The absence of women in the widely circulated photo, critics said, sent the wrong message to the public. They suggested that Bush has little regard for female input when it comes to women's issues. Several Republican members of Congress expressed concern that the event produced a ready-made campaign ad for Democrats.
"Somebody dropped the ball over there," GOP conference chairwoman Deborah Pryce (OH) told Roll Call. "We handed the other party a gift this morning."
White House spokespeople conceded the mistake, placing the blame on logistical issues. Several female members of Congress who signed the bill were in the audience, they say, but including them on stage would have meant excluding some of the bill's primary sponsors, all of whom were men.
Democrats, pro-choice groups, and columnists were quick to seize the opportunity.
"It was disconcerting to see a group of men celebrating a ban on a medical procedure that could save a woman's life," said House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA). "I was saddened to see their smiling faces, that they were celebrating something that was so disrespectful to women."
Media reaction was swift as well. Editorials with headlines such as, "So, these old white men know best?" in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and "Bush grows increasingly distant from women's issues" from the Tallahassee Democrat appeared in papers across the country. Dozens of papers also printed letters to the editor decrying the image.
Perhaps most tellingly, the National Abortion Rights Action League uploaded the picture to the home page of its website almost immediately, and announced plans to use the picture liberally.
"It's an enduring image, and we're going to make sure it's an enduring image. Were going to use it everywhere," said NARAL president Kate Michaelman.
Another NARAL spokesman said the group already has plans to "plaster" the image on placards and fliers for its spring 2004 pro-choice march. "If we had the money, we'd run it on TV from now until the election," he added.
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