An Accident or a Policy?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to
Wednesday, March 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."

I've written a lot about what I call Bush's bubble trips. See my Feb. 8 column, and scroll through some of these.

More on the Stage Show

And where does the White House find all those agreeable, coachable people to appear on stage with Bush?

Warren Vieth profiles one of them in the Los Angeles Times: Leanne Abdnor.

"She is the leader of two groups that are prominent in the Social Security debate: For Our Grandchildren, and Women for a Social Security Choice. Both have advisory boards, individual donors and websites, but no rank-and-file members.

"She appeared on stage with the president three times this month, in Florida, Colorado and Arizona, dispensing facts and figures to buttress Bush's arguments. . . .

"Abdnor is a focal point for critics who say she is part of a pro-privatization coalition financed by wealthy conservatives and business interests who try to create the appearance of broad support without building genuine grass-roots constituencies."

Today: Cedar Rapids

Thomas Beaumont writes in the Des Moines Register: "About a thousand people will see President Bush as he brings his campaign to fix Social Security to Iowa today -- including one person in Congress who can make or break his plan.

"Standing alongside the president in Cedar Rapids at noon will be Sen. Charles Grassley, a five-term Republican whose influence in the Senate over Social Security is unmatched. The Iowa Republican has been pessimistic about the chances in Congress for the issue, calling it a 'tough row to hoe.' "

The WMD Commission

Walter Pincus and Peter Baker write in The Washington Post: "A presidential commission assigned to look into the intelligence failures leading up to the Iraq war will recommend a series of changes intended to encourage more dissent within the nation's spy agencies and better organize the government's multi-tentacled fight against terrorism, officials said yesterday. . . .

"White House press secretary Scott McClellan praised the report as 'a very thorough job' and suggested that Bush would adopt many, though not necessarily all, of its ideas. . . .

"But McClellan offered no second thoughts about the Iraq war despite the intelligence failures documented in the commission report."

David E. Sanger and David Johnston write in the New York Times: "President Bush plans to announce Thursday that the administration will accept many of the recommendations of a commission examining American intelligence failures in detecting illicit weapons abroad, a step that may roil the American intelligence agencies just as they are reorganizing under new legislation, according to senior White House officials. . . .

"With some relief, administration officials said the report had also found no evidence that political pressure from the White House or Pentagon contributed to the mistaken intelligence."

Katherine Shrader writes for the Associated Press, and quotes Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) a commission member, as saying the panel reached nearly unanimous conclusions.

"We argue over certain points, but there has never been any major disputes," he said. "A lot of times it's wording, and what words mean. We've had a remarkably congenial commission."

Jonathan S. Landay and John Walcott write for Knight Ridder Newspapers: "A presidential commission that's investigating U.S. intelligence failures in Iraq has concluded that many of the same weaknesses that plagued American efforts to investigate Saddam Hussein's regime are preventing the United States from collecting accurate intelligence on Iran's and North Korea's nuclear programs. . . .

"In North Korea and Iran, as they did in Iraq, officials also have extrapolated from older, confirmed information to make estimates about current nuclear and other weapons programs, said current and former officials who are familiar with drafts of the commission's top-secret report."

Bush was briefed on the report yesterday and will meet with the panel's co-chairmen at the White House tomorrow, then take part in a briefing for reporters.

The Approval Conundrum

Linda Feldmann writes in the Christian Science Monitor: "If President Bush wants to lay blame for his slumping public support on immediate events, he has plenty of targets.

"There's his brief intervention into the Terri Schiavo case, which a majority of Americans fault. There's his inability thus far to make serious headway on Social Security reform, his top second-term priority. And there's the economy, starting with rising gas and fuel prices and worries over inflation. . . .

"Ultimately, though, it may just be that successful second terms for American presidents are historically difficult to pull off, and Bush is now bumping into that perception head on."

Bill Sammon writes in the Washington Times: "President Bush, whose approval ratings are at a new low, yesterday sought to remind Americans of his successes by predicting that Iraq will soon have a new government and dispatching his wife to Afghanistan."

Freedom Watch

VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush said yesterday that Iraq is on the verge of creating a diverse government that respects the country's deep religious and ethnic divisions, despite the turmoil and delays. . . .

"At a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden, Bush surrounded himself with Iraqis who voted in the January elections to proclaim the second official meeting of the fledgling Iraqi parliament yesterday as evidence that 'freedom is on the march.' He did not specifically discuss the bitter disputes between Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish factions that surfaced at yesterday's meeting, which are complicating efforts to choose a speaker and get the new government up and running."

