Media feasting on Bush ‘fake’ turkey claim; false story still repeated 10 years on

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It wasn’t exactly the disastrous rollout of Obamacare, but 10 years ago this week, Washington was consumed with another scandal, dubbed by one CNN newscaster as “Turkey-gate”: Was that a fake turkey President George W. Bush was photographed with during his first surprise visit with troops in Iraq?

The photo resulting from the visit was iconic — possibly history’s most famous picture of a cooked turkey. It’s certainly the most misunderstood. Despite being a real turkey, meant as a decoration for the chow line, Mr. Bush’s political opponents seized on it, erroneously claiming it was plastic.

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In the years since, the bogus “fake turkey” story keeps churning, including slipping into 2004 New York Times and Boston Globe articles, making it into talk radio shows in 2005 and popping up in Washington Post and London Telegraph stories in 2006. To this day, it still creeps into print in letters to the editor in newspapers around the country.

“It’s a real theme in so many people’s minds, it’s almost got a religious aspect to it,” said Tim Blair, a columnist at The Daily Telegraph in Australia who has tracked the story over the past decade and said it has taken on a life of its own, playing on people’s perceptions of the former president. “If you’re of the anti-Bush faith, it’s a touchstone. It’s the book of turkey.”

The Iraq trip itself was iconic.

With things starting to turn bad months after the invasion, Mr. Bush made a secret trip — his first — to visit troops on Thanksgiving. Few were told the details ahead of time in order to preserve security, and Air Force One had to make a corkscrew landing into Baghdad, surprising the troops on the ground who had no idea their commander in chief was coming.

Back home, the White House had said Mr. Bush was sharing Thanksgiving afternoon with family at his ranch in Texas. The reporters who accompanied the president weren’t able to share the real story until after they departed Baghdad and had climbed high enough to be safe from possible rocket attack.

While on the ground, Mr. Bush marched into a mess hall where hundreds of troops had gathered for Thanksgiving — a major meal the military always plays up for troops overseas, no matter where they are. Dan Bartlett, a close Bush aide, said the troops had been expecting someone important, such as a four-star general, but were stunned to see the president walk in.

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“They were dumfounded — they just couldn’t believe he would do it,” Mr. Bartlett told The Washington Times this week, saying it helps explain the former president’s ongoing bond with the troops he committed to two wars. “That was a seminal event for a commander in chief and the troops, for him to do that. I oftentimes talk to veterans, they bring that up as often as they bring up the bullhorn and 9/11. I think it was the beginning of a deepening relationship.”

Roasted and primped

Walking through the mess hall, Mr. Bush spotted the beautifully roasted turkey in the mess hall and picked it up. The photographers snapped away, and history was made.

Except that wasn’t the end of it.

A week after the visit, Mike Allen, a reporter who was then with the Washington Post and who was the “pool” reporter on the Iraq trip for the consortium of newspapers that covers the president, penned a story reporting that the bird was a centerpiece decoration, and was never served to the troops. Instead, Mr. Allen said, the “roasted and primped” turkey was meant to adorn the serving line.

Mr. Allen reported: “The foray boosted poll numbers for Bush and flagging morale for troops. But it also has opened new credibility questions for a White House that has dealt with issues as small as who placed the ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner aboard the aircraft carrier Bush used to proclaim the end of major combat operations in Iraq, and as major as assertions about Saddam Hussein’s arsenal of unconventional weapons and his ability to threaten the United States.”

Indeed, there were growing questions — which would eventually turn into firm conclusions — that the intelligence that led the country into war had been inaccurate.

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