In the shoe-throwing matter of George Bush vs. Muntader al-Zaidi, there are many questions. Where was the Secret Service? Is this a sign that the freedom Bush wanted to bring to Iraq is flourishing? Is a shoe-throwing journalist who tries to undermine authority a sabot auteur or a saboteur?
Whatever the answers, it may be the best thing that has happened to Bush in months. This is, of course, a relative statement. Bush will leave office with one of the lowest approval ratings in modern history. His exit is heralded by rebukes from his own party and regular disclosures about policy mistakes, mismanagement, and potential illegalities committed during his tenure.
But my guess is that a lot of Americans will see the shoe al-Zaidi threw but not hear the words he spoke. (He said he was acting on behalf of “the widows, the orphans, and those who were killed in Iraq.”) And if they do hear, they won’t linger over what he said. They’ll marvel at the president’s quick reflexes and calm.
Bush brushed off the incident, joking that he saw into his attacker’s “sole,” a reference to his famous misreading of Vladimir Putin. It’s the kind of incident where Bush’s no-big-deal attitude, so maddening in other contexts, serves him well. “It was just a bizarre moment,” Bush told journalists later on Air Force One. “But I’ve had other bizarre moments in the presidency.” (Once, I thought there would be weapons of mass destruction in Iraq …)
At the very least, I suspect a spark of patriotism will kick in when some Americans watch the tape or see al-Zaidi heralded in the streets as a hero. Hey, you can’t throw shoes at our president, they might say. Only we can throw shoes at our president. This may test Nixon’s theory that presidents benefit from rough treatment by journalists.
The shoe-throwing incident also puts the Iraq war back in the popular conversation in a way it hasn’t been for a long time. Familiar battle lines emerged. Both supporters and opponents of the war found in the airborne shoe cathartic expression of their own views. Opponents said: “Not even the people this war was supposed to help view it as a success. Bush is still a pariah in Iraq.” Proponents said: “The fact that al-Zaidi felt free enough to throw his shoe shows that this war has been a success. Had he done that to Saddam Hussein, he would have been shot on sight.”
But as a whole, the country is still sour on the Iraq war. Nearly 60 percent of Americans think the war was a mistake. Despite the drop in violence over the last months and an agreement with the Iraqis on a timeline for withdrawal, only 49 percent of the country thinks the United States is winning.
Still, the round of Iraq debate spurred by the attack takes place in a period of natural patriotism and respect for the office of the presidency, a mood that might accrue to Bush’s benefit. Plus, one of the last images of the 43rd president will be of him graciously welcoming Obama into office. As Obama takes the handoff, he’ll naturally extend a certain amount of praise. It’s important to his post-partisan posture, and Obama—who has always been personally sympathetic to Bush—is each day gaining an acute appreciation for the complexities that come with the office, including the need to avoid flying footwear.