WASHINGTON — AMID ALL the optimism about the progress of the war in the Persian Gulf, the incident on Sunday at the Kennebunkport church services attended by President Bush was a vivid reminder that not even overwhelming success in the skies over Iraq and Kuwait has fully stifled dissent at home.
That incident, in which a well-dressed, purposeful man rose and called for an end to the heavy bombing of Iraq as the president passively sat and listened, drew heavy television and press coverage, particularly the scene of local plainclothes police ejecting the man from the church.
It should be noted that the man, John Schuchardt, 51, of Boston, though a longtime peace activist, was no long-haired, unkempt college kid of the ilk that protested the Vietnam war 15 or more years ago and contributed to the bitter polarization that marked the home-front climate in those days. But more interesting than that contrast was Bush's own behavior compared to that of two of his predecessors, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, and Nixon's political hit man, Spiro Agnew, when confronted by protesters against the war over which they presided.
Bush remained unruffled in his pew through the end of the service, which included a friendly pulpit admonishment from the minister, the Rev. Patricia Adam, that "we have to listen to those with whom we disagree. . .because they, too, may be right." Then, after Schuchardt had been removed from the church on a charge of disorderly conduct, Bush strolled out, calmly telling inquiring reporters that he was not bothered "in the least" by the incident.
Compare this benign reaction with Johnson's ranting about "nervous nellies" who were getting cold feet on the Vietnam war; Nixon's use of FBI agents to infiltrate the ranks of protesters, whom he called "bums" and "super hypocrites;" and Agnew's castigation of them as "an effete corps of impudent snobs," "radiclibs" and "parasites of passion." Perhaps it is too soon to mark Bush as a man of temperate good sense, considering his usual thin skin to any criticism. But so far at least he appears to have learned a lesson from the intemperate earlier behavior of LBJ, Nixon and Agnew toward war protest.
At any rate, Bush's disinclination to challenge the voices of protest seems to give recognition to the difference in tone of most Gulf war protests to date compared to the bombast and personal nature of much of the Vietnam protest, in which chants inquired: "Hey, hey, LBJ! How many kids have you killed today?" From most reports around the country, the current protests have been orderly, largely critical of policy, not Bush personally, and // have included a broader range of age and economic groups than generally seen in the Vietnam protest, especially in its later stages.
The softer tone is not surprising, considering that the Persian Gulf war is only in its fifth week with expectations high that it won't last much longer. If it does drag on, and the protest becomes more bitter and the country more polarized by it, only then will the real test come of the president's willingness to be tolerant of it.
In the meantime, Bush is wisely leaving the name-calling to today's Spiro Agnew, the crude senator from Wyoming, Alan Simpson, the man who with uncommon perception once sagely advised Saddam Hussein that his real problem was with "the Western media."
Long before Simpson's descent into McCarthyism with his vitriolic and unproved charges against Peter Arnett, one of this era's greatest war correspondents, as a "sympathizer" toward Saddam Hussein, Simpson won a reputation for petty, bitter criticism of anyone who disagreed with him. For a time it was masked by a certain talent for barnyard directness passing as wit. But Simpson's poisonous style is rendered particularly jarring now when contrasted with President Bush's unwillingness far to bash his war critics.
The Vietnam war protest was constructed over years of frustration and continued evidence of Johnson and Nixon administration ineptitude and deception, enflamed by the assaults of those two presidents and Agnew. The much smaller, much more restrained Gulf war protest seems more grounded at this early stage in thoughtful disagreement with the Bush policy than in passion against the president personally.
By not becoming the protest's most conspicuous critic, as Johnson, Nixon and Agnew in their time did, Bush is serving the country and himself well. It is relatively easy to ignore the taunts when you're winning, to be sure, but that doesn't make it less wise.