It was Soul Food Thursday at Howard University last week, and many students were looking forward to their favorite meal: fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, collard greens and cornbread. At lunchtime, however, students discovered that much of the campus had been locked down and that the school's cafeteria was off limits.
Apparently, many of them did not know that President Bush and first lady Laura Bush had arrived for a "youth summit" at the Blackburn Center, where the dining hall is located. Stomachs began to growl, tempers flared, and, eventually, a student protest ensued.
In case you missed the broadcast Friday on Fox 5 (WTTG-TV), reporter Robbie Chavez was at Howard trying to interview protesting students when a campus security guard showed up and tried to stop him.
Chavez: The university went to great lengths . . .
Guard: I'm asking you to leave the campus now.
Chavez: . . . to hide angry protesting students . . .
Guard: I'm warning you, you don't do that.
Chavez: . . . a big effort to keep a lid on the growing frustration.
During the protest, dozens of students locked arms around a flagpole in the Quadrangle, a designated forbidden zone at the center of the campus, and refused to move despite warnings from campus security that Secret Service rooftop snipers might open fire on them.
You'd have thought Howard had taken a page right out of the Bush administration playbook on quashing First Amendment freedoms. In a letter posted the day before on a university Web site, President H. Patrick Swygert wrote that, having notified the campus via e-mail in July, he was sending a reminder of the Bush visit. But students complained that they hadn't seen either message and criticized school officials and the Bush administration for poor planning.
Chavez said: "This is what university police and the Howard University administration did not want publicized: students angry after being shut out of parts of their own university."
What might have been a public relations coup for Bush -- a visit to a historically black college to show concern for at-risk youths -- ended up as another Katrina-like moment, with the president appearing spaced-out, waving and smiling for television cameras while students were trying to break through campus security to get to the cordoned-off cafeteria.
Of course, the episode was nothing compared with all the other bad news Bush got last week, including the indictment of White House aide I. Lewis Libby on perjury charges. But what happened at Howard was illustrative nonetheless of how a seemingly minor mess, easily avoided by a more attentive White House, could have repercussions down the road.
The Republican Party is trying hard to win over black voters before the midterm elections, and Maryland Lt. Gov. Michael Steele needs the support of black Democrats in his bid to become the first black Republican in the U.S. Senate since Howard alumnus Edward Brooke of Massachusetts (1967-1979). So one thing Bush didn't want was a ruckus during a visit to Howard.
All he had to do was drop in on Soul Food Thursday, be seen sharing a wing and some collard greens with students -- and score one for the GOP.
But the visit went from bad to worse. On a day when the U.S. Senate passed a resolution paying tribute to civil rights icon Rosa Parks, who died last week, campus security guards were telling students that if they wanted to eat they'd have to come back when the president and first lady were gone, then go to a service door at the rear of the dining hall and ask for a chicken plate to go. Never mind that a student meal plan at Howard can cost as much as $2,500 a semester.
Howard is not some hotbed of political activism. The biggest event of the year is homecoming, which features two fashion shows, a step show and lots of hip-hop celebrities. As the rapper Ludacris put it in his summer hit, "Pimpin' All Over the World":
Jump in the car and ride for hours,
Makin' sure I don't miss the homecoming at Howard.
To set off a student protest at this school, you'd have to be politically tone-deaf in the extreme, out of touch and flying blind. And yet, Bush did it.
God help us in Iraq.