Mission Accomplished, 11 Years Later: A Short History of Presidential Gaffes

President George W. Bush on May 1, 2003. (Photo by Reuters)
President George W. Bush on May 1, 2003. (Photo by Reuters)
Reuters

Remember that time President George W. Bush gave a speech on an aircraft carrier in front of a gigantic “mission accomplished” banner? That was 11 years ago today.

On May 1, 2003, the president took his place at a lectern positioned in front of the banner and started a 23-minute speech by saying “In the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed. And now our coalition is engaged in securing and reconstructing that country.”

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As presidential pageantry goes, this was a top-level event. Bush, a former Texas Air National Guard pilot, was a passenger on a S-3 Viking fighter jet, which landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln. After climbing out of the jet while wearing a flight suit, Bush changed clothes and gave the speech with the banner in clear view of the cameras.

As criticism of the event and banner mounted, and as soldiers continued to die in battle while in Iraq, the White House claimed the banner wasn’t there for the presidential address. Instead, administration and navy sources said, the banner was made by the White House but done so for the soldiers of the Lincoln, who were returning to port at the end of their mission.

By 2008, in an interview with CNN discussing the end of his two terms as president, Bush included the mission accomplished banner as one of his regrets.

"They had a sign that said 'Mission Accomplished.' It was a sign aimed at the sailors on the ship, but it conveyed a broader knowledge. To some it said, well, Bush thinks the war in Iraq is over, when I didn't think that. But nonetheless, it conveyed the wrong message."

Defenders of Bush say this is all very unfair. But every president has at least one stand-out moment that they wish they could have back, or at least wish had more context. Like Bush’s father, President George H. W. Bush:

And President Bill Clinton:

And President Richard Nixon:

What about President Barack Obama? “Greatest presidential gaffe” may be one of those things where you want a few years before you make a choice, like picking players for the Baseball Hall of Fame. But there’s a clear leading candidate: