Reporter's Notebook: Bush's Trip to Iraq and Afghanistan

The symbolism of Bush's last trip to Iraq is marred by shoe-throwing incident.

December 15, 2008, 7:38 PM

Dec. 16, 2008— -- At about 7 p.m., I arrived at a darkened gate at Andrews Air Force Base. After showing my press pass, I continued on to a parked SUV surrounded by several security agents.

There, I was asked to give over anything electronic -- which for me meant my entire backpack. No communications devices were allowed, since it might give away an inkling of our secret trip. I had already been allowed to tell only my wife, and only about the trip to Iraq. I was not allowed to mention the subsequent stops in Afghanistan.

Feeling naked without a phone or blackberry -- but at the same time blissfully aware that no one could contact me to ask me any questions or do anything -- we gathered in a parking lot, went through security checks and proceeded to the hangar.

Inside the hangar, Air Force One -- looking immense and more imposing than when parked out on the tarmac -- gleamed under the hangar lights. It was so spotless I could see my reflection in the aluminum as I walked alongside the fuselage.

We were a group of four: ABC's Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent Martha Raddatz, ace camerawoman Melissa Young, expert sound technician Steve Joya and myself as producer.

Representing the only television journalists on the trip, we were responsible for reporting editorial information and distributing videotape to all the U.S. television networks.

We boarded, found our seats, and settled in for what we knew would be a long 48 hours. The president arrived at Andrews Air Force Base at about 9 p.m. and stopped by the press cabin, jokingly commenting "what a weak group." He was relaxed, wearing a black baseball cap with "43" on it (representing his term as the 43rd president of the U.S.).

At about 9:20 p.m., the aircraft began moving out of the hangar. Because we were flying "dark," the shades were required to be shut. We took off at about 9:30 p.m. on our way to Baghdad. One briefing, two meals and several bad movies later, we landed in Baghdad, marking Bush's fourth and final trip to the country of his presidency.

It was about 4:00 p.m. when we landed at Baghdad airport, where Bush was met by Amb. Ryan Crocker and Gen. Raymond Odierno. We quickly got on board a Chinook helicopter to fly to the residence palace of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, flying low and fast across Baghdad. We originally thought we would be going to the International Zone -- commonly known as the Green Zone -- but instead, we were headed to Talabani's palace, which is in the so-called "Red Zone." This would be Bush's first time in Iraq when he wasn't on a military base or in the Green Zone, a sign of how much progress has been made in the security arena.

There was a welcoming ceremony with an honor guard, and a band played the American national anthem, (I believe this is the first time any such ceremony has taken place). The president met with Talabani and we covered a couple of photo ops, following the crush of Iraqi press around, never really knowing which room you are supposed to go to next, not wanting to carry all your gear around any more than you have to, but also not wanting to miss any video opportunities.

During the presidents' meeting, we remained in a holding room, filing stories, trying to work out logistics on the ground, such as getting tapes out to our Baghdad bureau, which we couldn't warn ahead of time, for security reasons. Presidential trips are complicated because of security considerations.

Trips with the U.S. president to countries with little infrastructure are more complicated. And trips with the president to countries with little infrastructure, where you are not allowed to tell your colleagues on the ground you are coming, are extremely complicated.

Just trying to get a mobile phone connection to go through can be challenging, especially if one is stuck in some interior room of a palace with thick walls. Internet service that was supposed to be provided on this trip was, for the most part, not working.

Following the meeting, Bush and Talabani gave a joint statement with a key photo opportunity -- Bush, Talabani and the two Iraqi vice presidents all link hands, symbolizing a true partnership.

From the palace, we motorcaded through the Karrada neighborhood of Baghdad into the Green Zone, to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's residence, where he and Bush met. Quick photo op at the beginning of the meeting and then we set up for the ceremony where they each gave a statement and signed the documents representing the ceremonial conclusion of the Strategic Framework Agreement and the Status of Forces Agreement, both outlining the future of the Iraqi-U.S. relationship, including the withdrawal of U.S. forces by the end of 2011.

This was the culmination of what has been a very divisive war -- based on false intelligence -- that has defined much of the Bush presidency.

