With Bush in Vietnam, ABC, CBS and NBC Play Up 'Inevitable Comparison' to Iraq

The Friday broadcast network evening newscasts, seemingly with no self-awareness of the role of the traveling press corps, all focused on how in Vietnam President Bush was pressed about comparisons of the Iraq war to the Vietnam war -- a topic he commented on only when asked by a U.S. reporter. CBS was the most adamant in raising parallels, Bush's avoidance of service in Vietnam and how he is now “creating another” Vietnam. Katie Couric declared that Bush “couldn't get away from the inevitable comparisons between Iraq and the war America lost in Vietnam.” Over vintage video of the Vietnam war, Jim Axelrod asserted that the Iraq war “is starting to look more and more like this war. The parallels are plain.” Axelrod contended that “Mr. Bush's trip here was bound to fuel his critics who've never bought his explanation about how he managed to avoid military service in Vietnam. But Iraq raises the stakes and changes the focus from what he did during the Vietnam War to whether he's creating another one. On a just-released audiotape, President Johnson in 1966 shared his goals for Vietnam." Following audio of LBJ promising the U.S. would leave Vietnam “just as soon as you can have anybody that will guarantee stability," Axelrod intoned: "Mr. Bush's remarks today had an eerie echo as he spoke about Iraq."

On ABC's World News, fill-in anchor Elizabeth Vargas insisted "the war in Iraq shadowed President Bush today during his visit to Vietnam” as the Vietnam war “has drawn comparisons to America's experience in Iraq.” From Vietnam, Martha Raddatz echoed Couric: “For President Bush, the comparisons to his own war in Iraq were inevitable.” NBC anchor Brian Williams announced that “the topic of the current war followed” Bush “all the way” to Vietnam. David Gregory, in Vietnam, also used the “inevitable” characterization of the comparison made by journalists: “The White House tried to avoid reflecting on the war in Vietnam because of the inevitable comparisons to the Iraq war.” Gregory asserted that “the obvious parallel between Vietnam and Iraq is the American public's desire to find a way out,” and though the Vietnamese are still oppressed in a communist state, Gregory suggested the U.S. won: “But if there is a hopeful sign in the Vietnam of today, prosperous and western-looking, it is this -- that it is possible to lose the war but win the peace." (Transcripts, and a little bit on the morning shows, follows)

Bush's comments, outside the Sheraton in Hanoi where he took questions from reporters as he stood with Australian Prime Minister John Howard, occurred a little past 2am EST Friday morning, a bit past 1pm local time Friday in Vietnam. I was unable to locate video of the exchange with reporters, so don't know who asked the question comparing Vietnam with Iraq, but the White House transcript provides this as the question which generated the soundbites of Bush on which the networks pounced: “Are there lessons here for the debate over Iraq?”

In the morning, Friday's Today show put this tag on-screen during Kelly O'Donnell's story, “Vietnam Visit: Lessons for Iraq.” Over on ABC's Good Morning America, the MRC's Megan McCormack noticed, anchor Chris Cuomo set up a 7am news update report: "President Bush is in Vietnam today bringing back memories of the unpopular war fought there and comparisons to the current war in Iraq." Jessica Yellin relayed from Vietnam: "Touching down here in Vietnam, President Bush was immediately confronted with comparisons between the war America fought and lost here 30 years ago and what some critics call the quagmire in Iraq.”

The MRC's Brad Wilmouth corrected the closed-captioning against the video for the stories on the November 17 CBS and NBC evening newscasts (I handled ABC):

CBS Evening News:
Katie Couric: "Meanwhile, no surprise, President Bush faced plenty of questions about Iraq as he became only the second American President to visit Vietnam since that war. He's in Hanoi for an economic summit, but he couldn't get away from the inevitable comparisons between Iraq and the war America lost in Vietnam. Chief White House correspondent Jim Axelrod is traveling with the President."

Jim Axelrod: "Meeting in Vietnam with one of his strongest allies on Iraq, Australian Prime Minister John Howard, President Bush would not rule out sending even more troops to fight the war there."

George W. Bush, outside with Australian Prime Minister John Howard: "We've got a lot of people looking at different tactical adjustments. Once I make up my mind what those will be, I'll share it with him right off the bat."

Axelrod: "With pressure building at home to bring U.S. soldiers back from Iraq, Mr. Bush was asked if America's experience in Vietnam held any lessons for today."

Bush: "We tend to want there to be instant success in the world, and the task in Iraq is going to take a while."

Axelrod, over vintage video of the Vietnam war: "The President's trip to Vietnam is inviting the last comparison the White House wants made -- that this war is starting to look more and more like this war. The parallels are plain. For President Lyndon Johnson, Vietnam was part of a broader ideological battle against communism. For President Bush, Iraq is the central front in fighting terrorism. Even without the Iraq War, Mr. Bush's trip here was bound to fuel his critics who've never bought his explanation about how he managed to avoid military service in Vietnam. But Iraq raises the stakes and changes the focus from what he did during the Vietnam War to whether he's creating another one. On a just-released audiotape, President Johnson in 1966 shared his goals for Vietnam."

