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A patriot crashes the party
The most patriotic element of George Bush's speech in Norfolk on Friday morning wasn't the flags on the big "Strategy for Victory" sign behind the podium.
It wasn't the backdrop bleachers artfully decorated with warm bodies in military uniforms.
It was the moment early on when a man stood up in Chrysler Hall, yanked open his shirt to expose his "Dump Bush" T-shirt in full view of shocked members of Pat Robertson's Christian Broadcasting Network seated nearby and cried, "War is terrorism! Torture is terrorism!" before he was hustled out by security people.
"That was me," says Tom Palumbo, anti-war activist and, now, presidential party-crasher. "I think maybe he heard me. I know he looked befuddled."
So ... Bush's cone of silence can be cracked.
An "invitation-only," meticulously scripted, rah-rah presidential appearance can be infiltrated by a lone punman who thinks it's that important for our tone-deaf leader to "hear the other side."
How did a noisy peacenik like Palumbo make it past security? Simple, he says: "I had a ticket."
He got it by calling Rep. Thelma Drake's office, which referred him to the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce, which had invited Bush to speak. The chamber gave Palumbo a ticket, no questions asked.
"Why wouldn't they give it to me, let me ask you?" Palumbo says - a fair question in a democracy constitutionally committed to free and vigorous debate at all levels of government.
In a real American democracy, whenever the president speechifies to the public, the doors would be flung open to all citizens.
True, those citizens might be X-rayed and frisked, but they wouldn't be vetted according to their personal or political views first.
But it's not so fair a question in this new age of fear-mongering - an age excruciatingly laid out in Bush's warmed-over speech about how radical Islamism is this generation's Communism, or the Red Scare of the 21st century.
Bush has used this speech several times in the past month, with no sense of irony or appreciation that the Red Scare unbridled also gave us Joe McCarthy, Roy Cohn, the loyalty oath, the blacklist, duck-and-cover, backyard bomb shelters, mass hysteria masquerading as patriotism and civil liberties in a stranglehold.
Certainly terrorism is a threat. So is a pandemic. So is smoking. So is poverty, environmental ravages, federal disaster relief as oxymoron, corporate excesses, indicted White House aides and the public's confidence in its own chief public servant in free fall. These threats, however, got no mention Friday.
Instead, we heard about Osama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Even about Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot. About "facing a radical ideology with unalterable objectives: to enslave whole nations and intimidate the world."
About "exposed and disrupted 'nucular' programs" and "cold-blooded contempt for human life." About the "rage of killers" and "evil men who want to use horrendous weapons against us ... working in deadly earnest to gain them."
Bush also berated tyrants who "seek to end dissent in every form," which brings us back to Palumbo.
After Palumbo exposed his politics in Chrysler Hall, Secret Service agents grabbed him by the arms and shoulders and escorted him outside. He didn't resist. They didn't force the issue.
They turned him over to local police, who asked who he was, what he said and how he got his ticket. He was fully prepared for arrest, but the police saw no need. Before they let him go, they took his picture. "I smiled," Palumbo says, "and gave them the peace sign."
The man is too savvy to believe Bush's speech would have been anything but what it was.
But he insists that if Bush "had said we were bringing the troops home, I wouldn't have said anything. If he'd said, 'We're funding our schools,' I would've stood up and given him a standing O."
Instead, he says, the speech was the same old "fear-based mentality."
"And if we're operating out of fear," Palumbo says, "all we're going to do is shoot into the dark."
Friday was the first time he's breached the white tower. Even if he was thrown out on his activism, he counts it a success.
"Absolutely," Palumbo says. "He's delusional if he believes that the American people support him in this venture. If it takes a citizen like me to stand up ... If we didn't throw teabags off the ship, we'd still be under British rule."
Funny how our George can makes us nostalgic for that George, and wonder if it's too late to get those tea bags back.
Tamara Dietrich can be reached at email@example.com or at 247-7892.