LONDON–You may not be able to get as many TV channels in London as you can in Los Angeles or New York, but you sure as hell can buy a lot more newspapers. In fact, you don't even have to fork over any cash. Just stroll onto any train and you'll find sections of the Sun, the Evening Standard, the Guardian, the Independent or the Daily Telegraph abandoned on the seats and ready to be scanned. All of which helps to generate, from a variety of political perspectives, the hysteria surrounding George W. Bush's visit to the United Kingdom, home of his nervously stalwart ally, Prime Minister Tony Blair.
The real news on Tuesday, the day of Bush's arrival, was to be found on the front page of the liberal Guardian. Given that it was good news for the president, this was an unexpected place to find it. PROTESTS BEGIN BUT MAJORITY BACKS BUSH VISIT AS SUPPORT FOR WAR SURGES read the headline above the fold. If I had read that over the Internet back in the States, I would have assumed some Pentagon-friendly hack was having himself a little fun. Even with the actual newspaper in my hand, purchased a hundred yards from the Thames beneath a low gray sky about to spit a classic English rain, it was hard to believe my eyes. But there it was. Under a photograph of an anti-war protestor 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 — the day's lead article began with the words, “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% — believe that the U.S. is “generally speaking a force for good, not evil, in the world.” Furthermore, 43% of voters “welcomed” Bush's visit as opposed to the 36% who didn't and the 21% who couldn't make up their minds. Perhaps the oddest statistic was that 51% of Labor voters welcomed Bush's trip as opposed to only 45% of the Conservatives. If your definition of “news” is reading or hearing something of political import that you hadn't known or heard before, then this was definitely the thing itself.
Now cut to a patch of muddy lawn across from Euston station in central London. It's 7:30 on Tuesday 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 vet Ron Kovic, playwright Harold Pinter, actor Colin Redgrave (brother of Vanessa), former Scottish M.P. George Galloway, lefty aristocrat Tony Benn and various representatives of the Stop the War Coalition, the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), The Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), the Green Party and other groups inveigh against the president, his war in Iraq, his poodle in Downing Street, and his visit to London.
Like most political rallies, this one was long on boilerplate and short on understatement or insight. Most of the people in the crowd were in their 20s and 30s, and a lot of them had obviously come from work. Despite the presence of MAB on the podium, there were few Muslims to be seen. Red flags had been unfurled on the sidewalk outside the hall, and tables had been set up from which books, magazines and pamphlets were being sold. “A Killer Comes to Town” stated the cover of the Socialist Worker, while the Socialist Review pictured Dubya emerging from hellfire under the words, “Give Bush a Warm Welcome.” I forget the headline on the Morning Star, which I've heard is actually Stalinist, but perhaps my memory is just being kind.
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.
Galloway, a mustachioed Scotsman and former MP — he 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 his voice carried to every corner of the lawn. “Brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, salaam aleikam,” 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, and 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 nicely 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 Bush's 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, on stage. “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 it. 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 protestors won their war against the president long before Air Force One touched down in a remote corner of Heathrow airport on Tuesday night. For fear of hecklers, protestors and al-Qaeda suicide bombers, more and more events have either been canceled altogether (Bush's planned address to Parliament, for instance) or moved indoors where the baying of protestors 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 world's most powerful man has been made to look like a shady fugitive.
The level of security was simultaneously unprecedented and, in places — particularly royal places — worthy of Inspector Clouseau. Fourteen thousand police officers are being deployed in London, along with rooftop snipers, special surveillance teams, marines patrolling the Thames and searching bridges and boats for bombs. There are also, I was assured by one person, several George Bush doubles about. (Who will pay the £5 million tab for all this is the subject of considerable speculation.) At the same time, it was revealed on Wednesday that Ryan Parry, an undercover reporter for the tabloid Daily Mirror, managed to get a job as a footman at Buckingham Palace two months ago. Had he not resigned his position yesterday, he would have served George and Laura Bush breakfast this morning. The palace staff was vetted by the CIA, among other agencies.
As of Wednesday evening, though, almost all the action has been in the media. Wednesday's main event was a widely advertised “alternative state procession” starting off at Jubilee Gardens under the London Eye. The alterna-procession included a horse-drawn carriage, lookalikes of Bush and the Queen, an 18-foot inflatable nuclear missile, a pink tank emitting foul blue smoke, and mock secret service agents in suits and sunglasses. The crowd was less spectacular: A policeman I spoke to estimated it at 120 people, once you subtracted all the reporters. (I would have said there were about 400 protestors.) And of the six or seven people I interviewed, three proved to be Americans who live in Britain. Like the crowd at Friends Meeting House on Tuesday night, this one was overwhelmingly monocultural — I didn't see a single black, Indian, Arab or Asian face. And Red Ken, who had encouraged the procession and was expected to lead it, was nowhere to be found.
I didn't realize the Americans were Americans until they opened their mouths. Their accents were softened by years in the UK, but unmistakable nonetheless. Nancy, a middle-aged New Yorker who's lived in England for 10 years, was wearing a keffiyah, a Stop the War T-shirt under her jacket, and a BUSH OFF sticker on her back pack. She said she was protesting because Bush was the world's No. 1 terrorist, which is exactly what was stated on the Socialist Worker placard she was carrying.
Another American, Fred, was off to one side of the crowd sitting by himself. He had crew-cut hair, an intelligent but intensely gloomy expression, and exuded a slightly worrying Taxi Driver-ish vibe. He said he'd been living in England for 20 years.
“What is it that upsets you about Bush so much?” I asked.
“Everything,” he replied.
“Well, what specifically?”
“He's a warmonger, I think he's ecologically dangerous, I think he's building a police state in America. Everything about him and everything I can think about him.”
“Did you feel at all similarly about Clinton?”
” I didn't like Clinton either. I haven't liked any American president for a long time. But no, Bush seems to be worse.”
No doubt Thursday's protest in Trafalgar Square, with a predicted turnout of some 100,000, will be incomparably greater than anything witnessed so far, but up to now most of the protest has existed solely in the minds of over-excitable reporters — call it the Revolt of the Chattering Classes. On Tuesday and Wednesday, the rest of London went about its business. I'm beginning to understand why George Bush doesn't read newspapers.