‘Mission Accomplished’ and the Meme Presidency

Donald Trump used an infamous phrase to describe U.S. military action in Syria, the latest in the president’s tradition of remixing and amplifying messages from his predecessors.

Everyone remembers the banner. It was huge, for one thing—those gigantic soft-brush stars and stripes, the big letters shouting: “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.” It was also a huge mistake.

What’s faded, 15 years since George W. Bush stood beneath that infamous sign on May 1, 2003, is that the political theater that took place on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean was as meticulously planned as it was audacious—a fact that’s almost impossible to imagine in today’s impulsive presidency. Hours after ordering air strikes against government targets in Syria, the current president casually tweeted: “Mission accomplished!”

But in the spring of 2003, every detail was choreographed. President Bush landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln in a fighter jet, then emerged wearing a green flight suit. Bush’s speech was timed for the golden hour, with the idea that the waning sunlight would cast a pleasing glow on the president as he spoke. Even the Navy crew members who gathered on the deck wore color-coordinated shirts, and were perfectly positioned so they’d appear in a single television shot with the words “Mission Accomplished” over Bush’s right shoulder, media strategists pointed out at the time.

This attention to detail was typical in the Bush White House. The 43rd president had a team of special producers who were obsessed with how the president’s message might be amplified on television. “I sort of use the rule of thumb, if the sound were turned down on the television when you are just passing by, you should be able to look at the TV and tell what the president’s message is,” Scott Sforza, who staged Bush’s presidential events, told Martha Joynt Kumar in an interview for her book, Managing the President’s Message. “You should be able to get the president’s message in a snapshot, in most cases.” More:

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