Power, Presidents and Protesters

An ex-girlfriend of mine who currently lives in Seattle wrote me last week:

I hope you’re both [you and Jennifer] doing well in DC, and enjoying [Chinese President] Hu Jintao’s visit. I am glad he’s finally finished screwing up my commute.

Actually, the nice (nice?) thing about living and working in Mordor-on-the-Potomac is that the place is optimized for the presence of dignitaries and life can pretty well go on unhindered as they move around the city. D.C. isn’t like the provinces, where visits are rare and police, unused to the hot and angry breath of the powerful and their never-ending entourages, panic easily. I remember then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s visit to San Francisco in the early summer of 1990, and the knots the city tied itself in over that (and the concurrent visit of then South Korean President Roh Tae-woo): fidgety police, Secret Service and Soviet officials everywhere, blocked intersections, live coverage of his motorcade from San Francisco International Airport, cheering and gawking crowds along his route through town.

It was a big thing, especially when the soon-to-be ex-Soviet leader got out of his motorcade to shake hands and meet people. (Hmph… I’d like to see George W. Bush do THAT in San Francisco.) There was concern bordering on near panic — a state that always whips the SF police’s tactical squad into a brutal frenzy, and they were happy to clear the crowds — when every Latvian, Lithuanian, Estonian and Armenian in the San Francisco Bay Area decided to camp out around the Soviet ambassador’s residence in Pacific Heights.

No, Mordor-on-the-Potomac is always full of visiting dignitaries of one kind or another, wandering around town, making speeches, getting briefed at the State Department, meeting congresscritturs, begging for handouts or other kinds of help, either from Uncle Sam or his affiliates at the World Bank or International Monetary Fund. Blair House, the official guest residence for visiting heads of state and heads of government, is occupied more often than not.

One afternoon a few years ago I was standing outside the IMF, having gotten a press pass for an upcoming World Bank-IMF shindig, when a motorcade screeched to a halt outside the World Bank just across the street. Out of a giant SUV popped a half-dozen huge, heavily armed and heavily armored "federal agents," each toting a sub-machine gun and glaring out at the world from underneath steel-blue Kevlar helmets. The agent nearest me, a giant man I nicknamed "Bubba" because he was a little too big for his uniform, danced and fidgeted (and jiggled — jiggling is not threatening, not even when it is done by a heavily armed man) nervously as he looked around, aiming his weapon every which way (including at me) as a long, black Cadillac pulled up. A group of men in suits got out followed by a quivering, shriveled-up old man in what looked like a faded green wool army suit and a long, starched white-and-black head-dress. It was Yasser Arafat!

As his own security men, flanked by a group of federal agents, walked the decaying Palestinian leader into the World Bank, I considered for a moment shouting "Allahu Akbar!" But realized that was likely the last thing your typical suicide bomber says before blowing himself to pieces, and with Bubba training his weapon at me and already extremely edgy, my wife probably could have buried me in a coffee can by the time Bubba and his comrades in uniform were finished with me. Fear properly overwhelmed me, and I held my tongue.

It took about a minute to get the decrepit Mr. Arafat shoved into the World Bank, and the federal agents piled back into the SUV (imagine a great big clown car full of heavily armed clowns) and disappeared as quickly as they came. No muss, no fuss, no exchange of gunfire. Can’t imagine anything like that going that well, or that quickly, in Seattle.

No, we in Mordor are used to living with leadership, and we make our way around it just as you would any other mess. Even if every leader in the world showed up at the same time, I expect it would cause little heartache or consternation, block little traffic, and prove no more inconvenient than our current chief resident. In fact, Bush Jong Il is much less an inconvenience than Bill Clinton ever was, since there’s nothing here in Mordor he much likes to begin with and he takes his helicopter out of town whenever he can. When you live with The President of The United States, you become very thankful he has at his disposal a fleet of helicopters, just because he doesn’t block traffic that way. Clinton felt the need to visit his alma mater Georgetown a couple of times a year, and it was always unnerving trying to get to classes under the ever-watchful glares of rooftop snipers. I thought that kind of thing only happened in Texas.

And, truth be told, in Mordor-on-the-Potomac, there really is only one leader who matters anyway — the President of the United States. The Clinton folks called him Potus, an ugly name I like and use whenever I can because it sounds vaguely Roman and imperial. The Bush people, however, don’t use it, and have resorted to that old Nixonion term The President. It’s like the term the Pope, because while there are a few popes — a Coptic one, a couple of anti-popes — there is only one the Pope, and you know exactly who he is. Similarly, the world is full of presidents — the local Rotary has a president, Exxon Mobil has a president, Equatorial Guinea and Brazil both have presidents, a president even heads the UN Security Council. But there is only one The President, and you know who he is too.

