney, US Department of the Army, Loren Russell, Laura Bush, Jay Rosen, L. Paul Bremer

Timeline Tags: Iraq under US Occupation, Domestic Propaganda, 2004 Elections

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