Bush as Top Gun:

Deconstructing Visual Theatric Imagery


David M. Boje, New Mexico State University

June 3, 2003

This paper is done in preparation for the August 2003 meeting of the Academy of Management in Seattle, and a preconference on visual imagery.



This paper deconstructs the theatrics of the presidency using a postmodern dramaturgy theory.


People mostly do not know how to deconstruct visual imagery of corporate and presidential media. Spectators accept a photograph or filmed performance as real, without questioning how images were constructed by manipulating theatrical elements. Novel creativeness, for example, emerges in the embedded performance situation of Bush’s aircraft landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln.


Photo 1: One of the boys: George Bush before his flight to the USS Lincoln (White House/Susan Sterner)[1]

The photo images of flamboyant showmanship of Bush’s strut after landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln, in an S-3B Viking jet, are more important than the words of his speech. The spectacle was pre-planned, and packaged for media consumption. This including Bush’s handlers slowing down the USS Lincoln and angling it in order to keep camera crews from getting sight of  San Diego skyscrapers or shoreline in the background.[2] The images of Bush-the-pilot flying and landing the S-3B Viking jet, symbolically reconstruct a combat history that never happened. The former Texas Air National Guard pilot never saw combat during Vietnam, and apparently went AWOL from May 1, 1972 until April 30, 1973, a period of twelve months.[3]

Embedded and other journalists show spectators how the military does war. Much of war is therefore performance-for-spectators that is ceremonially-effected by theatrics (Turner, 1985: 179-180).  The theatre creates legitimacy for the events leading up to and during the war. Media conveys performances that can reintegrate the social field that war disturbs, and cover victory celebrations and other spectacles, such as the President’s landing on the aircraft carrier.


And, the words too were carefully choreographed as is the costuming of the President (note his uniform is more tailored and stylized than the pilot next to him).  In his speech, speech writers make two unproven connections to legitimate the Iraq War, which Iraq is, linked to al-Qaeda terrorists, and to hidden weapons of mass destruction.


"We have begun the search for hidden biological and chemical weapons, and already know of hundreds of sites that will be investigated." …


"The liberation of Iraq is a crucial advance in the campaign against terror. We have removed an ally of al-Qaeda, and cut off a source of terrorist funding. And this much is certain; no terrorist network will gain weapons of mass destruction from the Iraqi regime, because the regime is no more."


This is grand theatre, a way to characterize an invasion as a victory on the war on terror, using choreographed imagery and rhetoric scripted to substitute for evidence.


People are mostly unaware of the extensive dubbing of Bush performances, the audacious theatrical creativeness, its extensive choreography, scripting, and stagecraft. For example, “A White House aide spent days on the carrier Abraham Lincoln setting the stage for President Bush's arrival this month to announce an end to major combat in Iraq. Every aspect of the event was choreographed and the speech was specifically timed for "magic hour light," so that Mr. Bush would be bathed in a golden glow” (Vincent Laforet/The New York Times).


Photo 2 – Landing of S-3B Viking jet on USS Abraham Lincoln - [4]


American theatre is spectacle. It is well-financed stagecraft, an enactment of power with aides preparing scripts, choreographing the scenes, setting up special lighting, predetermining camera views, picking audience composition, and even dramatically costuming not only the Prescient, but the spectators. It goes beyond the stagecraft of the Regan White House, by using television and technology to promote the presidency. For example President Bush’s “Top Gun” landing on the deck of the Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier has been described as “one of the most audacious moments of presidential theater in American history” (Bumiller, 2003). [i]  Few other than, Senator Robert C. Byrd, object to the spectacle:


American blood has been shed on foreign soil in defense of the President's policies. This is not some made-for-TV backdrop for a campaign commercial. This is real life, and real lives have been lost. To me, it is an affront to the Americans killed or injured in Iraq for the President to exploit the trappings of war for the momentary spectacle of a speech.[5]


Photo 2: (Source – Bumiller, 2003: 2).


Pentagon officials divulged that the USS Abraham Lincoln made “lazy circles” 30 miles out to sea all night after Bush was on board, and took fifteen hours to cross a distance that could have been traversed in an hour to reach San Diego.[6] When Bush and his pilot made their “tail-hook” landing, they were only 50 kilometers off the coast.




Photo 3: Crew arrayed with coordinated shirt colors behind the president (AP, May 1, 2003)[7]


The Bush administration uses theatre to construct illusions of leadership, while masking the exercise of power. Where he might have to answer questions at a press conference, the aircraft carrier provides an audience that will not.





