I had a close encounter with the president last week-at least as close as someone of my political leanings and lacking James Guckert’s press pass can hope to get. It felt a little like a Leni Riefensthal moment, scripted to the last detail.
The Man was coming to my neighborhood–the Montgomery County Community College gym just a few miles down the road from my house–to take his Social Security wrecking campaign to the people.
I had just covered a press conference by local activists protesting his planned divide-and-conquer strategy of offering private investment funds for the still young and foolish, and decided to swing by the college to see what was happening there. Along the way, which turned out to be the route the president’s motorcade was to take an hour or so later from the Willow Grove Naval Air Station to the college, the security was astonishing. Every police and emergency vehicle in the county seemed to have converged on this stretch of highway. Every driveway and intersection sported a vehicle blocking access. Bridges over the roadway each had what appeared to be a Secret Service SUV parked nearby, lights flashing.
This is clearly a popular fellow, this George W. Bush.
At the campus, I found a parking space near the gym and started walking towards a long line of people stretching back from the door.
At the end of the line were a cop car, one local police officer in uniform, and several very large young men in sports jackets. The cop looked diminutive and inconsequential next to them, and he wasn’t doing anything. The young men were clearly in charge.
I approached them and they looked at me-dressed in jeans and bearded-skeptically, I thought.
“Do you have a ticket?” one of the big guys asked, unsmilingly.
“No. Where do I get one?” I replied.
“You can’t. It’s too late.” Now there was a smile.
“Where did you get them, before it was too late?” I asked him.
“Senator Santorum,” he said, referring to Pennsylvania’s junior and extremely right wing senator, Rick Santorum, who is up for re-election next year.
“How would I have known that?” I asked. “I don’t recall reading any announcements in the media about how to get tickets for the president’s visit.”
“I don’t know,” the young man said. Now the smile had become a smirk.
“Pretty strange way for a president of all the people to behave, don’t you think?” I asked. “I mean, don’t presidents want to have people come to their speaking engagements?”
This time I got no answer.
“So who are you guys?” I asked them. “You don’t look like Secret Service.”
“We’re from the Republican Party,” one of them answered.
“The president’s having the Republican Party handle security for his visit?” I think I sounded a little incredulous. I was. This was, after all, not a campaign appearance; the campaign ended back in early November. This was the president of the United States making a visit to my neighborhood, wasn’t it? So what is the deal here? Saving money on security by having Republican goons do the security, like Hells Angels at a Dead event?
I revealed myself as a member of the press at that point, mentioning In These Times, a publication that had once issued me an identity card. They looked suspicious.
“The White House press officers are arriving with the president,” I was told. “You can talk with them then about getting to cover the event.”
I didn’t have time for that, and was pretty sure I wouldn’t have had any luck on such short notice anyhow, especially with no assignment letter in hand, and wearing a “No War in Iraq” T-Shirt under my parka.
The following day, the local media were full of stories about how the president, speaking to a full room of local residents, had warned about Social Security going “bankrupt” and about how those of us now over the age of 55 had “nothing to worry about” regarding our retirement.
There wasn’t a word about how the adulating audience in that hall had been hand-selected by the office of one of the Senate’s most hard Right members. My guess is that most of the people sent to cover the event didn’t even think to ask how the crowd had been assembled.
No doubt the same thing was repeated across the country at the various venues where the president went to “sell” his “reform” program for Social Security.
Little wonder then that he’s being allowed to get away with presenting this plan to wreck the system as its opposite-a plan to save it.
He only presents it to people who ideologically oppose Social Security, or who are too ill informed to know what he’s up to.
There is something sick going on in this country, when the president has to be so hermetically sealed off from dissent, and when the media is so ready to help to protect him, and the rest of us, from reality.
DAVE LINDORFF is the author of Killing Time: an Investigation into the Death Row Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal. His new book of CounterPunch columns titled “This Can’t be Happening!” is published by Common Courage Press. Information about both books and other work by Lindorff can be found at www.thiscantbehappening.net.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org