One of the Bush administration’s defining qualities has been, since day one, its extraordinary ability to stay “on message.” The press, naturally, has found this extremely frustrating. Thus, the recent set of unscripted town hall-style meetings — during which President Bush has had to deal with questioners asking him his opinion on Brokeback Mountain (blushingly, he said he hadn’t seen it) and telling him, over and over again, how many prayers were uttered in his name — have offered members of the media the tantalizing possibility, however slight, that the message machine might run off the rails.
Amazingly, until yesterday, Bush hadn’t really had to deal with a harshly critical questioner. With every meeting, it became harder to believe that the participants weren’t somehow screened to create what had been pretty predictable love-fests.
That run of apparent good fortune for Bush ended yesterday when the soft-spoken, sweater-wearing dissonance of one Harry Taylor, a 61-year-old commercial real estate broker in North Carolina, stepped to the mic. Taylor was roundly booed as he told the president that he hoped “from time to time, that you have the humility and the grace to be ashamed of yourself.”
He wondered why the president was trying “to preclude me from breathing clean air and drinking clean water and eating safe food.” But Bush disarmed Taylor almost immediately by smiling and saying, “I’m not your favorite guy,” to a round of applause and laughter.
So someone kicked a little dirt on Bush’s shoes. That hardly merits a description such as “Bush Under Fire,” as an AP dispatch was titled, or “A First Amendment Moment, as Citizens Criticize Bush in Charlotte,” as the Fayetteville Observer put it.
Even more bizarre was a New York Times story that reported the exchange at length under the headline, “Facing Tough Questions, Bush Defends War,” at that same time admitting that, apart from Taylor’s “hostility” (hardly the word we would use to describe it), “plenty of the comments were far gentler. One man thanked the president on behalf of an Iraqi friend, for improving her family’s life there. A woman told him, ‘My heroes have always been cowboys.’”
In fact, looking through a slightly more sophisticated lens at this tepid bit of dissent from a lone citizen, Bush handled it so well that one could even call it a positive moment for the administration. As the Washington Post astutely observed, “Harry Taylor got the chance Thursday to do what frustrated liberals across the country have wanted to do for a long time: He stood up and told off the president. And in its own way, that’s just what the White House wanted.”
As the Post points out, part of the reason for these meetings is to put the president “in front of crowds for spontaneous exchanges to show he is not afraid of criticism,” and until Charlotte, “no one had given him the opportunity to look unbothered by dissent.”
Taylor did just that. After never having had to face comments like these, Bush looked magnanimous just telling the audience to quiet their booing and let the man have his say.
Gal Beckerman is a former staff writer at CJR.
That’s hardly the catastrophe for the president you might think it was from today’s news accounts.