Paul Richter writes in the Los Angeles Times: "Bush's remarks appeared crafted to calm fears that the process may be heading toward an impasse, but also to gently prod the Iraqi officials to reach a compromise."

Here's the text of Bush's remarks in the Rose Garden.

The First Lady's Trip

Abigail Tucker writes in the Baltimore Sun: "When Laura Bush set out for Afghanistan yesterday, it was a wonder she didn't borrow her husband's now infamous flight suit.

"En route to a war-torn nation the president himself has not yet visited, Laura Bush unleashed opinions on subjects she is apparently passionate about. On the tarmac of Maryland's Andrews Air Force Base, she declared solidarity with Afghan women and stressed the importance of educating them. On board, she defended how the government intervened in the Terri Schiavo case.

"Having previously fired the White House chef, given herself a sophisticated Seventh Avenue makeover and announced she's taking on the nation's gangs too, observers can only wonder:

"Where is the demure, first-term first lady of the downcast eyes, who charmed the world with a Mona Lisa smile but rarely opened her mouth?"

Julie Mason writes in the Houston Chronicle: "After secret planning by the White House, first lady Laura Bush on Tuesday embarked on a brief, wish-fulfilling trip to Afghanistan to highlight education and women's rights, meet with its president and dine with American troops.

"The journey, which will allow her just five hours in the country, is something the first lady has been saying she wanted to do for at least two years."

Ken Herman writes for Cox News Service: "The surprise trip, not announced until it began, also is intended to have a positive effect for relations with the United States. Mrs. Bush, recalling previous discussions with Afghan women who had stayed with American families, talked about an opportunity to display a generosity of spirit she fears is not America's image around the world."

Here's all the latest from the Associated Press and Reuters.

Living Wills

Anne E. Kornblut writes in the New York Times: "Laura Bush said on Tuesday that she and her husband have living wills that would guide medical decisions if either of them became incapacitated like the Florida woman whose case has dominated public debate for weeks. . . .

"Susan Whitson, a spokeswoman for Mrs. Bush, declined to elaborate on what directives are in the Bushes' living wills. Many include 'do not resuscitate' orders in cases where the patient has no hope of recovery or requires extensive medical assistance to stay alive."

Social Security Watch

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum writes in The Washington Post that the AARP and its chief executive, William D. Novelli, are working hard to keep the White House on the ropes.

"Yet behind the scenes, Novelli and his staff have been consulting with Bush aides Karl Rove and Allan Hubbard about finding common ground, and talking with congressional leaders of both parties."

Begging to Differ

James L. Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, has a letter to the editor in The Washington Post today: "Contrary to the March 21 editorial 'Environmental Impasse,' President Bush has demonstrated leadership on improving the environment," he writes.

Question of the Day

From the briefing:

"Q On the U.N., would this administration favor Bill Clinton becoming U.N. Secretary General?"

(McClellan wouldn't say.)

Gannon/Guckert Watch

The blogosphere continues to go bananas over the National Press Club's invitation to "Jeff Gannon" to appear on a panel about journalism and blogging. About the only truly work-safe link I can provide is to the fascinating debate among the "mainstream media" types on the Romenesko Letters page.

Dear Mary Tells All

David D. Kirkpatrick and Edward Wyatt write in the New York Times: "Mary Cheney, the daughter and campaign manager of Vice President Dick Cheney whose identity as a lesbian became an issue in the presidential campaign, has sold the rights to a memoir to Simon & Schuster for an advance of about $1 million, according to two people involved in the negotiations. . . .

"People familiar with the proposal said Ms. Cheney promised fly-on-the-wall accounts of her father's campaigns and a portrait of the vice president different from his public persona."

Richard Leiby writes in The Washington Post: "Though finally unmuzzled, Cheney isn't likely to stray off the GOP message: Her book, after all, is the first offering from Republican strategist Mary Matalin's new Simon & Schuster publishing imprint."

Medal of Honor

Eric Schmitt writes in the New York Times: "Sgt. First Class Paul R. Smith, killed nearly two years ago defending his vastly outnumbered Army unit in a fierce battle with elite Iraqi troops for control of Baghdad's airport, will receive the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military award, administration officials said Tuesday. . . .

"President Bush will present the award to Sergeant Smith's widow and children at a White House ceremony on Monday, the second anniversary of the airport battle and the soldier's death."

Late Night Humor

Via the Frontrunner:

Jay Leno: "In political news, President Bush's approval rating, all-time low, 45%. 45%. That's below 'F.' Bush is now doing worse as President than he did in high school. . . . Well, President Bush -- hey, he's very concerned about it. He said, 'If this keeps up, I'll never get elected to a third term.' "

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