After their statements, as Bush and the Iraqi prime minister were shaking hands, a shoe suddenly flew right toward Bush's head. He ducked. Then another shoe, and the thrower was immediately manhandled to the floor, screaming as security agents pinned him down and dragged him out of the room, knocking over some equipment in the process. It happened so fast, it was surreal. The president took it all in calmly and remained at the podium. However, White House press secretary Dana Perino suffered a bruised eye in the melee.

After the commotion had died down, Bush joked about it, saying the shoe was a "size 10" and then later saying it was part of democracy, the same as "going to a political rally and having people yell at you ... like driving down the street and have people not gesturing with all five fingers."

We left the palace and took a short helicopter ride to Camp Victory, where Bush spoke to more than 1,000 troops in the main palace that is the headquarters for American commanders. He gave a rousing speech and it was clear that servicemen appreciated hearing from their commander in chief. I can imagine that, apart from returning home to loved ones, there is not much that is more inspiring to them.

A return to Air Force One at about 11:30 p.m. in Baghdad reminded me once again of the security involved. The plane was shrouded in darkness on the tarmac and it was hard to see going up the stairway. Once we got inside, the shades were drawn and all but one or two dim blue lights were off. Getting settled in our seats without running into anything was difficult.

It seemed only a minute had gone by since we had boarded that we heard the engines rev. We were on our way to Afghanistan while the rest of the world believed we were returning to Washington.

While some of us were looking forward to some sleep, the president had other ideas. He called us into the conference room, where he spoke and took questions for about 25 minutes. It is indeed a unique experience to be in such close quarters with the most powerful man in the world in his conference room on a plane that symbolizes both strength and purpose of the country.

Bush was casually dressed, in a gray t-shirt with a blue Air Force One jacket over it, blue nylon sweat pants and navy blue crocs -- or maybe they were fake crocs. The president wearing crocs? Who knew?

The flight to Afghanistan was four and a half hours. It probably would have been shorter but we had to do a hook north and west to go around Iran. I don't suppose the Iran government would approve a request to fly over their airspace. Descending into Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, we were again flying "dark." No lights on outside (I suspect) and none on inside. This was considered a far more dangerous journey than the one into Iraq.

We arrived at 5:30 a.m. local time (Afghanistan is nine and a half hours ahead of eastern time -- what's with the "half"?) to a cold, gray morning, but the spirits of the 1,000 or so troops who were inside the hangar to hear the president speak were not dampened. Bush got an enthusiastic response to his speech, and then took time to shake hands with some of the troops.

We boarded Chinook helicopters for another hop -- this time to Kabul. As we flew, the pre-dawn gray revealed a rugged landscape as we flew by impressive mountains and high deserts dotted with villages. Small houses appeared to be constructed of mud and clay. It was clear this is a poor country and that it will take years, if not decades, to develop.

Bush went somewhere else.

We arrived at the palace of President Karzai, who welcomed Bush with an honor guard. A chaotic group of White House and local Afghan press headed for Karzai's office for a quick photo op and then waited for their joint press conference. No major news in the press conference, but Bush reaffirmed the importance of the U.S.-Afghan relationship and the ongoing war against extremists.

One Afghan journalist asked Bush a pointed question about the lack of progress being made in Afghanistan, asserting that the Taliban were "laughing" just over the Pakistani border. It seemed to me some progress was being made just by the fact of having a journalist ask a direct, pointed question of a public official.

Later, Bush received a medal from Karzai -- the Ghazi Amir Amanullah Khan insignia for his efforts helping Afghanistan rebuild and fight drugs. More often than not, Bush has been the one giving out a medal and it was unusual watching someone else pin one on him.

We had one final helicopter ride back to Bagram. Bush took photographs with Special Forces members, while reporters filed their final stories. We then boarded Air Force One for the final flight back to Washington, with a stop in the U.K. for refueling. Flight time: 16 hours.

Fun facts:

Total elapsed time: 43 hours

Number of meals on the ground: 0

Time in a real bed: 0

Time in a shower: 0

Ratio of time in the air to time on the ground: 2.4

Number of bad "shoe" jokes: countless

ABC News' Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent Martha Raddatz contributed to this report.

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