CRAWFORD, Texas – President Bush, having surprised the nation with his Thanksgiving trip to Baghdad (search), asked Americans on Saturday to volunteer to help military personnel and their families.
Ignoring criticism at home and in Iraq, Bush said he felt privileged to have been able to offer the nation's gratitude in person to some of the soldiers deployed in Iraq when he appeared at a Thanksgiving dinner at Baghdad International Airport (search) on Thursday.
"I'm pleased to report back from the front lines that our troops are strong, morale is high and our military is confident we will prevail," the president said in his weekly radio address.
Bush taped the address from his ranch near here, where he was spending the weekend resting from his nearly 36-hour secret journey before returning to Washington on Sunday.
The tranquility of his agenda on Friday — some fishing with dad, a little cedar-chopping and other chores around his 1,600-acre property after arriving home shortly before daybreak — couldn't have been more different from the day before. Then, employing cloak-and-dagger secrecy and security tactics, he jetted across the ocean and back to visit troops deployed in one of the world's most dangerous places.
Although the trip was over, the airwaves remained full of talk about the Baghdad visit.
Some carped that it appeared a political stunt meant to produce striking images and public sympathy for a president under fire about his Iraq policies.
Others said the very riskiness of the journey that required extraordinary security only underscored why Bush is under scrutiny for his Iraq strategy, which has failed to prevent a rising death roll to Americans serving there.
Meanwhile in Baghdad, some Iraqis complained Bush didn't take the opportunity to see firsthand how dire their situation is and were offended he would use their country as a stage for what some saw as an electoral gambit.
White House advisers denied any political motive for the trip. They signaled they were not worried that the public would buy criticism of a president who braved personal risk to himself to visit lonely U.S. troops.
"Let the chips fall where they may," Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice (search), told reporters. "But for the American people, I don't care what your party, they know that the president of the United States, as commander in chief, going to see these troops is an important step."
At a school where the White House press sets up shop when the president is in town, Rice also dodged questions about whether the Secret Service had lodged objections to the trip, saying only that agents were "prepared to go forward" and were "right in the middle" of the planning.
"I'm not going to try to characterize what they thought, but they were involved in the planning from the very beginning," Rice said. "The president made clear that he wasn't going to take undue risk."
In his radio address, Bush paid respects to "such brave men and women who stand between us and the dangers of the world," acknowledging the difficulties of their families back home and the loss of families who will never again see loved ones lost in the war.
"The courage of our soldiers and their families show the spirit of this country in great adversity," Bush said. "And many citizens are showing their appreciation by helping military families here at home."