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Jewish World Review May 9, 2003 / 7 Iyar, 5763

Neil Steinberg

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Bush: the have-fun prez | CHICAGO We are a cynical, image-conscious, media-savvy society. If were to arrive on Earth tomorrow, and was floating over Grant Park delivering a sermon, newscasters would talk over his words to comment on the awe-inspiring quality of the moment and the dramatic power of his airborne delivery. Thus, even before President Bush's S3 Viking jet landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln, TV pundits were warbling about the obvious leadership symbolism (if it's so obvious, why remark on it?), and the critics were crying "cowboy!'' and offering up their tired perspectives.

I view it differently. When I saw the president take off his helmet, smile broadly and greet the assembled servicemen and women, I thought: That looks fun.

How could it not be? The thrill of landing on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. Of allowing servicemen who have been at sea for nearly 10 months a welcome home visit by their leader? (Fun for the president, at least--I'm sure the sailors were hot to get to port).

Fun for the president, in fact, might even have been the motivating factor. Bush doesn't really need to underline his commander-in-chief chops--the Iraq War did that nicely. Rather, I believe, he chose to arrive on the Abraham Lincoln the way he did because it seemed like a hoot. And whether Bush himself cooked up the idea of being the first president to land in a plane aboard a carrier, or merely approved the suggestion of some handler, you still have to credit him. It takes guts to have fun nowadays, in our all-business environment. Particularly leaders, who are supposed to be shaving pennies and grappling with problems.

But that gets old. We shouldn't underestimate the value of leaders who have fun from time to time. Who wants some lemon-faced Jimmy Carter-type always lecturing and complaining and turning down the thermostat? Life is tough enough without watching those you've elected grind through life.

Contrast Bush with our own Mayor Daley, a man who seems to be truly suffering under the weight of office. Long before the frightening, Captain Queeg-like justification of his midnight ruin of Meigs Field, I was struck by how much he didn't seem to enjoy himself. He seems so irked. You never see him at a baseball game, happy and relaxed, chatting with the players. No. He's always got his hands locked in a white-knuckle grip at a podium, his eyes darting around as if he just can't wait to bolt home and go crawl under the bed.

Sure, it's risky to have fun. The president served a slow pitch to his critics by going to that aircraft carrier. But so what? They hate him anyway. The visit was a welcome break from the news cycle of SARS and woes in Iraq. A big chunk of Thursday afternoon TV news was devoted to a rare exploration of naval hardware, of the awesome might of the aircraft carrier, of the specifications of the various planes that land there. It was cool stuff, and Bush obviously reveled in it.

"It's a good day to be president,'' gushed one CNN talking head, getting into the spirit of the thing.

Really, how can you not marvel at military hardware? Yes, it kills people, sometimes, then so do automobiles--another Vietnam War's worth of casualties every 16 months in this country. But we still go guiltlessly to the Auto Show.

I don't think I'm unique here. Most guys I know retain their little boy fascination with things military. True, I'm the only person I know who dragged his wife aboard a Navy ship on their honeymoon. In my defense, it was a complete accident. We were working our way through bed-and-breakfasts in New England, and we stopped at Bar Harbor, Maine. There was an enormous ship in the harbor, the USS Farion, a missile frigate, and as we gazed at her profile, the thought crossed my mind that it might be a romantic outing if my bride and I rented a canoe and paddled out to look at the vessel.

But even in those pre-9/11 days, I worried that they might turn the deck guns on us. So I went over to a group of sailors in whites, standing on the pier, and asked if they thought it would be OK if we canoed around the ship.

They told us we probably could, but if we wanted a closer look, there was a tour at 1 p.m. So we caught a running boat over and joined about two dozen people taken through the ship. The tour took two hours, and was a jaw-dropping tribute to modern military power. The weapon that stood out for me was the domed Phalanx anti-missile gun that fired depleted-uranium bullets. The guide said the gun--and I'm groping into memory here--fired 600 rounds a second and held 2,000 shells.

I stuck my hand up.

"Didn't that mean it would run out of ammo in a little over three seconds?'' The guide paused, smiling, as if he gets that question every time, and answered that the computer tracked each shot, comparing it with the radar profile of what was coming their way, that it not only would knock out a missile streaking toward the ship, but then blow up the fragments before they hit the water. It fires exactly the number of bullets it needs, and then stops.

The Phalanx is a great symbol for the war we just fought--overwhelming force calibrated finely to do the job. As are the depleted-uranium bullets, used because they're heavier than lead, so pack more punch. You have to admire a technology so advanced that lead isn't heavy enough. Or I do, anyway.

JWR contributor Neil Steinberg is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times. His latest book is Don't Give Up the Ship: Finding My Father While Lost at Sea . Comment by clicking here.

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