WASHINGTON – Questioning the motives of a "desk-bound president who assumes the garb of a warrior," Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd (search) on Tuesday reproached President Bush for flying onto an aircraft carrier last week to declare an end of major fighting in Iraq.
"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.
Byrd, 85, of West Virginia, is the Senate's most senior member and was one of the most outspoken critics of the Iraq war.
Dressed in a flight suit, Bush was flown onto the USS Abraham Lincoln (search) on Thursday, his small S-3B Viking jet (search) making a tailhook landing. The ship was near San Diego on its return from action in the Persian Gulf.
With the sea as his backdrop, Bush announced that the United States and its allies had prevailed against Saddam Hussein.
White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said Byrd's criticisms are "a disservice to the men and women of our military who deserved to be thanked in person."
"Senator Byrd did not support the president at the beginning of this, and it is no surprise that he does not support the president at the end," Fleischer said. "Senator Byrd is a patriot, but on this we disagree."
Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman of California asked the General Accounting Office, Congress's investigative arm, to find out the cost of the president's trip.
The event "had clear political overtones," yet taxpayers footed the bill, wrote Waxman, the ranking Democrat on the House Government Reform Committee, to the GAO.
Byrd contrasted the speech with the "simple dignity" of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address during the Civil War.
"I do not begrudge his salute to America's warriors aboard the carrier Lincoln, for they have performed bravely, ... but I do question the motives of a desk-bound president who assumes the garb of a warrior for the purposes of a speech," he said.
He said American blood has been shed defending Bush's policies. "This is not some made-for-TV backdrop for a campaign commercial," he said.
"To me, it is an affront to the Americans killed or injured in Iraq for the president to exploit the trappings of war for the momentary spectacle of a speech," he said.
Fleischer has rejected any suggestion that the landing was intended to provide campaign footage for Bush's re-election campaign.
Earlier Tuesday, he also said Bush decided to land on the carrier on a jet instead of his usual helicopter because the president wanted "to see an aircraft landing the same way that the pilots saw an aircraft landing. He wanted to see it as realistically as possible."
Waxman said Fleischer had provided conflicting accounts of the reasons for the president's trip by jet, initially indicating that the carrier would be hundreds of miles offshore, too far from land to be reached by helicopter.