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Battleship: For presidents, a game of making an impression

USS Abraham Lincoln is seen on station February 3, 2005 near Banda Aceh, Sumamtra, Indonesia.

As a culture, we're kind of a little bit obsessed with big navy ships. They're in, like, a million movies. Cher sang on one for a music video. We play basketball games on them now.

But you know who's the most obsessed? Politicians.

Candidate Mitt Romney announced Paul Ryan as his V.P. running mate in front of the USS Wisconsin. President Obama gave a veteran-supportive speech on the USS Vinson. President George W. Bush announced the end of combat operations on the USS Abraham Lincoln. And President Obama will go to the USS Lincoln in Hampton Roads, Va., Tuesday to talk about the sequester problem.

The basic reason is because aircraft carriers are awesome, and politicians want to be awesome, too.

"It's like a spacecraft but here on earth," says Sean Bercaw. He's both a ship captain and a former naval officer who teaches nautical science. "Their scale, their magnitude, is humongous. It's hard for us to get our brain around."

And by extension, politicians want that sense of presence.

"Aircraft carriers are a symbol of American power and strength," points out David Gergen, longtime political advisor to several presidents and who now directs Harvard Kennedy School's Center for Public Leadership.

"You wrap yourself in the flag and title of commander-in-chief," he says. "There's a certain totem aspect to these carriers."

Gergen says the tradition goes back to President Ronald Reagan and perhaps before; "the last three presidents have turned to aircraft carriers as props."

Sean Bercaw says the use of battleships as a form of messaging goes even further back. "One of the more famous platforms was at the end of World War II," he says, "where the Japanese emperor signed their defeat on the battleship Missouri." (That's, incidentally, the same ship that Cher sang on, FYI.)

In terms of marketing value, it's priceless, but it doesn't have to cost all that much. According to the Navy, if they approve you, the Navy won't charge you anything to use its ships in a movie or speech except what it costs to get your equipment on board. That can cost a lot if you have a lot of equipment -- $150,000 to rent a crane, for example. It cost around $3 million to put on the NCAA Carrier Classic games in 2011 and $2 million of that went to getting stuff set up on the ship.

With such scale, Gergen says "there is a risk of grandiosity" for politicians.

Like when George Bush landed on the USS Lincoln and gave a speech with a "Mission Accomplished" banner in the background.

About the author

Sabri Ben-Achour is a reporter for Marketplace, based in the New York City bureau. He covers Wall Street, finance, and anything New York and money related.
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Check your history. The Japanese emperor didn't sign the instrument of surrender on USS Missouri. He had a representative, Mamoru Shigemitsu sign on his behalf.

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