Soldiers Lend Somber Tone to Iraq Speech NPR Congressional Correspondent David Greene reflects on President Bush's televised speech Tuesday night on the situation in Iraq.
NPR logo Soldiers Lend Somber Tone to Iraq Speech

Soldiers Lend Somber Tone to Iraq Speech

The White House carefully chose its backdrop for President Bush's Tuesday night address on Iraq. It was Fort Bragg, a sprawling Army base in central North Carolina. The president's audience du jour was 700 soldiers.

But to Americans watching Mr. Bush on television, he may as well have been at a convention hall in Washington. Through most of the speech, all viewers saw was the president speaking in front of a stage-style blue backdrop with American flags. The men and women in uniform were not visible except in occasional cutaway shots.

Most striking was the eerie silence in the room. There were no shouts of HOOAH -- the military salute -- and only a single burst of applause during the 28-minute speech (it came after the president said, "We will stay in the fight until the fight is won").

Compare that to his triumphant speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln on May 1, 2003, when he spoke in front of a crowd of sailors and announced that major combat operations in Iraq had ended. "The United States and our allies have prevailed," he declared.

That address was interrupted 22 times by raucous applause from the service men and women on deck with the president. And the military setting was front and center.

Many times since then, the president has appeared at bases around the country with uniformed personnel lined up as a backdrop on stage.

It wasn't clear at Fort Bragg on Tuesday night whether the White House had choreographed the scene for respectful silence and a somber mood -- or, whether the soldiers in attendance were just caught up in the speech and taking their cues from the president's own solemn tone.

Afterwards, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said he had seen just what he expected. "It's not the kind of speech where you're out there in a rally," he explained. "It was a serious address to the nation."

Still, the White House had allotted 40 minutes for the remarks. Without the applause that may have been anticipated, Mr. Bush wrapped up in just 28 minutes.

Whether the mood of the evening was one that the White House planned or one it encountered, it underscored the position in which Mr. Bush finds himself.

He gave the speech he wanted to give to a primetime national audience -- all the broadcast TV networks carried it in full -- but said nothing new, and nothing likely to change the national mood about the war.

In polls, clear majorities of Americans say they think the United States is bogged down in Iraq, and that the president and his team have been disingenuous in their rosy assessments. Even those who support the war are less upbeat about it than in the past.

With the benefit of two years of hindsight, his triumphant speech on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln has become a painful memory. And with the benefit of just a few weeks of hindsight, Vice President Dick Cheney's observation that the insurgency in Iraq is in its "last throes" seems to have backfired.

So Mr. Bush seemed to acknowledge the need for more empathy and sensitivity.

"Like most Americans, I see the images of violence and bloodshed," he said. "Every picture is horrifying, and the suffering is real. Amid all this violence, I know Americans ask the question: Is the sacrifice worth it? It is worth it, and it is vital to the future security of our country."

Democrats picked apart the Fort Bragg speech. They said the president didn't offer anything in the way of a plan or exit strategy. And they complained that he resorted to the dubious link between Iraq and al Qaeda, attempting to drum up support for the Iraq campaign by recalling horrific memories of Sept. 11.

This time, however, it would be hard to criticize the president for being rosy. And indeed, his personal demeanor was not so sanguine as usual.

Before his address, Mr. Bush spent three hours meeting quietly in small rooms with nearly 100 family members of soldiers who trained at Fort Bragg and have since perished in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One widow gave the president a bracelet, with the engraved names of her late husband and another soldier who died on the same day in Iraq. She asked the president to wear the bracelet during his address, and he did.

On the flight home aboard Air Force One, McClellan brought the bracelet back to show reporters, as if to demonstrate the personal connection the president had made with grieving families on the base.

It was a sobering end to a day that had begun with great feelings of anticipation and excitement over the Commander-in-Chief's visit to Fort Bragg.

When a plane filled with reporters and White House staff arrived at the base hours earlier in the day, soldiers acted as eager tour guides. A bus carried the visitors from the air strip across the base, with an Army major named Amy Hannah pointing out places of interest.

She informed reporters that some of the military musicians who would warm up the crowd before the president arrived had appeared on Jay Leno's show recently. In a festival-like atmosphere before the presidential address, a military choir sang a hit song by pop country star Toby Keith.

But once the president arrived, walking to the lectern alone and asking his audience to be seated, the room fell silent as a memorial service and remained so for 28 minutes.

Was this the impression the White House bargained for? The day after, it did not seem to matter. Polls showed most who saw the speech had a positive reaction. Now the question is whether enough people saw it to make a difference in the overall level of public support for the war.