Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

April 12, 2006

Both political parties can learn much from a man who spoke his mind

By DON ZEIGLER

Harry Taylor, a resident of Charlotte, North Carolina, was just another realtor until recently. But on Thursday, April 7, in front of an audience friendly to President Bush, he gave his honest, negative opinion of the Bush presidency to the commander-in-chief himself, face to face.

It’s usually easier to criticize George Bush in writing than in person, given the President’s preference for non-spontaneous, carefully-scripted public moments.

Taylor is one of the few who’s been able to tell the President, bluntly, in a public forum, what he thinks of his policies.

Bush called on Taylor during a question-and-answer session after a speech at Central Piedmont Community College. Here is what Taylor said, minus the boos from the crowd and the President’s brief, joking interruption:

“You never stop talking about freedom, and I appreciate that. But while I listen to you talk about freedom, I see you assert your right to tap my telephone, to arrest me and hold me without charges, to try to preclude me from breathing clean air and drinking clean water and eating safe food. What I want to say to you, is that I, in my lifetime, I have never felt more ashamed of, nor more frightened by, my leadership in Washington.

“I feel like, despite your rhetoric, that compassion and common sense have been left far behind during your administration. I would hope, from time to time, that you have the humility and the grace to be ashamed of yourself.”

That Taylor was allowed to finish his statement is remarkable. Even more remarkable is that the President himself silenced the hecklers in the crowd. It’s testimony to Bush’s ever-weakening standing.

Taylor was the unplanned side effect of a new policy implemented by the Bush PR machine: To abandon the drill of screened audiences and scripted meetings in an attempt to make the President appear more spontaneous and able to speak and react “off the cuff” in order to bolster his sagging poll numbers.

In another time, with another president, Harry Taylor probably would have had his 15 minutes of fame and then returned to the anonymity from which he came.

Instead, given the current poisonous political climate, he’s become a lighting rod of controversy, attracting both admiration and condemnation for his actions.

In editorials, and in web forums and blog postings, critics from the conservative ranks blasted him as rude, unpatriotic or misguided. From the left he was hailed as courageous and a true patriot. Both sides were so eager to leap upon the man as a poster child for their particular cause that they failed to see how off the mark they both were.

Labeled both a hero and a villain, Taylor is ultimately neither. He’s simply a man who voiced his consternation over the state of affairs in America today. The fact his remarks ignited a firestorm is a sad commentary on the decline of free speech in the United States. Speaking your mind about the leader of your country should not be something that takes an act of courage; it is your inalienable right as an American citizen.

Those who attack Taylor for disrespecting the President need to think again — the episode in Charlotte probably did more to help Bush than all of his previous, carefully choreographed public appearances combined.

Aside from jokingly interrupting his rather vocal critic with the comment, “I’m not your favorite guy,” the President listened intently as he was lambasted, even going so far as to admonish hecklers trying to jeer Taylor into submission. “Let him speak,” Bush said. And to give the President credit where it’s due, he rose to the occasion with a spirited response, taking the criticism in stride, arguing his points in a gracious manner.

It was the type of exchange seen all too seldom in politics today, and it’s obvious even to his detractors that George Bush is capable of absorbing criticism on a personal level, then countering effectively. This type of political give-and-take is a proud American tradition, and the President should engage in it more often.

Unfortunately, people critical of the Bush Administration who actually air their concerns publicly are usually branded as traitors and cowards by Bush loyalists, who view such talk as disloyal and treacherous.

This mentality is reinforced by the “Follow us blindly or you’re unpatriotic” rhetoric constantly emanating from the White House.

Those who chastised Harry Taylor should have tried, just a little, to heed and appreciate the significance of what he did, even if they rejected what he said.

The media has responded with both wonder and befuddlement at Taylor’s comments, turning it into an extraordinary encounter. It’s only extraordinary because they themselves have lost the courage to ask the truly tough questions that need to be asked of this Administration and this president. So when a genuinely spontaneous moment finally occurs, the reaction is stunned amazement or outright hostility.

Note to all the Democrats out there who were so quick to jump for joy at what transpired in Charlotte: You’d better sit down and ponder why a man with no particular party affiliation and no political aspirations can so galvanize the left when Democratic Party leaders can’t.

Which of them has confronted the President so directly on the issues of war and liberty that are at the heart of both his presidency and his political troubles?

Don Zeigler is an advertising graphic artist with the Daily Telegraph and a freelance writer. dzeigler@bdtonline.com.