Photo 4: Another color-coordinated photo opportunity.[8]


“Media choreographed strategists noted afterward that Mr. Sforza and his aides had every aspect of the event, even down to the members of the Lincoln crew arrayed in coordinated shirt colors over Mr. Bush's right shoulder and the ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner placed to perfectly capture the president and the celebratory two words in a single shot. The speech was specifically timed for what image makers call ‘magic hour light,’ which cast a golden glow on Mr. Bush.” (Bumiller, 2003: 2).


President’s Bush’s landing on the aircraft carrier, U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln (Bumiller, 2003). Or, the having Indianapolis’s live audience members take off their ties, and put on button-down white shirts, to better portray the stereotype of Hoosiers, and then dubbing a digital audience behind the live one, so as to better reach the demographic racial and ethnic profile of the viewing audience. 


Photo – The Bush uniform.[9]


Make up and costuming allows the President to play to “Top Gun” role of fighter pilot.


Image-Tampering - Bush’s performances are choreographed to close off alternative readings by carefully selecting audience composition, by costuming, scripting, and composing linear plots of heroic leaderly action.   


The New York Times and CNN, among others, detailed White House efforts to encourage attendees of Bush’s speech [in Indianapolis] to remove their ties, so that their appearance would more represent the stereotype of ordinary Hoosiers… right before they started broadcasting, they stopped us again.” The anonymous source said that White House handlers approached dozens of people in the crowd, distributing white, button-down shirts…. However, it was after the event that the real trouble began. Television broadcasts of the Bush speech, distributed locally as well as nationally and internationally, reveal a computer generated audience as a backdrop for the president.[10]


In this next photo, Representative Brian Bosma is one of those asked to remove his tie to give the background audience in Bush’s speech, a more Hoosier look.




Photo: Representative Brian Bosma before Bush's speech with tie and during without it[11]


Bush handlers manipulated the images of the audience to reflect more diversity of age and race than truly existed.


"'That's why I called you guys,' said the source. When I tuned in to the TV news that night, and saw what they had done, I just could not believe it.' The source said he spotted himself in the audience, but that the woman beside him was black, not white. 'I should know,' the source quipped. She's my wife and last time I looked she was white.'”[12] Press here to see video. Second source for video.  The band played and banners were up as 7,000 gathered at the Indiana State Fairgrounds coliseum to hear a speech by President George W. Bush Tuesday morning.[13]  There is resistance:


“About 20 people were waving flags of countries the United States has been at war against, in protest of Bush's speech. The flags include those of Japan, Germany and Iraq.  In a satirical protest, two men dressed in tuxedoes greeted people outside the coliseum, saying that Bush's proposed tax cuts will help millionaires”


In the fabricated broadcasts, blacks, Latinos and whites are evenly distributed in number, with the occasional Asian, Native American and Pacific Islander. Also evident are numerous hip-looking young people, ogling the president with absolute attentiveness.



Photo 5 - Backdrop that is for TV viewers at home


Similarly, here in New Mexico, President Bush performed his Tax Cut theatre against a digitized stage backdrop with the message, “Helping Small Business;” people in ties are told to remove them, to make them appear more like small business folk. Mariachi players lent the event a New Mexican flavor as the crowd waited for the president to speak on a podium (Hoffman, 2003). The 3,000 members of the invited audience, in New Mexico, were carefully screened, and ticketed by the State Republican party were guaranteed to be certified and enthusiastic republican supporters. Still, Bush's tax cut speech was briefly upstaged, when several peace protesters yelled that Bush was a war criminal. Another chanted, “No blood for oil.”[14] As they were escorted away, Bush shifted his remarks to the war against Iraq, saying to jubilant cheers that America's enemies "hate that we have freedom of speech in America."  Words in the backdrop, while too small for the on-site audience, are selected to be just the right size for the TV viewers (Hoffman, 2003).


Photo 6 – Bush’s Handler’s in a January 2003 speech in St. Louis, tape over the words “Made In China.”[15]


American is theatre, well-financed stagecraft, an enactment of power with aides preparing scripts, choreographing the scenes, setting up special lighting, predetermining camera views, picking audience composition, and even dramatically costuming not only the Prescient, but the spectators.



The processual qualities of the theatrics of war have taken a postmodern turn (Best & Kellner, 2001). Indeed, from the “saving of Private Jessica Lynch to the landing on the USS Abraham Lincoln, this has been the most stage-crafted war in American history. The integration of White House and Hollywood entertainment makes the two hard to separate.

