Hecklers drive Bush to lose temper, interrupt speech to POW-MIA families

July 25, 1992|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Capping a fractious week in which Republican fears about the stagnant Bush campaign spilled into the open, President Bush lost his temper yesterday in an angry session with relatives of servicemen missing in Southeast Asia and snapped at a group of hecklers to "shut up."

Mr. Bush was jeered into silence during a speech at the annual convention of the National League of Families of POW-MIAs in a Virginia suburb of Washington.

Heckling Mr. Bush and holding aloft pictures of American servicemen missing in the Vietnam War, several dozen hostile members of the audience of about 600, who later said they had planned the outburst, angrily rejected the president's assertion that his administration had gone out of its way to determine the fate of the missing men.

The protesters, mostly middle-aged and elderly relatives of the missing Americans, were angry from the start. Only five minutes into Mr. Bush's speech, a woman in the second row stood and interrupted him, calling out, "President, President."

At the same time, a large group of people stood and began chanting: "No more lies! Tell the truth!" and "No more lies! Release our files!"

At first Mr. Bush tried to mollify the crowd, noting, "I can't talk in here," but then his jaw grew tight and he began wagging his finger in the air at his tormentors.

After calm had briefly been restored, a young man in the back stood up and started to speak. At this new interruption the president snapped, "Would you please shut up and sit down!"

Mr. Bush also had a testy conversation with one of the nine people sitting on the dais, Jeff Donahue, a member of the league's board and the brother of an Air Force captain missing in Laos since 1968. The two men shook their heads and pointed their fingers at one another.

At one point the president yelled at Mr. Donahue, "Are you calling me a liar?"

The White House tried to put the best face on the day's events. Campaigning afterward in Ohio, Mr. Bush said he was not upset, explaining to reporters: "I didn't blow my cool. I just made an emphatic point."

Later, Torie Clarke, the president's campaign spokesman, reminded reporters that Mr. Bush got a standing ovation at the end of his speech and said: "He has done more for the POW-MIA community than anyone. You've got to keep this in perspective."

The White House also rushed to hand out copies of a letter from Sen. John McCain, a former Navy pilot who spent 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam.

The Arizona Republican said in his letter that he watched the scene yesterday morning "with great disappointment" and added: "All those families whose loved ones have not returned have never been better served by a president than they are by you. For them and for myself, thank you and God bless you."

But the incident was clearly the latest embarrassment for a White House that has been fumbling its recent attempts to improve the president's public image.

Bush aides clearly thought that yesterday morning's event was a chance for Mr. Bush to showcase his leadership in the Persian Gulf, to remind voters of his own harrowing service in World War II in the Pacific, where he was shot down while flying a torpedo bomber, and to court the kind of disgruntled, disillusioned voters who had flocked to Ross Perot's aborted campaign.

Indeed, it was Mr. Perot's belief that the White House was dragging its feet on the issue of missing servicemen in the 1980s that first propelled him into politics.

This week, after previous demurrals, Mr. Perot told a Senate committee that he would testify before it next month on issues about POWs, including his belief that hundreds of U.S. servicemen were left behind in Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War ended.

Gary Bauer, the head of the conservative Family Research Council, said he was shocked when he watched segments of the event on television. "Right now," he said, "the perception is that there is no price to be paid for tweaking the president's nose, and that is a very dangerous idea to be abroad in the land 90 days before the election."

Instead, it was Mr. Bush who paid the public relations price, when he found himself -- to a smattering of applause and a lot of hooting -- defending his record, his patriotism and his sensitivity.

As a defense on the sensitivity issue, the distraught president even brought up the death of his 3-year-old daughter, Robin, of leukemia in 1953.

"I can identify with those who served," he said. "And I can identify with their sacrifice. I can identify as a father who lost a child with the family implications -- but again, I'm not trying to put myself on the same plane with those who have suffered a lot."

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