Politics

Out of Sight, Out of Mind

Why the president should come face to face with public criticism

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When President George W. Bush had to duck a pair of shoes thrown at him by an irate Iraqi journalist at a news conference in Baghdad, the depressing part was not just that his administration has managed to alienate many Iraqis. It was also that the president of the United States had to go to Iraq to find himself face to face with anyone who openly rejects his policies.

Here in the land of the free, that is almost unheard of. When Bush ventures into contact with ordinary Americans outside the White House, his aides do their best to keep him from realizing that many of his constituents regard him as a disaster.

It's explicit administration policy, in fact, to keep any expression of discontent from becoming visible to the Great Leader. You don't have to chuck a Rockport to be forcibly exiled from his presence.

Jeffrey and Nicole Rank can attest to that. Four years ago, Bush gave a Fourth of July speech on the grounds of the West Virginia state capitol in Charleston. It was open to the public, and they got tickets to attend. But after being admitted, they took off their outer shirts to display T-shirts with a red circle and a bar over the word "Bush." On the back, Nicole's shirt urged, "Love America, Hate Bush," while her husband's said, "Regime Change Begins at Home."

As soon as these unapproved messages were spotted, workers told them to cover up or leave. Jeffrey Rank said later, "We tried to explain to them that it was well within our right to stand there and wear these T-shirts, just as people around us had the right to wear pro-Bush and Cheney T-shirts." But the cops, showing no interested in inconveniences like freedom of speech, handcuffed and arrested them for trespassing.

This was not an isolated incident. When Bush went to Denver to speak on Social Security at another taxpayer-financed public event, Leslie Weise and Alex Young got their tickets and drove to the museum where Bush would appear. But a Republican operative noticed their car bore a bumper sticker recommending "No More Blood for Oil" and apparently took it as a criticism of Bush.

After they had taken their seats inside, two presidential staffers showed up and unceremoniously escorted them out. Weise and Young say Secret Service agents later told them they were ejected purely because of that bumper sticker.

The American Civil Liberties Union took both of these cases, and during litigation, managed to get a White House document that shows squashing dissent is standard operating procedure. "Proper ticket distribution is vital to creating a well-balanced crowd and deterring potential protesters from attending events," the President Advance Manual says. "Well-balanced" in this context means including not only who like President Bush but people who love him.

No one objects to efforts to avert disruptions that threaten violence or keep the president from speaking. But White House staffers show control-freak tendencies that go beyond assuring security. The manual says that if someone merely displays a sign, "action needs to be taken immediately to minimize the demonstrator's effect."

What effect would that be? Showing that someone disagrees with George W. Bush—an effect that can't be tolerated. That's why Bush critics have to be removed even if they are quiet and non-disruptive.

It's not enough to keep opponents out of his audiences. The manual also calls for keeping all external protests out of sight. It advises advance workers to get "the local police department to designate a protest area where demonstrators can be placed, preferably not in view of the event site or the motorcade route." What kind of country would we be if we made the president endure the spectacle of citizens questioning his infallibility?

The ACLU is challenging these tactics in court, and its already won a victory. The federal government agreed to pay Nicole and Jeff Rank $80,000 for what was done to them, and Charleston city officials apologized.

This comes too late to penetrate the barricades that have surrounded President Bush. But maybe President-elect Barack Obama will take a different approach and accept that occasionally seeing people express dissenting views is just part of the president's job. And not just on visits to Baghdad.

COPYRIGHT 2008 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

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  1. I hadn’t realized that we did all this. It’s absurd. I often suspected Bush was living in a bubble, but this is pretty tsarist.

    And I really worry about Obama encountering enough dissent while he’s president. He’s really too much adored for his own good — and I voted for the man. He has a corps of supporters at change.gov who are going to stay in place throughout his term, I presume drumming up public support for Presidential initiatives. He still has his picture plastered on posters everywhere I turn here in Chicago. He’s Time’s Person of the Year. It’s all very well to adore your favorite candidate during a campaign, but it’s dangerous to adore a sitting president; and that’s a transition I worry not everyone will make. As citizens, we need to be on him like a cheap suit, as my mother would say. Throw a few shoes.

  2. Bush’s reaction was telling – Bush claimed the guy was calling attention to himself for “some reason”. Bush and his non-reality-based friends cannot say something like, “I know many Iraqis are unhappy,” since that would admit that dissent is possible.

    Denying reality requires that everyone deny reality. The moment some kid pipes up that the Emperor is, in fact, naked, the house of cards comes tumbling down.

    Whatever Obama’s faults, he, at least, admits that there are opposing arguments to his policies. I will be glad to see the end of Bush.

  3. the president had to go to Iraq to find himself face to face
    with anyone who openly rejects his policies.

