CHARLOTTE, N.C. – President Bush isn’t used to tongue lashings, but he got a scolding Thursday from a North Carolina man who told the president that he should be ashamed of himself.
“While I listen to you talk about freedom, I see you assert your right to tap my telephone, to arrest me and hold me without charges, to try to preclude me from breathing clean air and drinking clean water,” real estate broker Harry Taylor told Bush at a town hall meeting. “I have never felt more ashamed of nor more frightened by my leadership in Washington.”
The audience at Central Piedmont Community College booed, but Bush seemed to take the criticism in stride.
“I’m not your favorite guy,” the president said. “What’s your question?”
Taylor didn’t have one, but he wasn’t finished.
“I feel like, despite your rhetoric, that compassion and common sense have been left far behind during your administration,” he told Bush. “And I would hope, from time to time, that you have the humility and the grace to be ashamed of yourself.”
Bush defended his decision to authorize domestic eavesdropping in cases involving conversations between the United States and terrorist suspects or their associates in other countries.
“I’m not going to apologize for what I did on the terrorist surveillance program. … Would I apologize for that? The answer is, absolutely not,” he said to applause.
The extraordinary encounter highlighted just how far Bush has come from the days when he limited his appearances to carefully screened crowds. In the past, tickets to presidential events were typically distributed through the Republican Party or other Bush-friendly groups. Bush rarely took questions, and when he did, they were almost always fawning.
That’s changed in recent weeks as his poll numbers have dropped amid growing unease with the war in Iraq. White House aides acknowledge that Bush’s new willingness to take tough questions is part of an effort to respond to war worries.
For all their differences, Bush and Taylor agreed on at least one thing.
“I really appreciate the courtesy of allowing me to speak what I’m saying to you right now,” Taylor said near the conclusion of his reprimand. “That is part of what this country’s about.”
“It is,” Bush agreed.