CRAWFORD, Texas – The bold nature of President Bush's secret Thanksgiving trip to Baghdad could give him a much-needed public relations boost as U.S. troop casualties increase and polling shows postwar Iraq could become a liability this election season, say several political experts.
"I think [Bush's trip was] a trip primarily of symbols, but don't underestimate symbols, they are awfully important; they have consequences," presidential scholar Stephen Hess of the Brookings Institution (search) told Fox News on Friday. "I don't recall a scene just as we saw yesterday at Thanksgiving of the president actually serving the toops, and that symbolically is just boffo."
"I think that the administration went into this war without properly explaining it to the American people, and without properly explaining what the aftermath would look like as we got into it," said elections analyst Ron Faucheux (search). "And I think politically now they have to deal with that. I think this trip helped change the conversation. it helped open up an opportunity to do that, but they still have to do it."
Conducted with total operational and media secrecy, Bush and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice (search) pulled off a bait-and-switch worthy of James Bond Wednesday. Leaving the president's ranch in Crawford, Texas under cover of night as well as baseball caps, Bush and Rice made their way unnoticed through street traffic to the airport outside Waco, Texas, where Air Force One was parked, and stole aboard Air Force One, which then flew to Washington, D.C., enabling the two to switch planes for the trip to Baghdad.
Not only were Bush's twin daughters and his parents given late notice of his absence from their Thanksgiving meal, but a number of Secret Service agents charged with protecting the president at the ranch were left completely unaware of his departure.
Reporters sworn to secrecy joined the president in Washington, and together the small entourage headed toward Iraq. As Air Force One (search), the name designated to whichever plane the president is aboard, approached Baghdad, the pilot extinguished the lights and maintained radio silence until landing.
"I was fully prepared to turn this baby around, come home," Bush said late Thursday after returning from the two-and-a-half hour visit.
Fox News' Jim Angle, who was on the flight with the president, said that at one point, the plane's security was jeopardized when a British Airways pilot crossed the path of Air Force One and inquired if that was indeed the president's plane.
"The Air Force One pilot paused for a few moments and then said, 'No, it's a Gulfstream 5,' which of course is a small private plane, a fraction of Air Force One. The British Airway pilot obviously recognizing that sometihing was afoot said, 'Oh,' and let the matter drop," said Angle, who was the White House pool reporter on Thanksgiving Day, charged with following the president wherever he goes.
In Baghdad, 600 soldiers hungry for home and impatient for their Thanksgiving dinners were taken completely by surprise when L. Paul Bremer (search), the top U.S. civilian authority there, told the soldiers it was time to read a Thanksgiving message from the president, a task reserved for the most senior official present.
"Is there anybody back there more senior than us?" asked Bremer, standing alongside Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez (search), commander of coalition forces in Iraq.
With that, Bush stepped from behind the stage and sent the cheering crowd to its feet.
Bush told the troops from the 1st Armored Division (search) and the 82nd Airborne (search), and other units that he had brought a message from home for them: "We thank you for your service. We're proud of you and America stands solidly behind you."
Bush greeted the soldiers and served mashed potatoes for about 10 minutes before heading into a meeting with four members of the Iraqi Governing Council (search), the mayor of Baghdad and U.S. military officials.
Despite the brevity of the trip, the images captured were clearly meant to demonstrate the president's commitment to the troops there, and even Democrats conceded it was a winning move.
"I think any guy here would tell you if the commander in chief comes in to say 'thank you,' that's good," said Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (search), a presidential candidate. "What isn't good is that we have flaws in the fundamental policy and it's great to do that for one day out of 365, but for the next 364 days we have a problem with our policy, and I believe that we need leadership that moves America to a better place in the world, where we bring other countries to our side. The best help we can give our troops is to take the target off them."
"It's good that he made the trip, but it doesn't change the fact that these brave men and women should never have been fighting there in the first place," said Jay Carson, campaign spokesman for Howard Dean (search).
Until now, perhaps the most dominant image linking Bush to Iraq has been his May 1 landing on the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln (search), where he declared in a major speech the end of major combat operations in Iraq. Democrats have long dismissed that landing and the speech as a political stunt that vastly underestimated the difficulty of winning the peace in Iraq.
Democrats now say that no presidential pictures from Baghdad can measurably change public attitude toward postwar Iraq until security there is improved, a government there is formed and U.S. troops start coming home.
"The president's presence in Iraq on Thanksgiving is a signal that the administration intends to stay in Iraq. Listen to what he said. He said that, you know, we're going to keep going. I think that has to be challenged. I think it's time to talk about geting out of Iraq," said Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich.
"He still has to win the peace. He still has to convince the American people that the sacrifice of these young men and women's lives and those who have become disabled as a result of this, that it's worth it, and he hasn't done a good job of doing it," said Democratic strategist Tony Coelho.
But Faucheux said the photos and video from the trip do give the president something to work with during the campaign.
"The 'mission accomplished' visual was originally thought to be something President Bush would be using in his re-election campaign. Now, Democratic candidates are using it against him. But this does provide a clash of a visual that I think is more positive, and I think would be very, very difficult for anyone to be able to use that in a negative way," he said.
"It does provide another image for the president to use, and a trip and a visit and a symbol that was much more effectively executed. This one is extremely hard to criticize," said Time magazine reporter Jay Carney. "It was extremely effective and very well executed, and I think we will see images of that from now until Election Day."
Fox News' Jim Angle, Major Garrett and the Associated Press contributed to this report.