Bush Faces Rare Audience Challenge in N.C.
Friday, April 7, 2006
CHARLOTTE, April 6 -- Harry Taylor got the chance Thursday to do what frustrated liberals across the country have wanted to do for a long time: He stood up and told off the president.
And in its own way, that's just what the White House wanted.
President Bush flew here for the latest of his open-forum events, an innovation for a leader who until recently stuck to scripted meetings with screened audiences. At a time of dwindling public support and of charges of Bush's being isolated, the idea was to put him in front of crowds for spontaneous exchanges to show he is not afraid of criticism.
By the time Bush landed in Charlotte, these audience-participation sessions had produced some skeptical questions, some interesting back-and-forth, and even a few off-script comments by a famously disciplined president.
But until Taylor came along, no one had really gotten in Bush's face. No one had really confronted him so directly on the issues of war and liberty that are at the heart of both his presidency and his political troubles. And no one had given him the opportunity to look unbothered by dissent.
"I would hope, from time to time, that you have the humility and the grace to be ashamed of yourself," Taylor told Bush after rattling off a litany of grievances.
Bush responded only to Taylor's complaint about warrantless eavesdropping. "You said, would I apologize for that?" he said. "The answer is absolutely not."
The dialogue interrupted a love fest here in a state Bush carried in both elections. Microphone in hand, Bush dispensed with the podium and text to wander the stage like a talk-show host. He presented himself as a reluctant warrior struggling with sending young men and women into harm's way.
"It's a decision I wish I did not have to make," he said. In a nod to public frustration, he added: "If I didn't think we could win, I'd pull them out. You just got to know that."
The president boasted of building democracy and rebuilding infrastructure in Iraq, without mentioning that his administration is scaling back funding for both goals. And he seemed eager to re-litigate the original reasons for the invasion.
"I fully understand that the intelligence was wrong, and I'm just as disappointed as everybody else is," he said. But he added: "Removing Saddam Hussein was the right thing for world peace and the security of our country."
The audience cheered boisterously as he slipped off his coat to take questions. The forum was sponsored by the nonpartisan World Affairs Council of Charlotte at Central Piedmont Community College, and the two institutions invited nearly 1,000 people.