    Hardly. Unless you take “face to face” literally. Bush is one of the most widely criticized presidents in our history. He is attacked in the print media, on television, on the internet, on the stage, on billboards and barn roofs. Everyone knows that his public events are carefully controlled set pieces. The audiences are actors in the farce. Wearing a T-shirt to a partisan rally is both childish and ineffectual. Not that they should not have a right to do so. But to claim that Bush has remained uncriticized at home and abroad is silly.

  4. Henceforth that should be the default reaction anytime W dares to show his face in public he should be facing a hail of shoes.

  5. Ed, that’s exactly the opposite of the point. Bush is widely criticized, of course. But, because his public events are choreographed set pieces, and because he doesn’t read his bad press, he can cocoon himself pretty well from the knowledge that he’s unpopular. I’m sure he’s perfectly well aware of what the world thinks, but he can always retreat to a dissent-free zone — and, worse luck for us, make executive decisions from the comfort of that zone. And this is a good thing?

  6. This is the same guy who thought 51% of the vote was a mandate for a sitting president in wartime. I doubt his listening to criticism would have improved his perspective anymore than someone chucking a Thom McCann store at him would have.

    But yes, the president deserve security, not a shell.

  7. Who really wrote this article, and what have you done with Steve Chapman?
    (not that I care, or want him back)

  8. As much as I’d love to…I don’t think I have the BALLS to throw a Shoe at the guy.

  9. he can always retreat to a dissent-free zone

    Yes he can. It’s called the White House. That’s where all the presidents retreat to. Making “executive decisions from the comfort of that zone” is what they do. But to say he is impervious to criticism is unfounded. He knows perfectly well what the world thinks of him and his presidency. And he’s apparently quite confident that he has done the right thing. No amount of public abuse can or did change his mind. Might a daily barrage of shoes have altered history? I doubt it.

    And you may as well get used to it. Obama conducted his campaign in the same manner. He’s not about to run the gantlet once he assumes power, especially when his approval ratings begin to plunge, as they inevitably will.

    If America wants a televised flogging of the presidency, they’ll have to settle for the third-rate “comedy” of Saturday Night Live, or the endless video-loop of Shoegate.

  10. You fuckers are too stupid to know what’s best for you.

    History wil adore me, so you can all go fuck yourselves.

  11. Really, who could disagree with the great Obama?

    Reason, you’re just being silly.

    I hope on his first day he gets rid of two really bad laws: Supply and Demand AND Gravity.

  12. “If America wants a televised flogging of the presidency…”

    Hell, no.

    I want to see it live.

    With a bullwhip.

  13. WAR CRIMES!
    I want to see a wall decorated with the innards of Bush’s skull.

  14. ed: You’re missing the point. And the point is that literally critizing the president to his face makes criticism, shall we say, more concrete. You have said that Bush isn’t impervious to criticism, yet I recall that he couldn’t name a single mistake his administration had made.

    So to address your first post, I think “face to face” should be taken literally. Otherwise, the story makes little sense.

  15. Wearing a T-shirt to a partisan rally is both childish and ineffectual.

    The event was taxpayer-financed. The whole point is that it was not supposed to be a partisan rally.

  16. To eliminate any thought that The Obama would quash display of dissent, his posse will emplace strategic, suitably pathetic ‘opponents’ to prove his ‘all embracing-ness’ and ‘equal-nimity’.

    Meet the new boss…

  17. Which staffers thought it was a good idea to insulate the president from dissent? Did they think this would lead to better decision-making? One of the few things the Brits got right is making the Prime Minister appear before Parliament and handle tough questions.

  18. To eliminate any thought that The Obama would quash display of dissent, his posse will emplace strategic, suitably pathetic ‘opponents’ to prove his ‘all embracing-ness’ and ‘equal-nimity’.

    I couldn’t agree more. Joe the Plumber is “pathetic.”

  19. Subjecting presidents to UK-style Question Time? Oh, if only.

  20. Call me crazy, but I think that the cops should need a better reason to eject you from a public assembly than “We saw a bumper sticker critical of the Dear Leader.”

  21. If one wants their protest to be effective, one should protest to the true power in this administration: Dick Cheney.

  22. Subjecting presidents to UK-style Question Time? Oh, if only.

    Yeah, it’s done a helluva job of keeping the UK liberal and free. *rolls eyes*

  23. If you love Bush so much, ed, why don’t you marry him?

    When Laura gets sick of spending her time ducking shoes aimed at her husband and bails, you might get the chance.

    I hope he enjoys life without his royal entourage, because unless he pulls a Howard Hughes, an endless avalanche of shoes and rotten fruit and eggs and pies – and an endless symphony of hisses, catcalls, and curses in multiple languages – are this guy’s lot every time he appears in public for the rest of his life. And he’s got it coming.

  24. of course, why did i not think to write this article? such a perfect premise to push links and hits from the puffington windbag et al.

    my anecdote is better than your conjecture! what a non-sense article.

