LONDON — The real news on the first day of President Bush’s three-day state visit to London was to be found on the front page of the liberal Guardian. Under a photograph of an anti-war protester pinning an upside-down U.S. flag on the gates of Buckingham Palace — a mere black eye for the security services, compared with what was to follow — last Tuesday’s lead article began, “A majority of Labor voters welcome President George Bush’s state visit to Britain which starts today, according to November’s Guardian/ICM opinion poll.”
The article went on to say that an “overwhelming majority” of Britons — 62 percent — believe that the U.S. is “generally speaking a force for good, not evil, in the world.” But it was the minority that made itself felt in London.
Now cut to a patch of muddy lawn across from Euston station in central London. It’s 7:30 that evening, and an overflow crowd estimated at 1,200 people has been forced out of the Friends Meeting House, an old Quaker hall, to hear Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic, playwright Harold Pinter, actor Colin Redgrave (brother of Vanessa), former Scottish MP George Galloway, lefty aristocrat Tony Benn, and various representatives of the Stop the War Coalition, the Muslim Association of Britain, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Green Party and other groups inveigh against the president, his war in Iraq, his poodle in Downing Street, and his visit to London.
With Kovic a featured attraction (the paraplegic Vietnam vet had delivered a petition to Downing Street earlier in the day), several speakers were careful to differentiate their anti-war, anti-Bush positions from any trace of reflexive anti-Americanism. “Millions and millions of Americans share our ideals,” said Tony Benn, which was indisputably true. “Make no mistake, Bush wants to tear up the charter of the U.N.,” he said later, which was not. For a veteran politician, Benn had a pretty poor grasp of microphone technology, and much of his speech was unintelligible. “Did you hear what he said?” a voice behind me asked. “Not at all,” someone else replied, and then cheered loudly anyway.
The Queen and the Duke of Dumb
(Photo by Charles Dharapak/AP)
Galloway, a mustachioed Scotsman who was recently kicked out of the Labor party amid accusations (which he denied) that he had secretly been in the pay of Saddam Hussein, did better. He pressed the microphone to his lips like a crooner, and by this elementary trick projected his voice to every corner of the lawn. “Brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, salaam aleikum,” he bellowed, and the effect, coupled with the light Scottish accent, was mildly electrifying. Islamic salutation aside, listening to him was like being transported back in time to a communist rally in the 1930s. For a moment I could imagine that I stood in a crowd of working-class men wearing cloth caps, with filterless cigarette stubs clamped between their lips. In reality, the woman next to me was a well-dressed professional, and the guy blocking my view was wearing a New York Yankees jacket.
Despite the accusations of having received secret payments from Saddam’s government, Galloway was awarded a huge cheer. He got an even bigger one when he called Bush “the least welcome foreign visitor to these shores since William the Conqueror.” Given some of the people who’ve dropped by since William paid his visit — Idi Amin, anyone? — this was quite a statement, though hardly exceptional. “Red” Ken Livingstone, London’s mayor, officially marked the day of Bush’s arrival by calling him “the greatest threat to life on this planet.” He also threatened to charge the presidential motorcade with the same “congestion charge” paid by all motorists entering the city. Welcome to Londongrad, George.
Ron Kovic got a massive round of applause when he was wheeled, or wheeled himself, onstage. “We the people of Great Britain and the U.S. are going to stop this war and create a beautiful world,” he said, waving at the crowd, but I doubt if anyone believed him. I left before Pinter spoke, but then I’d already read his open letter to Bush in the Guardian. It invited him, along with his “fellow war criminal” Tony Blair, to “wash the cucumber sandwiches down with a glass of blood, with my compliments.” He does have a way with words.
ESSENTIALLY, THE ANTI-WAR PROTESTERS had won their war against the president long before Air Force One touched down in a remote corner of Heathrow airport on Tuesday, November 18. For fear of hecklers, protesters and al Qaeda suicide bombers (who turned out to be working in Istanbul that week), more and more events were either canceled altogether (Bush’s planned address to Parliament, for instance) or moved indoors, where the baying of protesters and anarchist shenanigans could not drown him out. (“If he wants a photo-op, we can give him one,” vowed Caroline Lucas, a Green Party member of the European Parliament, making it clear that Bush would regret showing his face even for a minute.) As a result, the president was made to live like a shady fugitive.