April 8th, 2006

Brad @ Burning Man

I Think I Was Talking about This Very Image

For the first time since Coretta Scott King's funeral, somebody got away with criticizing Bush's conduct of the "war on terror" to his face without the Secret Service hauling him off to some designated "free speech zone" several blocks away. That was because, for the first time in ages, it wasn't the Republican Party that organized the event (and vetted the guest list), but a local nonpartisan (?) group called the World Affairs Council of Charlotte (North Carolina) which did so, and which gave a guy named Harry Taylor a ticket to attend the event. It's something that the Secret Service would never have permitted if they'd had control over, or even access to, the guest list, because Harry Taylor's got a history of protesting outside events that Bush has appeared at, and at the moment our sometimes-all-too-aptly-acronymed Secret Service considers it an unacceptable assassination or terrorism threat to let someone who disagrees with the President be in the same room.

Because he got away with something that tens of millions of people would like to do, Harry Taylor has become something of a liberal celebrity, with his own enthusiastic fan club. Me, I think he did barely OK. Frankly, I think he let himself run on way too long. Bush wisely gave him enough rope to hang himself with, and I think that Taylor would have come off to most Americans, even those who are nervous about the "war on terror" themselves, as at best rude and at worst stone cold paranoid. He also gave Bush a perfect opening to dismiss what he'd said, politely and while sounding sane and reasonable. At the very top of the things that Taylor said made him "frightened by my leadership in Washington, including the President" was that, "while I listen to you talk about freedom, I see you assert your right to tap my telephone." Which gave Bush an opportunity to answer with a speechlet that he's given so many times that even he has it polished down to utter perfection.

First, he responded with a near-smirk, right on the ragged edge between politeness and a snub, by emphasizing the word "your" when he paraphrased the question back, saying "you said that I tap your phones." The meat of his answer was, "Out of [the] NSA came the recommendation that it would make sense for us to listen to a call outside the country, inside the country from al Qaeda or suspected al Qaeda in order to have real-time information from which to possibly prevent an attack. I thought that made sense, so long as it was constitutional. Now, you may not agree with the constitutional assessment given to me by lawyers — and we’ve got plenty of them in Washington — but they made this assessment that it was constitutional for me to make that decision." In other words, if your name isn't on the al Qaeda phone lists we seized in Kandahar, you should take our word for it that it's not you we were listening to, and nobody is going to stop me in wartime from eavesdropping on them whether it's technically legal or not, and unsurprisingly (in an almost entirely pro-Bush audience) he got a long ovation for that answer. There are an awful lot of people in both parties who want the government to be eavesdropping on al Qaeda members, operatives, financiers, and supporters whether it's legal or not. I'm not one of them; I think it's a waste of time and effort that ought to be spent on rooting Osama bin Laden out of western Pakistan. But the vast majority of political opinion on this topic, informed or otherwise, now mostly only spans the gap from "he should have done it differently" to "he should have done what he did."

But one of the most odd coincidences in the way this came off was that the cameras filming the event were in exactly the right position to frame Harry Taylor, and the audience around him, in almost exactly the same poses and so forth as one of Norman Rockwell's most famous paintings, "Freedom of Speech" from his "The Four Freedoms" series. I'm borrowing the images from a Columbia Law School student blogger, Sauntering, because he got them scaled exactly right:



And Harry Taylor, like that painting, does represent exactly what's right with America. It frankly helps Bush, I think, for even his opponents to see that one guy can stand up, in the middle of a crowd of people unlike himself, and express a different opinion than that of nearly everybody there ... and still be entitled to be listened to respectfully. In fact, it's something the crowd was disinclined to give him, a respectful listening ... it was Bush that insisted that they do so, who shushed them when they booed and who stopped them from interrupting and who encouraged Harry Taylor to finish his speech. Which, in all honestly, probably did more to reassure people that it's not time to fear the government, that Harry Taylor was wrong to do so, than anything that Bush actually said in his reply.