‘Mission Accomplished’ and the Meme Presidency

Donald Trump used an infamous phrase to describe U.S. military action in Syria, the latest in the president’s tradition of remixing and amplifying messages from his predecessors.

Larry Downing

Everyone remembers the banner. It was huge, for one thing—those gigantic soft-brush stars and stripes, the big letters shouting: “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED.” It was also a huge mistake.

What’s faded, 15 years since George W. Bush stood beneath that infamous sign on May 1, 2003, is that the political theater that took place on an aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean was as meticulously planned as it was audacious—a fact that’s almost impossible to imagine in today’s impulsive presidency. Hours after ordering air strikes against government targets in Syria, the current president casually tweeted: “Mission accomplished!”

But in the spring of 2003, every detail was choreographed. President Bush landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln in a fighter jet, then emerged wearing a green flight suit. Bush’s speech was timed for the golden hour, with the idea that the waning sunlight would cast a pleasing glow on the president as he spoke. Even the Navy crew members who gathered on the deck wore color-coordinated shirts, and were perfectly positioned so they’d appear in a single television shot with the words “Mission Accomplished” over Bush’s right shoulder, media strategists pointed out at the time.

This attention to detail was typical in the Bush White House. The 43rd president had a team of special producers who were obsessed with how the president’s message might be amplified on television. “I sort of use the rule of thumb, if the sound were turned down on the television when you are just passing by, you should be able to look at the TV and tell what the president’s message is,” Scott Sforza, who staged Bush’s presidential events, told Martha Joynt Kumar in an interview for her book, Managing the President’s Message. “You should be able to get the president’s message in a snapshot, in most cases.”

That’s why Sforza and his team so frequently had banners appear behind Bush at presidential appearances. In 2002, a backdrop wallpapered with the phrase “protecting the homeland” was used when Bush gave a speech about homeland security in Kansas City. In 2003, just a week before Bush’s infamous aircraft-carrier speech, he spoke about the economy in Canton, Ohio, in front of a giant sign that said “JOBS AND GROWTH”—in the exact style of the “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED” banner.

Bush’s team believed that short bursts of text were crucial to conveying the president’s message—and these messages clearly resonated with people. Fifteen years later, the president of the United States doesn’t need to print banners for this purpose: He has Twitter.

Which is perhaps why it seems fitting that Twitter is where President Donald Trump declared “Mission Accomplished!” on Saturday morning, despite Trump’s well-known affection for television. “A perfectly executed strike last night,” Trump wrote, referring to the strikes he ordered on government targets in Syria. “Thank you to France and the United Kingdom for their wisdom and the power of their fine Military. Could not have had a better result. Mission Accomplished!”

One remarkable response came from Ari Fleischer, who served as the White House press secretary for Bush from 2001 to 2003: “Um … I would have recommended ending this tweet with not those two words,” Fleischer tweeted.

It’s possible that Trump meant to be provocative—he has demonstrated a masterful knack for norm-shattering trolling in the past. It’s also possible that he has no sense of irony, or at least no real knowledge of recent American political history, and didn’t realize what he was invoking with the phrase.

Either way, Trump has a preternatural sense for captivating people. And a president who participates in meme culture—knowingly or not—is a president who commands attention at every level.

The political theater that Bush’s team staged for him seems to come effortlessly to Donald Trump. It is an instinct that has been reinforced, no doubt, by his own obsession with television, and one that Trump leverages constantly on Twitter. Incidentally, the power of television is part of what made “mission accomplished” become a meme so quickly. (A “mission accomplished” banner appears repeatedly in the comedy series Arrested Development, for example.) And the internet’s remix culture has sustained it ever since. (There are multiple meme generators that use “mission accomplished” in some way.)

Trump has a record of dabbling in memes outright, too—and not just because some of his closest confidants, like Dan Scavino and Stephen Miller, are steeped in troll culture. Even Trump’s unmistakable red “Make America Great Again” hat could be considered a meme in its own right. The slogan was used by Ronald Reagan, then remixed in wearable form for the Trump moment.  But in the sprawling and context-unraveling universe of memes, “mission accomplished” has always been particularly potent—simply because of how discordant it was with reality from the very beginning. This is the same reason Richard Nixon’s wing-tipped stroll on the beach was a meme of sorts in Nixon’s day. When he was photographed walking in the sand wearing a suit and fancy dress shoes, it wasn’t just awkward—it was totally absurd.

Demonstrators raise a banner that reads “Mission Accomplished?” outside the White House, on the fifth anniversary of U.S. President George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech. (Joshua Roberts / Reuters)

Bush never actually said “mission accomplished” in the remarks he made on the aircraft carrier that day. He was going to, though.

“I took ‘mission accomplished’ out,” Donald Rumsfeld told the journalist Bob Woodward in a 2006 interview, referring to an earlier version of the speech. “I was in Baghdad, and I was given a draft of that thing to look at. And I just died, and I said, ‘My God, it’s too conclusive.’ And I fixed it and sent it back.”

In the speech, Bush put it this way: “Our mission continues. Al-Qaeda is wounded, not destroyed.”

“They fixed the speech,” Rumsfeld told Woodward, “but not the sign.”

Years later, Bush said he regretted the “mission accomplished” moment. “No question it was a mistake,” he said in a television interview in 2010. He wishes he’d gone with “good going” or “great mission” instead, he said.

In the American presidency, however, there are no take backs. That’s always true, but felt especially in times of war, and in an age where wars themselves are televised. Television and Twitter create a sense of intimacy between the chief executive and the electorate, a sense that sometimes masks the true distance between them. In fact, the space between the president and the people is dominated by political theater, and it is a theater of the absurd.