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.
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.
“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.
The turkey report became a surrogate for all of that, and for a growing sense among reporters that the administration was stage-managing the news to try to put the best face possible on Iraq.
CNN hosted Mr. Allen for an interview, with anchor Aaron Brown pondering whether the episode constituted “Turkey-gate.” Mr. Allen told Mr. Brown he “first got suspicious of the turkey when I saw it blown up in one of the news magazines and it was so perfect. I was thinking this is a country club turkey not a chow hall turkey.” Prompted by his editor, Mr. Allen discovered the bird was a decoration, and said that led to the story looking at the way the White House was using imagery to promote its policies, which he said was the point of the story.
Except other reporters focused on the questions about the turkey — and apparently missed Mr. Allen’s reporting that it was a real, roasted bird.
Soon, a flood of reports called the turkey “fake” and “plastic.”
Mr. Blair found more than 70 instances of people getting the story wrong in the first three years after the incident. The list ranges from bloggers to major journalistic figures, and also includes John F. Kerry, Howard Dean and Wesley Clark, all vying to be Mr. Bush’s opponent in the 2004 election; Al Franken, a comedian who would go on to win a seat in the U.S. Senate; and filmmaker Michael Moore. In each case, the argument was the same: Mr. Bush was as fake as the turkey.
Correcting the record
Few bothered to correct their reports, Mr. Blair says.
One exception is the New York Times, which in July 2004, in the middle of Mr. Bush’s re-election campaign, ran an article using the “mouth watering — but fake — turkey” as evidence for Mr. Bush’s success as “manufactured surprises.”
A week later, the paper ran this: “An article last Sunday about surprises in politics referred incorrectly to the turkey carried by President Bush during his unannounced visit to American troops in Baghdad over Thanksgiving. It was real, not fake.”
Mr. Blair said he’s reached out to some of the reporters who have spread the fake turkey story, but had little luck getting them to respond.
One reporter on the error list is Howard Kurtz, who as The Washington Post’s media critic in 2006 wrote a story about a Bush visit to Afghanistan, saying it went off better than the 2003 Iraq visit and the “fake turkey.” Now at Fox News, Mr. Kurtz didn’t reply to an email seeking comment Wednesday.
Mr. Brown now teaches journalism at Arizona State University. Reached by email, he said he didn’t remember much of the turkey coverage.
“What would surprise me is if I thought of it especially seriously. I think in the TV era I expect successful political operations (and the Bush WH was that) to use TV effectively which is not the same as absolute truthfully,” he said.
Mr. Allen, the initial reporter on the story, told CNN at the time that he got “a lot of teasing” for his report.
“What we thought this story did was it pulled the curtain back just a little bit, showed people how carefully these photographs are controlled and it’s not always quite what it looks like,” he told Mr. Brown.
Mr. Allen declined to comment for this story.
Larry J. Sabato, politics professor at the University of Virginia and author of “Feeding Frenzy,” a book about the press seizing on storylines, said the turkey story fits the mold of a feeding frenzy.
“The toughest stories to rebut or refute are those that reinforce a subtext that press and public have adopted about a president,” he said, adding that the press had such a subtext about Mr. Bush and Iraq. “This falls into the category of ‘too good to check.’ That’s usually the case for false or silly subtext stories.”
Mr. Sabato said it reminded him of other instances, such as when Mr. Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, was mocked for showing wonder at an advanced grocery store price scanner, which became a metaphor for being out of touch, or when President Carter had an unfortunate encounter with a rabbit while fishing on vacation and it became a metaphor for being under siege.
“These myths have a kind of eternal life. You can knock them down for a while, but they always come back to life,” Mr. Sabato said.
Mr. Bartlett said the fake-turkey story appealed to Bush critics in the media and politics “who wanted to question his integrity at every step of the way.” He said Mr. Bush isn’t the only president to face that, and said President Obama has faced some of it himself. But he said the fact that it happened over a turkey was stunning.
“It was just amazing the lengths they would go to,” he said. “I’m trying to think of anything that even rivals that element of just craziness. The fact that it did have currency so long. That was one of those head-scratchers.”
Mr. Bush and the turkey became so iconic that they were immortalized in a plastic toy — the George W. Bush pull-string turkey doll. The photo, meanwhile, is still published, including this by the Economist magazine this week, which attached it to a story about Americans celebrating Thanksgiving abroad. The magazine did not question the bird’s authenticity.