An Accident or a Policy?
- By Dan Froomkin
An Accident or a Policy?
Wednesday, Mar 30, 2005; 12:33 PM
It is flatly un-American for people to be hauled out of a public event with the president of the United States because of, say, a political bumper sticker on their car.
But is it too much to ask the White House to say so?
The latest incident of audience screening at President Bush's public events is making quite a splash in the media today. Three people at a Bush event in Denver last week were told by a man dressed like a Secret Service agent that they were being ejected because someone spotted a "No Blood for Oil" bumper sticker on their car in the parking lot.
Press secretary Scott McClellan, in yesterday's press briefing, was asked about the incident.
But rather than express any condemnation -- or remorse -- McClellan chose to make an assertion that is not supported by the facts: "We welcome a diversity of views at the events," he said.
In reality, ticket distribution at Bush's Social Security events has been almost exclusively controlled by Republican officials, the audiences are sometimes stocked with supporters bused in by conservative groups, and I don't believe a single one of the carefully groomed panelists on stage has ever said anything remotely critical of the president or his deeply unpopular Social Security proposals.
Asked if he was concerned that the president is not hearing a lot of different viewpoints in these conversations, McClellan then made this bizarre assertion: "I think the President hears a lot of different viewpoints every day, when we follow the news. I mean, there's plenty of viewpoints being expressed on this issue."
But there's a difference between Bush ostensibly reading about dissent and hearing it himself -- not to mention responding to it in public -- not to mention banning people who don't agree with him from public events.
The White House calls these events "conversations." Typically, in conversations, the value comes from genuine back and forth. Certainly, the public would benefit from hearing Bush respond to criticism of his Social Security proposals.
But McClellan also made it clear that the true purpose of Bush's events is not to get a lot of backtalk. "Obviously, the conversations that the President is participating in are designed to educate the American people about the problems facing our Social Security system, the problems that are facing it for our children and grandchildren. And so it's part of an educational effort. I think that there's plenty of people out there talking about the other side of the issue, and you see those people talking about it on a daily basis."
Later, McClellan told The Washington Post that it was neither the Secret Service nor a White House aide, but a volunteer who asked the three to leave "out of concern they might try to disrupt the event." The White House also blamed a volunteer for a similar incident in North Dakota last month.
But the energetic screening of dissenters has become an established pattern for Bush events. It started during the campaign, when the events were private and paid for with campaign funds. And it continues to this day, even though the events are now paid for with taxpayer funds.
Will Bush truly welcome a diversity of views to his public events from now on?
Not with his aides, on his behalf, defending the status quo.
The Denver Three
Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "Three Denver residents yesterday charged that they were forcibly removed from one of President Bush's town meetings on Social Security because they displayed a bumper sticker on their car condemning the administration's Middle East policies."
Susan Greene writes in the Denver Post: "The U.S. Secret Service is investigating the complaints of three people who say they were ousted from President Bush's event in Denver last week because their bumper sticker criticized his foreign policy. . . .
"The three said they had passed through security and were preparing to take their seats in the crowd of Republican boosters when a man they thought was a Secret Service agent forced them to leave, citing a 'No More Blood for Oil' bumper sticker on the car they drove to the event. . . .
"The Secret Service said Tuesday that it wasn't one of its agents who kicked the three out of the event. Rather, agency spokesman Tom Mazur said, it was a 'staff person for the event sponsor.'
" 'At an event like this, people can be mistaken for Secret Service agents,' Mazur said. 'We'll be looking into this matter.' "
Ann Imse writes in the Rocky Mountain News: "White House spokesman Allen Abney said White House policy is: 'If they come to an event to disrupt an event, they will be asked to leave.'
"He declined to say what action would get a person removed from a presidential appearance. He said there are places outside for protesters, adding 'the president strongly believes in freedom of speech.'
" 'These people are trying to distract from the real issue here, the president trying to talk to the American people about Social Security,' Abney added."
Ron Hutcheson writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "In Fargo, N.D., last month, local Republicans developed a blacklist of more than three dozen residents, including a city commissioner, who were to be banned from Bush's visit.
"White House officials say they have nothing to do with the exclusions, which they blame on overzealous supporters. . . .
"Complaints about tight restrictions at Bush's events have become common. His presidential campaign used tight crowd-control screens last fall, and similar tactics now seem to be employed at official presidential stops, which unlike campaign events are paid for by taxpayers' dollars."
The Daily Kos blog published an e-mail from the three ousted audience members.
Denver Post columnist Jim Spencer today writes that he's been getting the runaround from the White House ever since he first wrote about the incident last week.
"In the past week, two White House spokesmen have told me they don't know the name of a Republican staff member who refused to let three people attend President Bush's March 21 Social Security 'town hall' meeting in Denver."
Spencer concludes: "The White House doesn't know who did this because the White House doesn't care to find out."
In his March 23 column, Spencer wrote: "If that's what it's come down to in America, if a bumper sticker allows the Republican Party to bully you out of seeing the president of the United States, then George Bush and his GOP henchmen are living a lie.
"The president constantly claims freedom as God's gift to everyone. . . .
"But societies that smother dissent are never free."