Sic ‘em With the Rally Squad

And other tips for dealing with demonstrators from the Presidential Advance Manual.

Late last week, the federal government settled a lawsuit with a pair of Texans who were arrested in 2004 for wearing anti-Bush T-shirts at a Fourth of July event in Charleston, W.Va. That’s right, friends, $80,000 (of your taxpayer dollars) will be paid out to Jeff and Nicole Rank, whose suit against Gregory J. Jenkins—former deputy assistant to the president and director of the White House Office of Presidential Advance—has been dismissed.

White House spokesman Blair Jones managed to turn lemons into lemonade with the statement last week that “the parties understand that this settlement is a compromise of disputed claims to avoid the expenses and risks of litigation and is not an admission of fault, liability, or wrongful conduct.” This is, of course, vintage Bush, gloriously reminiscent of that Simpsons episode in which Homer arrives late to collect Bart in the pouring rain after soccer practice, then lectures: “I know you’re mad at me right now, and I’m kinda mad, too. I mean, we could sit here and try to figure out who forgot to pick up who till the cows come home. But let’s just say we’re both wrong, and that’ll be that.”

Because, you see, what the Ranks did wrong was attend an open-to-the-public, taxpayer-sponsored Independence Day speech by the president on the grounds of the state capitol, sporting homemade anti-Bush T-shirts. Their shirts had a red circle and a diagonal bar covering the word Bush. (His said, “Regime change starts at home,” on the back; hers said, “Love America, Hate Bush.”) The Ranks neither said nor did anything to disrupt the speech, but when they refused to remove their T-shirts, they were, at the direction of White House event staff, handcuffed, booked, photographed, and fingerprinted, charged with trespassing, and held for several hours in jail. (The charges were subsequently dismissed, and the city of Charleston has apologized.) Nicole Rank was also temporarily suspended from her job with FEMA.

The White House suggestion that, hey, both sides did something bad here, distorts one obvious truth: The only bad thing these citizens did was peacefully disagree with the president in an open political forum. And while Rush Limbaugh and Angelina Jolie may be able to get away with talking exclusively to people who worship them, the president should not.

The details of the Rank lawsuit and the cases involving similarly harassed folks are always fascinating: citizens removed from a Bush event in Denver because of an offensive bumper sticker on their car outside (“No More Blood For Oil”);a Tucson student barred from a Bush event for sporting a Young Democrats T-shirt; Wisconsin citizens forced to unbutton their shirts before attending a Bush speech, only to have an attendee wearing an anti-Bush T-shirt ejected from the event. But the best thing to have emerged from the Rank litigation was the official—if heavily redacted—Presidential Advance Manual (dated October 2002), which, although stamped “SENSITIVE” and not to be “duplicated … replicated … photocopied or released to anyone outside of the Executive Office of the President, White House Military Office or United States Secret Service,” is now posted right here at the ACLU’s Web site.

There is so much that is entertaining in the Advance Manual, it’s hard to know where to begin. Sure, it’s not a surprise anymore that it is official White House policy to use staff to foster “a well-balanced crowd,” with well-balanced evidently defined as a subtle melange of those citizens who adore the president and those who revere him. The key to achieving such a balance, according to the manual, lies in “deterring potential protesters from attending events” and “preventing demonstrators.” Nor should anyone be surprised that the president is to be shielded from dissent at taxpayer-funded presidential appearances and at “rallies, roundtables and tours” in equal measure. Only those individuals and groups that are “extremely supportive of the Administration” (emphasis theirs) will be seated in the area between the stage and the main camera platform.

The manual cautions that event staff “must decide if the solution would cause more negative publicity than if the demonstrators were simply left alone,” but it’s also full of ingenious ideas for dealing with a flare-up of dissent. Among the White House tactics are the subcontracting of censorship to event “rally squads” composed of helpful “college/young republican organizations, local athletic teams, and fraternities/sororities.” (What, no mathletes?) These obliging rally squads can then “use their signs and banners as shields between the demonstrators and the main press platform.” The use of a “long sheet banner … in strategic areas around the site” is similarly smiled upon. Lest you believe that the Big Brother sheet represents the full extent of the speech suppression, however, the manual provides that, “As a last resort, security should remove the demonstrators from the event.”

The Advance Manual’s finest moments come in its urgent, earnest drive to protect not just the television cameras but also the president himself from the ugliness of the dread “demonstrators.” Certainly, “if it is determined that the media will not see or hear” demonstrators, event staff can ignore them. But event staff must involve themselves in “designating a protest area preferably not in view of the event site or motorcade route.” In other words, all this suppression of dissent isn’t just to create a puppet show for the cameras. It’s also about sock puppets for the president, who—if he could just be shielded from the mean T-shirts—might still believe his approval ratings soar into the mid-90s. The Ranks’ peaceful protest at the West Virginia state capitol somehow became an act of “trespassing” only because the president was there.

It’s disturbing enough to learn from the Advance Manual that the White House has adopted an official policy of shouting down or covering up dissenting viewpoints with large sheets in order to deceive Americans at home into believing the president is universally adored. But that this official policy also exists to protect the tender sensitivities of the president himself is beyond belief.

George W. Bush is certainly entitled to choose his White House advisers, attorneys general, counselors, friends, and pets based solely on the their inability to tell him no. The rest of us have increasingly come to question the wisdom of such insularity. We just can’t do it in his presence.