Lyndon Johnson audio: "We'll come home and we'll be out of there just as soon as you can have anybody that will guarantee stability."

Axelrod: "Mr. Bush's remarks today had an eerie echo as he spoke about Iraq."

Bush: "We're not leaving until this job is done, until Iraq can govern, sustain and defend itself."

Axelrod: "Right now, U.S. troops are bogged down, domestic opposition is growing, a presidency is under fire -- a description that fits Iraq and loudly resonates here as well. Jim Axelrod, CBS News, Hanoi."

ABC's World News with Charles Gibson, but anchored by Elizabeth Vargas:
Elizabeth Vargas: “The war in Iraq shadowed President Bush today during his visit to Vietnam, the second stop in his trip to Asia. The U.S., of course, fought a long and unpopular war in Vietnam, a war that has drawn comparisons to America's experience in Iraq. Our chief White House correspondent, Martha Raddatz, is traveling with the President. She joins us now from Hanoi, where it is now Saturday morning. Martha?”

Martha Raddatz: “Elizabeth, this visit has really become a story of two wars: The war the U.S. is involved in now in Iraq and the war it was involved in more than 30 years ago. The President was greeted as a friend of Vietnam today, promoting capitalism and trade in a country which fell to communism in 1975. Tonight, at a state dinner, the President toasted his communist hosts.”

President Bush: “For decades, you had been torn apart by war. Today, the Vietnamese people are at peace.”

Raddatz: “One of the first things the President saw on his drive into Hanoi today was the lake where Senator John McCain was captured after his aircraft was struck by a missile during the war.”

President Bush: “He suffered a lot as a result of this imprisonment. He was literally saved, in one way, by the people pulling him out.”

Raddatz: “George Bush is only the second U.S. President to visit Vietnam since the war ended in 1975 -- Bill Clinton was the first. But for President Bush, the comparisons to his own war in Iraq were inevitable. President Bush was asked today if there are lessons to be learned in Iraq from the Vietnam experience.”

President Bush outside with Australian Prime Minister John Howard: “One lesson is, is that we tend to want there to be instant success in the world. And the task in Iraq is going to take a while. [edit jump] We'll succeed unless we quit.”

Martha Raddatz: “Chuck Searcy, a Vietnam vet, runs the Vietnam Memorial Fund here in Hanoi, an organization that honors the memory of U.S. vets.”

Chuck Searcy, Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund: “The Vietnamese actually feel some sadness, I think, for Americans that we again find ourselves in a very difficult dilemma. They really feel kind of sorry for us.”

Raddatz: “We spoke to Nguyen Duy Thos, a former Viet Cong soldier who says the two wars should not be compared. 'The U.S. was trying to overthrow the government in Vietnam,’ he said. 'In Iraq, the U.S. is trying to help.’ Later today, the President will visit a POW/MIA command center, Elizabeth. There are still 1,800 military personnel who are unaccounted for here.”

NBC Nightly News:
Brian Williams: "The President of the United States is tonight in Vietnam. As they say, it's a new world, and that is what the President is finding in Vietnam, even though the topic of the current war followed him all the way there. Our chief White House correspondent David Gregory is traveling with the President in Hanoi."

David Gregory: "Thirty years after America's unsuccessful war in this country, a U.S. President was greeted in Hanoi as a friend. The Vietnamese lined the streets to catch a glimpse of the presidential motorcade speeding through Hanoi's sprawling commercial district. Today the White House tried to avoid reflecting on the war in Vietnam because of the inevitable comparisons to the Iraq War. Still, Mr. Bush said, there are lessons."

George W. Bush: "One lesson is, is that we tend to want there to be instant success in the world, and the task in Iraq is going to take a while. We'll succeed unless we quit."

Gregory: "Vietnam War historian Stanley Karnow thinks Iraq and Vietnam are very different conflicts, but he does see similarities.”

Stanley Karnow, historian: "Well, we're making the mistake of not understanding what the nature of the countries we're fighting in."

Gregory: "The President said one of the most poignant moments of his drive into Hanoi was when he passed a Truc Bach Lake where Arizona Senator John McCain, then a Navy pilot, was captured after his war plane was shot down. A baby boomer who was not eager to fight in the war that defined his generation, the President said his first ever trip to Vietnam left him amazed."

Bush: "History has a long march to it and that societies change and relationships can constantly be altered to the good."

Gregory: "These days the U.S.-Vietnamese relationship is all about closer economic ties, a message Mr. Bush underscored in a series of meetings here today, including a visit to Communist Party headquarters where the President sat beneath a bronze bust of Ho Chi Minh. The obvious parallel between Vietnam and Iraq is the American public's desire to find a way out. But if there is a hopeful sign in the Vietnam of today, prosperous and western-looking, it is this: that it is possible to lose the war but win the peace."
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center