Ronald Reagan generally advocates "voting with their feet" when people wish to register disapproval of social programs in certain states. Last week in Bonn and New York, a million people voted with their feet against his nuclear policies, and there is no evidence that the president was pleased.
Across the Rhine from where the president was meeting with the other NATO leaders, 350,000 Germans gathered under banners that said things like "We Are Children Who Want Peace" and "Stop Nuclear Body-Building." It was the largest demonstration in German postwar history. The White House staff, equipped as it was to monitor the fall of a leaf on the trip, professed indifference to, and ignorance of, the gigantic turnout.
Presidential counselor Edwin Meese III, at a news briefing, called reporters' attention to the 140,000 people who had rallied for the president in Bonn several days before, "who weren't paid or given transportation."
Was he suggesting that the people who were strolling or lying in the sun across the Rhine had been paid to come out?
"I don't know," Meese replied stiffly, "you'll have to ask them."
The White House had no comment about the 750,000 who went to Central Park on Saturday and confounded all by their order and neatness.
Few things annoy public men quite so much as vast public manifestations of disagreement with official policy. The sight of streets clotted with citizens saying no to stated wisdom is destabilizing. It is an implicit criticism of the way the officials are doing their jobs.
President Kennedy and his brother the attorney general were nettled by Martin Luther King Jr.'s insistence on leading a march on Washington. Many tense negotiations were held before the great triumph of August, 1963, unfolded.
In the nuclear field, it is of exceptional affront to a leader such as Reagan, who has been trying to modify his position. Only the initiated are expected to understand the complexities of the technology and Sovietology that are involved. In his speech to the Bundestag, he indicated a sympathy for local marchers and petitioners, but suggested they were wrong because there was so much more to it.
But the "Father Knows Best" approach was rejected on two continents.
Some of his advisers take the comforting line that the jaded, wicked Old World is guilty of reflex anti-Americanism. But as one speaker at the Bonn rally, which took place the day after Reagan spoke, said: "How can they say we are anti-American when 83 percent of the American people are with us on a nuclear freeze?"
The Americans who came to Central Park had a decade of Vietnam protest to guide them. The Germans had to start from scratch. Bemused American reporters who crossed the Rhine to watch the gigantic outpouring thought they were back home in the '60s. None of the thousands of shirtless young men and women in sun-dresses who wandered about in the huge park seemed particularly angry.
The Germans are into peace the way they were once into war. Whatever they do, they do thoroughly, it seems.
What was more astonishing to a foreign observer was the attitude of the police toward the demonstrators. Here was a horde of people objecting to the policy of their government. Should not the police have been, if not hostile, at least censorious?
The policemen--many with long hair, it should be noted, and beards--seemed to want to help the protesters in any way they could. One motorcycle policeman was ringed by protesters three deep, all with their heads together. When the circle broke, the policeman folded up a huge map and handed it to one of the marchers, with further instructions on how to get where they were going.
Where in the world, the U.S. press wondered, was "Achtung!"
Nowhere on the hillside over the river was the famous fragrance of pot, the incense of the protests of the '60s. The demonstrators seemed stoned, however--stoned on peace.
The protesters and the police seem to have gotten along just as famously in Central Park. At the end of the speaking program, the paraders were asked to give a hand to the boys in blue.
Another thing the Germans and Americans had in common was neatness. It comes naturally to the Germans, who stacked all their empty beer cans in boxes. The Americans policed their area so carefully that they drew raves from New York's park commissioner.
The freeze movement is not about trashing or occupying the dean's office, like the peace movement of yesterday. It has learned the great political lesson of not giving unnecessary offense.
They will do more than march. They are going to take the freeze issue into the fall campaign. A vote on the freeze will be taken in Congress; the nays will be targeted. They plan to vote with their feet--and also their hands--again in November.