The Presidential Bubble
New York Times Editorial
Published: September 25, 2003
Four progressive political groups sued the Bush administration this week, charging that the Secret Service is systematically keeping protesters away from the president's public appearances. They make a serious point about free speech rights, but they also point out a disturbing aspect of the Bush White House: the country has a chief executive who seems to embrace the presidential bubble.
Security concerns make it inevitable that a modern American president will be somewhat cut off from the country he leads. He cannot insert himself into any part of normal life without a phalanx of security guards.
Protesters cannot be permitted to get close enough to pose a threat, but they ought to be able to get close enough so the president can see that they are there. Sometimes seeing a glimpse of placard-wielding demonstrators is as close as the commander in chief can get to seeing the face of national discontent.
At Mr. Bush's public appearances, his critics are routinely shunted into "protest zones" as much as a half-mile away. At the Columbia, S.C., airport last year, a protester with a "No War for Oil" sign was ordered to move a half-mile from the area where Mr. Bush's supporters were allowed to stand. When the protester refused, he was arrested.
Mr. Bush and his aides also seem to go to great lengths to underline the degree to which the president closes himself off from the news media. In an interview with Fox News this week, the president said he learned most of what he needs to know from morning briefings by his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, and his chief of staff, Andrew Card.
As for newspapers, Mr. Bush said, "I glance at the headlines" but "rarely read the stories." The people who brief him on current events encounter many of the newsmakers personally, he said, and in any case "probably read the news themselves."
Some of this may be a pose that is designed to tweak the media by making the news appear to be below the president's notice. During the Iraqi invasion, when the rest of the nation was glued to TV, Mr. Bush's spokesman claimed that his boss had barely glanced at the pictures of what was going on.
But it is worrisome when one of the most incurious men ever to occupy the White House takes pains to insist that he gets his information on what the world is saying only in predigested bits from his appointees.
Mr. Bush thinks of himself as a man of the people, but carefully staged contacts with groups of supporters or small children does not constitute getting in touch with the people. It is in Mr. Bush's interest, as well as the nation's, for him to burst the bubble he has been inhabiting, and take a hard look at the real world.