By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
Most of those who stood had only polite inquiries or statements of support. One man told Bush he prayed for him. A woman asked to have her picture taken with him and predicted "you will be vindicated." Asked by another man what he would do differently, Bush mentioned the detainee abuse at Abu Ghraib. "I wish that could be done over," he said. "It was a disgraceful experience."
Then came Taylor, 61, a commercial real estate broker, who got Bush's attention from the balcony.
"You never stop talking about freedom, and I appreciate that," Taylor told him. "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."
Bush interrupted with a smile. "I'm not your favorite guy," he joked, provoking laughter.
"What I want to say to you," Taylor continued, "is that I, in my lifetime, I have never felt more ashamed of, nor more frightened by, my leadership in Washington."
Many in the audience booed.
"Let him speak," Bush said.
"I feel like, despite your rhetoric, that compassion and common sense have been left far behind during your administration," Taylor added.
Bush took it in stride but offered no regrets. In response, he dealt only with the National Security Agency program to eavesdrop without court approval on telephone calls and e-mails between people inside the United States and people overseas when one person is suspected of terrorist ties.
"I'm not going to apologize for what I did on the terrorist surveillance program, and I'll tell you why," Bush said, launching into his explanation of how he approved the program to avoid another Sept. 11. "If we're at war," he said, "we ought to be using tools necessary within the Constitution on a very limited basis, a program that's reviewed constantly, to protect us."
What made the exchange intriguing was its rarity. Bush is almost never confronted with strong, polite criticism. Hecklers sometimes make it into a speech, but when they stand up to shout, security agents remove them. Three Bush critics sued after they were ejected from an event in Denver.
In an interview afterward, Taylor said he had become an activist in recent years out of discontent with Bush and was pleasantly surprised he was allowed to challenge the president. "I didn't think I'd be let in the room," he said.
Bush hardly won him over, though. "I didn't care about his response," Taylor said. "I wanted to say what I wanted to say and I wanted him to know that despite being in a room with a thousand people who love him . . . there are plenty of people out there who don't agree with him in any way, shape or form."