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Bush, As Others Before, Escapes Anti-War Protests
Published on Thursday, September 29, 2005 by Hearst Newspapers
Nixon, Johnson Agonized Over War
by Helen Thomas
How does the president of the United States ignore thousands of Americans who come to Washington with a special anti-war message?
It's easy to do, if you are President George W. Bush. You get out of town.
If you are as insulated as Bush is from the real world, a massive public outcry against your policies simply doesn't register.
Bush was happy to get out of town and track Hurricane Rita last weekend as a way of displaying his new-found interest in the suffering of hundreds of thousands of people in the Gulf area.
He flew to Austin, Texas, and spent the night in San Antonio. He traveled to a command center in Colorado, where he was able to monitor Hurricane Rita while an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 Americans converged on Washington and peacefully demonstrated against the Iraq war. Their protest included a march in front of the White House.
But Bush wasn't home.
This isn't an unusual pattern for presidents. Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon would eagerly escape the White House when protesters against the Vietnam War came to town. Back then, demonstrators were fervently on the march in Washington, day and night, and Johnson and Nixon would often retreat to Camp David, the presidential hideaway near Thurmont, Md., far from the raucous crowd.
It was obvious back then that both Johnson and Nixon had agonized over Vietnam. They were torn between staying the course -- even when they knew it was becoming an unwinnable war -- or making a strategic retreat.
Johnson, in particular, made no attempt to hide his frustration over losing the support of the American public when he felt he was doing the right thing in continuing to prosecute the war.
But Bush gives no sign that he has any second thoughts about the unilateral U.S. attack on Iraq that he launched for stated reasons that turned out to be phony.
Remember, this is the president who doesn't read newspapers and instead relies on his staff to keep him abreast of important news events. I wonder which staffer tells him that public approval ratings for his Iraq policy continue to slide? That must be a tough conversation, as in: "Mr. President, a new Gallup Poll taken Sept. 16-18 shows only 32 percent of the public approves of the war."
White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters Monday, after most of the protesters had departed, that the president was "very much aware" of the protests, and "recognizes there are differences of opinion on Iraq."
"It's the right of the American people to peacefully express their views, and that's what we're seeing here in Washington D.C.," McClellan added.
Asked if the president had communicated with any of the dissenters, it would have been refreshing if McClellan had been candid and said something like, "That will be the day!"
Instead, he went into his familiar spin about how Iraq is a key part of establishing a foundation for lasting peace and security in the Middle East and that the U.S. is spreading freedom and democracy.
The anti-war demonstrators came from all parts of the country, young and old. Many carried signs accusing Bush of being a liar and traitor.
Some 370 protesters were arrested Monday by the U.S. Park Police and charged with a misdemeanor that carried a $50 fine. Among them was Cindy Sheehan, whose son Casey died last year in Iraq. Sheehan conducted a sit-in protest outside Bush's ranch at Crawford, Texas, in August.
Their crime? They sat on a curb in front of the White House when they were supposed to keep moving.
As they waited to be booked, the protesters sang anti-war songs. Among them were priests and nuns, veterans groups, and a group of women who call themselves "Code Pink" and wear pink dresses.
For many of the protesters it was deja vu, a reminder of the Vietnam marches in the past. Some of the grunts refer to Iraq as "Vietnam with sand."
While others see the parallel, the Bush administration doesn't. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in particular, insists that the Iraq quagmire is different from the Vietnam quagmire.
Ronald Clarke, who came from Juneau, Alaska, to protest the war, said the demonstrators may not have made a "dent" on the White House, but he hopes their efforts "will galvanize the public" to take a stand against the war.