I think the story of Mr. al-Zaidi – the journalist who threw his shoe(s) at President Bush during and Iraqi press conference – is fascinating. It reminds of just how infrequently a president – and in particular this president – has actually had to confront dissenting opinions. And how dangerous this is, both for the country and for the office holder. How can one govern if you are not receiving a diversity of opinions, and are not, from time to time, forced to confront those who disagree with you, or whom your decisions have negatively impacted?
The challenge of permitting dissent is inherent to the office itself. Power is itself a deterrent – do people really want to anger the most powerful person in the world? What if they need a favour later? Then, there is always the temptation to soften one’s message in the hopes of influencing, rather than arguing, with its holder. Traditionally protests were one way those on the outside could try to be heard. But today the dubiously legal special “protest zones” that are often set up are rarely in view of the president. Here we aren’t even talking of engaging dissent – just acknowledging it! All of these challenges, either active or passive – protect and insulate the president, ultimately to their detriment.
In the case of al-Zaidi, I’m uncertain of whether his protest is one that should be supported – anything that threatens the independence and freedom of the press corps needs to be considered carefully. But then, given the limitations this president has placed on people, their have been few other outlets and few people willing to stand up.
This is why I Stephen Colbert is so important . His speech at the White House Correspondent’s Dinner will be remembered as one of the bravest, most important acts of the Bush era. I re-watched the first 20 minutes the other night with a friend who’d never seen it and was reminded by how painful, awkward, brutal and deserving it was. Indeed, it is so awkward I often have to stop watching it (I HATE social awkwardness – I literally want to jump into the TV and mediate it. Maybe it is the curse of my consulting, or maybe it is the curse of being a middle child). It is remarkable how the man just keeps going. But thank god he does. It may be one of the few moments when the president truly had to confront a vicious critique of his administration.
Can anyone think of other moments when the president has had his cocoon penetrated? Would love to hear them.
Of course, in the end, a balance is usually struck. The tighter the lid one puts on dissenting opinions, the more pressure builds for them to eventually erupt out. Colbert and al-Zaidi pail in comparison to what is perhaps the best example of this pressure cooker expoding – the 2008 election.