The movie, The Big Dance represents an unusually close merger of Washington's ambitions with the Hollywood entertainment machinery.


Trapped on the other side of the country aboard Air Force One, the President has lost his cool: "If some tinhorn terrorist wants me, tell him to come and get me! I'll be at home! Waiting for the bastard!"

His Secret Service chief seems taken aback. "But Mr. President ..."

The President brusquely interrupts him. "Try Commander-in-Chief. Whose present command is: Take the President home!"

Was this George W. Bush's moment of resolve on Sept. 11, 2001? Well, not exactly. Actually, the scene took place this month, on a Toronto sound stage (Saunders, 2003).


 “Mr. Chetwynd's script is based on lengthy interviews with Mr. Bush, Mr. Rove, top aide Andy Card, retiring White House press aide Ari Fleischer, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other Republican officials in the White House and the Pentagon” (Saunders, 2003). Chetwynd is founder of the Wednesday Morning Club, an organization for the movie colony's relatively small band of Republicans, and he led the White House's efforts to enlist Hollywood's support after Sept. 11.

Bob Woodward, the Washington Post reporter, recounts a line similar to Mr. Chetwynd's in his book Bush At War: "We need to get back to Washington. We don't need some tinhorn terrorist to scare us off. The American people want to know where their President is." But it is a complaint, not an order (Saunders, 2003).

In accounts such as Mr. Woodward's, the President falters, seems uncertain, and spends a lot of time listening at meetings, giving his approval to the proposals of other aides. In this movie, Mr. Bush delivers long, stirring speeches that immediately become policy. While such stories portray a Washington administration bitterly divided over whether to begin the war on terrorism in Iraq, Mr. Chetwynd has Mr. Bush neatly summarizing the next 18 months of history in a cabinet speech.



[1] Source of photo: Radio Netherlands, May 5, 2003 http://www.rnw.nl/hotspots/html/us030502.html

[2] See MotherJones.com May 7 2003 on line article http://www.motherjones.com/news/warwatch/2003/19/we_412_03.html

[3] Chronological listing of Bush service record http://www.cis.net/~coldfeet/doc10.gif  More on the story from Tom Paine - http://www.tompaine.com/feature.cfm/ID/3671

[4] Navy Source archives http://www.navsource.org/archives/02/72.htm  See photo by U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate Airman Gabriel Piper. [030501-N-6020P-019G]. http://www.navsource.org/archives/02/027227.jpg

[5]  Remarks by U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd "A Troubling Speech" t r u t h o u t | Speech

  Tuesday 06 May 2003 http://truthout.org/docs_03/050703B.shtml


[6] Thursday, May 8, 2003 - USS Lincoln in political spat - The Washington Post http://www.heraldnet.com/Stories/03/5/8/16918701.cfm


[7] Major Combat Has Ended: President Bush Speaks on Iraq From Deck of U.S. Aircraft Carrier. The Associated Press. May 1, 2003. http://abcnews.go.com/sections/world/Primetime/iraq_bushspeech030501.html

[8] Navy Source archives http://www.navsource.org/archives/02/72.htm  See photo by Photographer's Mate 3rd Class Tyler J. Clements. [030501-N-6817C-049].http://www.navsource.org/archives/02/027228.jpg

[9] Photo source Kriselda Jarnsaxa on line  - http://www.voccoquan.com/kriselda/image.htm

[10] Bush event misrepresented audience. NUVO. May 28, 2003 Web accessed May 30, 2003 http://www.nuvo.net/news/archive/003751.html#003751


[11] Jim Shelia, WishTV on line Channel 8 June 1 2003  http://www.wishtv.com/Global/story.asp?s=1278487

[12] Bush event misrepresented audience. NUVO. May 28, 2003 Web accessed May 30, 2003 http://www.nuvo.net/news/archive/003751.html#003751

[13] Bush speaks to 7,000 in Indianapolis http://www.theomahachannel.com/news/2196511/detail.html

[14] Bush to New Mexicans: 'Raise your voices' for tax cuts. Last Update: 05/12/2003 11:26:41 AM By: Kurt Christopher KOBTV - http://kobtv.com/index.cfm?viewer=storyviewer&id=1353&cat=POLITICS

[15] Keepers of Bush Image Lift Stagecraft to New Heights By ELISABETH BUMILLER. The New York Times16 May 2003 - http://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/16/politics/16IMAG.html


[i] Keepers of Bush Image Lift Stagecraft to New Heights By ELISABETH BUMILLER. The New York Times16 May 2003 –http://www.nytimes.com/2003/05/16/politics/16IMAG.html