Giving Thanks Inside the Bubble

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, November 20, 2007; 1:04 PM

You might think that a presidential speech on Thanksgiving would be open to all comers. But no, even when President Bush is talking about something as uncontroversial and inclusive as the essential goodness of our country, he wants his audience prescreened for obsequiousness.

Bush traveled to the historic Berkeley Plantation in southeastern Virginia yesterday for an event carefully calibrated to emphasize his compassionate side. In his remarks, he encouraged "all Americans to show their thanks by giving back."

But, as usual, he wasn't talking to all Americans. At least not in person. Admission to the event was tightly controlled by White House and Republican party officials.

Tyler Whitley and Mark Bowes write in the Richmond Times-Dispatch: "President Bush found something to be thankful for yesterday -- a friendly, invitation-only Virginia audience. . . .

"'We love you!' one woman yelled as Bush prepared to deliver a 16-minute Thanksgiving message to a standing-room-only crowd of about 800 people standing at Berkeley under a tent facing the James River.

"Many were state Republican leaders, but the audience included schoolchildren, firefighters, National Guardsmen and participants in the recent Jamestown 400th-anniversary celebration."

It was not always thus. As University of Texas political science professor Jeffrey K. Tulis wrote a while back on NiemanWatchdog.org, where I am deputy editor: "The tradition of presidents traveling the country -- 'seeing and being seen' -- dates back to George Washington. Washington felt that public appearances were important for the president -- and his appearances were indeed open to the public. . . . Washington was intent on establishing the precedent that the president was chosen to represent the whole country, not just his partisan supporters. . . .

"Certainly, in the past, presidential advance teams have on occasion taken steps to assure friendly audiences. It has not been uncommon for presidents to seek invitations to speak at friendly venues. But systematically screening audiences for an array of speaking tours . . . may be a new phenomenon, and one that the president should be asked to defend and justify in terms of his constitutional obligations."

As I've chronicled exhaustively in this column, Bush has adopted a tactic that is barely acceptable during a political campaign and made it standard practice for his taxpayer-funded visits around the nation.

Peter Baker wrote in The Washington Post in August about a White House manual that actually codifies the elaborate procedures aides use to keep dissenters far away from the president.

It's really inexcusable. When was the last time members of the general public were able to see the president without receiving specific invitations from the White House or the Republican party? Was it the inauguration? Will we have to wait until the next one for it to happen again?

Ask This

Here's a question reporters should be asking every one of the candidates running to succeed Bush in the 2008 election: Will you make yourself accessible to all the people, or just to the people who agree with you?


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