  25. Fluffy: And worse – he’s young (for an ex-president) and from a long-lived family. He could be an enormously unpopular ex-president for thirty years.

  26. the depressing part was not just that his administration has managed to alienate many Iraqis. It was also that the president had to go to Iraq to find himself face to face with anyone who openly rejects his policies.

    Oh, come on – the truly “depressing part” was that the shoe thrower missed. 😉

  27. chancelikely | December 25, 2008, 10:04pm | #

    Fluffy: And worse – he’s young (for an ex-president) and from a long-lived family. He could be an enormously unpopular ex-president for thirty years.

    Could be, or he could be wildly popular with a large portion of the population clamoring for his return.

    Hard to tell really what the future holds, or what the fickle public will believe.

    How will Obamas presidency be?
    Even a worshipping press can cover up only so much.
    Will there be another terrorist attack on US Soil?

    Really there is a lot of variables here.

    If Obama kicks ass in the things he controlls, and is prevented from doing any damage in the economy by a republican congress, Bush may well be reviled. Or he may just be forgotten.

  28. Isn’t the world going to end in 2012? So it might all mostly be a moot point i guess.

  29. One of the few things the Brits got right is making the Prime Minister appear before Parliament and handle tough questions.

    That’s some of the most entertaining television I’ve ever seen. I do wish there was at least one libertarian in the British Parliament, though. It’s kind of depressing how much of the questioning is “why didn’t you hand out tax money with greater dispatch, prime minister?”

    -jcr

  30. One of the few things the Brits got right is making the Prime Minister appear before Parliament and handle tough questions.

    It’s worth remembering that this is due to the fact that the PM is, in fact, just another member of Parliament.

    But you are right, Questions to the Prime Minister is a time when the lowest backbencher can theoretically confront the PM with an issue. But it still doesn’t get at whether the leader is aware of the public feeling toward him.

    And for all that it looks like a free-for-all the questions are screened and subject to a myriad of House rules. It is to the Brit pols credit that as many embarassing question get through the vetting process.

  31. Bush’s avoidance of hostile crowds is the rule, not the exception.

  32. “Bush’s avoidance of hostile crowds is the rule, not the exception.”

    C’mon, ed. You could at least pretend to say something relevant. Just to clear things up, what exactly do you think the point of this article is? Is it that Bush isn’t impervious to criticism, or that everybody avoids “hostile” crowds (nevermind that we’re talking about t-shirt wearing, not hostility). Am I wrong to assume that you have a point? Maybe that’s my mistake.

  33. I wouldn’t think this is just a freedom of speech issue. What about the redhaired stepchild of the 1st amendment protections, the right of the people to petition the government for a redress of grievances? While you or I could avoid speakers without violating their freedom of speech, government officials who avoid citizens with grievances ARE violating their 1st amendment right to petition.

  34. In ed’s defense, Bush was forced to listen to Stephen Colbert rip him to shreds at the 2005 White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Though it’s quite possible Bush was unable to understand the irony.

  35. The reason it could only happen in Iraq is that if someone did that in the US, they would end up detained as an enemy combatant in Gitmo.

  36. W has merely continued a long-standing tradition of presidents avoiding hostile crowds; except with him we find older and worse ways of criticizing him for normal presidential behavior. I doubt that the Obamessiah will willingly be put before a hostile crowd. Even then, for the few moments of “disobedience” that should happen to spoil his staff’s best efforts in the next 4/8 years, accusations of racism will quickly squash any unbelievers. Bush could only dream of using such a tool.

  37. The man’s presidency has been the prototypical Greek drama – equal parts comedy and tragedy. At this point, nothing should surprise anyone not a “shoeecide” attack or even the complete oblivion in which the dude operates.

  38. I predict all future gatherings of people around the President, any President, will be bare foot.

    Problem solved?

  39. Am I wrong to assume that you have a point? Maybe that’s my mistake.

    Your “mistake” is your inability to understand simple English, Lamar.

  40. Bush was forced to listen to Stephen Colbert rip him to shreds at the 2005 White House Correspondents’ Dinner

    I suffered through the whole harangue myself, and thought Bush came through it less embarrassed than Colbert. The comedian appears less than brilliant when not before an adoring crowd of sycophants. But that’s true of any entertainer or politician, isn’t it?

  41. It was also that the president had to go to Iraq to find himself face to face with anyone who openly rejects his policies.

    Yet another brilliant observation by Steve Chapman who, apparently, never met Cindy Sheehan.

  42. Yet another brilliant observation by Steve Chapman who, apparently, never met Cindy Sheehan

    Or the mainstream press. Or the blogosphere. Or MSNBC. Or my dog.*

    *I don’t actually own a dog, but his inclusion cemented my quip.

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