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The Empty Flight Suit

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Has it really been five years since we were treated to that breathtaking "Mission Accomplished" scene aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln?

I remember watching the president's plane approach the carrier that day as cable news anchors gushed about the sheer genius of the setting for its public relations power. They talked about the president's bravery, his mastery of the moment, his leadership skills, his macho.

My mouth gaped at the sheer nerve of it all. We were watching, to mangle Obama's slogan, the audacity of a dope.

But back then, my skeptical feelings were tremendously out of step. Everyone else in the traditional media lapped up the phony photo op like hungry kitties handed a bowl of warm milk. According to DailyKos, here is what the New York Times wrote about the day:

Never before has a president landed aboard a carrier at sea, much less taken the controls of the aircraft. His decision to sleep aboard the ship this evening in the captain's quarters conjured images of the presidency at sea not seen since Franklin D. Roosevelt used to sail to summit meetings.

Mr. Bush was clearly reliving his days as a pilot in the Texas Air National Guard, more than three decades ago.

No, he wasn't. If he were reliving his days in the Guard, he wouldn't have shown up.

He would have been in Alabama getting out of bed late for the cushy job his father arranged for him with a friend's campaign. Or he would have been nursing a hangover, lounging by the pool in Houston at the Chateau Dijon. Back when he was supposed to fly a military jet -- when he promised to fly, was paid to fly, was obligated to fly -- the last place the future president seemed to be was behind the controls.

Besides, military records eventually unearthed by AP in 2004 showed that Bush had serious troubles actually landing a jet, a factor that would have made his approach to the USS Lincoln a little too exciting, if you know what I mean.

But on this day five years ago, Karl Rove once again did the impossible for his slacker client. He took Bush's greatest weakness and transformed it into his greatest strength.

How the heck did they pull that off? Were they that smart or were we that dumb?

I don't know of any current candidates who could get away with such an in-your-face rebuttal of the questions about them. It would be like John McCain fighting the age issue by using a walker in public and moving his campaign headquarters to Shady Rest Retirement Village. Or Barack Obama addressing racial and religious worries by wearing a dashiki and carrying a Koran on the campaign trail. Or Hillary Clinton downplaying her brains and drive by tossing back boilermakers and pumping her own gas.

Oh, wait. She's already done that.

And pundits have dutifully jumped all over her for the supposed phoniness of the scenes. Gosh, where were these diligent truth nannies five years ago? Maybe with their newly found assertiveness they can finally ask the president where he was when he disappeared from his National Guard duty for more than a year - a question he has never actually answered.

Oh, dream on.

There are new bus trips to cover, big issues to ignore and little ones to blow out of proportion.

Besides, it is already clear that the bravado and arrogance behind the "Mission Accomplished" moment dwarfs anything we'll ever see in the 2008 campaign. Today, the carrier landing, the bulging flight suit and the colorful banner all seem so long ago. So 2003.

That day was thousands of American military funerals ago, countless dead Iraqis ago. Too many lives and too many lies ago.

Maybe the New York Times was right after all. Maybe the "Mission Accomplished" extravaganza was a lot like the president's National Guard service -- unfair, unfinished, unforgivable.