Pardon the Interruption

by Jeff Fleischer

(BuzzFlash, September 11, 2009)

In the wake of Rep. Joe Wilson’s outburst during the president’s health-care address, I’ve already had more than a dozen people ask me what would have happened if a Democratic lawmaker had heckled President Bush during a speech. Progressive blogs have started asking the same question, mostly rhetorically.

I have an actual answer, though. I’ve seen what happens when a lawmaker interrupts President Bush, and figured this is as good a time as any to share that story.

When I was working at a daily newspaper in Sydney in 2003, President Bush came to Canberra for about 21 hours. His main mission was to deliver a speech to the Australian Parliament, which was mostly just an excuse to thank Prime Minister John Howard for ignoring the vast majority of his constituents and joining the so-called Coalition of the Willing.

Bush and his team accomplished another, more dubious mission that day, as they found a way to alienate most of Australia in just a few hours. Even a fair portion of the right wing. I lost track of how many people I met after that day who, upon hearing my accent, told me they were die-hard Howard supporters but had grown to hate Bush for his behavior that day. (To put that in perspective, Howard’s politics were basically Bush’s only with a strong economic track record — he did help grow the economy considerably and raise the value of the Australian dollar — and well to Bush’s right on immigration and race relations.)

How does one man thoroughly tick off that many people that quickly?

First, Bush flew into Canberra late at night, where he was picked up by Howard and taken directly to the American ambassador’s residence. No press conference, no quick remarks to the people, nothing. Secondly, the quick fly-in visit meant he wouldn’t travel anywhere in the country, see even the most basic of sights or interact with the public at all, whereas Bill Clinton had done all those things a few years earlier and did a lot of goodwill outreach for worthy causes that needed their profiles boosted. So Bush started out making sure he wouldn’t gain fans.

To start losing them, Bush placed his own people in charge of parliamentary security, something no world leader had ever done. Far worse, he banned the public from Parliament — the people’s house — for the first time in Australian history. He changed the invite list to the post-speech barbecue (a quaint Aussie tradition used to fete visiting world leaders), to exclude members of opposition parties who might question him about say, weapons of mass destruction. Bush’s security team forced protestors into barricaded “protest pens” such as he did at home. He banned all press photographers from the media gallery in Parliament (another historic first in Australia).

To put this in perspective, Lyndon Johnson spoke at Parliament while Australians were dying needlessly in Vietnam — sparking some of the biggest protests the country had seen until Bush showed up — and Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton also spoke there. All took reasonable security precautions, but none created the kind of shutdown Canberra saw that day.

The kicker was the speech itself, a pretty flaccid address hardly worthy of the commotion. Bush spoke for all of 19 minutes, shorter than an episode of “Family Guy.” He basically thanked Howard, made a couple bad jokes about his nicknames for the PM, and repeated the then-already-discredited rationale for invading Iraq. No new policies or new arguments for old ones. The catch? Aussie Parliament is legendary for its back-and-forth, and for members calling each other out over falsehoods. Because Bush’s people made sure he would never see or have to face opposition during the rest of his afternoon, the speech was the only opportunity to question him.

So two elected members of Parliament shouted questions at him. Policy questions, not accusations of lying. In both instances, Bush’s guards immediately approached the senators — Bob Brown and Kerry Nettle — and ordered them to leave (both refused but were then guarded in their seats). Bush didn’t snap his fingers and yell, “Guards,” but might as well have. As he stood at the front podium watching a senator punished, Bush actually had the gall to say, “I love free speech” while giving his trademark smirk and listening to his conservative supporters shout the protests down.

Bush’s quasi-dictatorial behavior was made worse because the very next day saw a state visit to Canberra by China’s Hu Jintao. Hu drew a fair number of protests in his own right, as issues such as the occupation of Tibet and the prosecution of religious minorities in China gain more attention in Australia than they usually do here. Hu didn’t ban the public from Parliament or wall off the protestors. His speech actually discussed policy and he followed it with a joint press conference with Howard. He faced journalists and critics, giving shady and self-serving answers but not punishing anyone for asking.

It did not look good for the United States that the leader of a brutal totalitarian state acted more democratically than the man casually called “the leader of the free world.” Thankfully, the Australian public got the difference between the American people and the American president.

Whereas Obama, you know, replied calmly and respectfully. And he was the leader of the chamber, not a guest in another country. Instead, it was Wilson who looked stupid and felt he had to apologize.

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