Joe Conason's Journal

"Freedom is beautiful," Bush tells soldiers. Unless it involves the freedom to talk to the press.

Published November 25, 2003 10:50PM (EST)

Freedom and silence
"Freedom is beautiful," as the president quips when asked about protesters and other critics, but freedom isn't always convenient. That stricture applies with particular emphasis to whatever exercise of freedom might embarrass him and his administration, as reporters learned when he visited Fort Carson.

According to Rocky Mountain News columnist Mike Littwin, everyone covering the presidential "photo op/pep rally" at the Colorado Army base got the "rules" in advance:

"No talking to the troops before the rally.

"No talking to the troops during the rally.

"No talking to the troops after the rally.

"In other words, if I've done the math right, that means no conversation at all -- at least, while on base -- with any soldiers. After all, who knows where that kind of thing could lead?"

As Littwin mischievously suggests, "It could lead to a discussion about why the president has time to get to so many fund-raisers and no time to attend a single funeral of a soldier killed in Iraq."

No doubt the White House handlers, now trying to redress the perception that their boss doesn't care about the troops, were feeling cautious following the mixed reception he got at a meeting with the families of slain British soldiers last week. The Guardian reported that prior to the "emotional meeting," some family members charged that Bush had cynically arranged the event for his own political purposes. A man whose 18-year-old son was killed in Basra told reporters that he thought neither Bush nor Tony Blair cared about the deaths of British troops. A woman whose husband was killed in Iraq also expressed skepticism about Bush's sincerity.

Such bitter remarks echoed those of Elaine Johnson, whose son died on one of the Chinook helicopters shot down on Nov. 2. While Bush was in Britain, the grieving mother went to Fort Carson from South Carolina for her son's memorial service at the base. She "wondered aloud why the president had visited South Carolina in the week of her son's funeral but had not bothered to attend or to send any message to her or her family."

As it turned out, the president got a rousing welcome from most of the troops at Fort Carson. He suffered no negative headlines. But why take a chance that a soldier might express any doubts to an inquiring scribbler?
[2:30 p.m. PST, November 25, 2003]

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By Salon Staff

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