Smack in the center of Ohio is Columbus, home of the White Castle burger and headquarters of Wendy's International. Marketing strategists love the town's middle America demographics. They choose Columbus to try out new twists in automobiles, technology and toys.
When the Clinton administration decided to test public opinion about its plan to launch a military response against Saddam Hussein, a National Security Council staffer suggested a visit to Columbus. CNN agreed to foot the bill and provide the coverage, and Ohio State University agreed to host the made-for-TV forum: "Showdown with Iraq: An International Town Meeting."
President Clinton sent his three top foreign-policy advisers: Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Defense Secretary William Cohen and National Security Adviser Samuel "Sandy" Berger. The day before the town meeting, Clinton had presented a 25-minute terse and tough message on Iraq--in the safety of the Pentagon's auditorium. According to one White House staffer, the plan for the Columbus event was to "get out beyond the Beltway filter and talk directly to the American people."
But the PR interests of the administration collided with the concerns of a public that demanded to be heard, even when its questions or commentaries had to be delivered without the benefit of a microphone. Hard questions were posed regarding administration resolve, apparent contradictions in U.S. policy, and even moral right, but they were sometimes muted by the obnoxious chanting of balcony demonstrators.
The event was quickly characterized as a disaster for the White House, something like a car crash--or as one Pentagon official said, "like watching a food fight." After further reflection, however, Albright maintained that the proceeding illustrated a "vibrant democracy."
I was in St. John's Arena that afternoon, and I left wondering if I'd witnessed democracy or anarchy or something too staged and self-serving to merit further reflection. Although I came with serious questions, I knew that an audience of 6,000 would provide little opportunity for participation. I intended only to join several people in protesting the threat of more bombing. I agreed with a Mennonite woman who carried a sign saying: "People of Iraq, Christians are not your enemies!" Others chanted, "Stop the violence," which seemed eerily premature.