All other presidents are mere reflections of his shadow.

In fact, Hu’s visit would have gone utterly unnoticed save for the Chinese flag flying from Blair House I saw as I rode by (they only completely block Pennsylvania Ave. to foot and bike traffic when the prime minister of Israel visits, because who really cares about the security of the president of Ghana anyway?), were it not for the army of the Falung Gong faithful who marched around for three days, blocking intersections, making speeches and handing out fliers.

They were the annoying ones who plagued downtown commutes.

The Falung Gong showed up early, days before Hu got here, and there were hundreds — perhaps thousands — of them. They carried well-made but badly translated banners demanding an end to the repression of Falung Dafa (the practice of Falung Gong?), giant posters of the decapitated corpses and cut upon bodies that are the result of the Chinese government’s (alleged) harvesting of organs from imprisoned dissidents. They had a float, pulled by a small Japanese pickup truck, with live actors depicting such a surgery. There was a marching band, dressed in matching blue and white uniforms playing "God Bless America" as they made their way south along 14th St.

I don’t know quite where they went. To the Capitol, maybe, and then they came back, to march past Lafayette Park north of the White House. For two days they marched around Washington, tying up traffic, keeping police (and Taiwanese teevee crews) busy and everywhere they went, followers in yellow shirts handed out little newspapers, complete with more photos of corpses and more allegations of cruelty, abuse and human rights violations.

The day Hu arrived, they blockaded the intersection of 17th and Pennsylvania, very close to Blair House, banging drums and holding signs. (I like to think they had spent all night banging those drums, trying to keep Hu awake as he tried to sleep two doors down, but I suspect the security forces would have made quick work of them if they had.) They even had a new year’s dragon, its various heads bobbing up and down under the watchful gaze of the Secret Service and the curious eyes of commuters like me.

Protesters also waved Chinese and American flags, and all I could think of when seeing the two together was "All hail the great Alliance."

And on the sidewalk in front of the White House, along the broad, half-mile, traffic-free stretch of Pennsylvania Ave. that fronts Blair House, the Old Executive Office Building, and Lafayette Park, three troops of believers did their morning tai chi (or whatever the Falung Gong call their exercises), one team dressed in blue, another in pink, and another in red, all carrying drums and holding streamers. And moving as one. It was a little like watching a teevee program from North Korea.

I don’t know what to make of Falung Dafa and it fervent followers. There is a kind-of glaze-eyed quality to the believers, something reminiscent of the Moonies at San Francisco State who were constantly trolling for folks to come to their free dinners — and their (alleged) forest boot camp — to learn all there was to learn about the unification principle. But that’s no reason to outlaw them, or imprison them, or cut them up and sell their organs to wealthy businessmen from Shanghai (if that is indeed what is happening). And I am impressed at the efforts they went through to be seen and heard by one man — Hu Jintao — who otherwise has the luxury of never having to see them. Or even think of them.

You’ve all heard of the protester who was arrested for interrupting some joint press conference between Hu and Bush. What’s most interesting to me is what the protester reportedly asked, in English, for — “President Bush, stop him from persecuting the Falun Gong!”

(Forty-seven-year-old Epoch Times reporter Wang Wenyi has been charged with "harassing, intimidating and threatening a foreign official," and could face up to six months in a federal prison. A pity, too, because what she did — interrupting a press conference — should not be a crime.)

But that question, my goodness, what did she expect Bush to do? Or want to do? Or even be able to do? Use harsh language? Twist Hu’s arm? Beg and plead? Threaten to bomb China? Actually bomb it? What power did Wang Wenyi expect that Bush had in this situation? It’s one thing to tell Hu that his days are numbered, that he should let the practitioners of Falun Dafa go, and that he will be answerable to someone for his deeds. It is one thing to face power and speak the truth. It is another thing to ask another powerful person to consider the murderous. What else is the logical implication of that question? How far would the practitioners of Falung Dafa go? Would they countenance war? Or have they even given the matter much thought?

Maybe Wang Wenyi simply assumed that Bush could do anything. After all, he is The President.

Instead, Bush simply apologized to his guest for the interruption. Hu left the following day for Saudi Arabia, a place with no (so far I know) Falung Gong and where, as in China, no protests are allowed (and are met with swift and brutal policing when organized). It will be a situation much more to his liking. At least he will be able to get a decent night’s sleep, without all that drum banging.

As for Bush, I have no idea where he is. Probably got in a helicopter and left D.C. He can at least do that. Because after all, he is The President.

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.

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