Twenty-five minutes of George W. Bush at the podium, George Bush on two giant video screens and George Bush's rhetoric booming through the convention center's over-amped PA system didn't help the president win over Imani Bazzell. "I was very displeased," said Bazzell, attending the National Urban League's convention from Champaign, Ill., following the president's July 28 speech. "I feel like there was mutual pimping going on. I don't like the president using the Urban League to promote his agenda, when he's not working in the interests of African Americans."
Other attendees were less strident, but reported being similarly unimpressed by Bush's speech. "He'd be hard-pressed to get my vote," said Richard Brown, an Urban League convention-goer from Hartford, Conn.
Bush's speech touched briefly on Iraq -- which he claimed was now "free" and no longer "a training ground for terrorists" -- and he pledged to help stabilize Africa and help defeat AIDS there. But most of the speech focused on tax cuts, the difference in test scores between white and black students, and his proposal to give government aid to faith-based social service organizations. He repeatedly chided Congress for failing to act on things like aid for job seekers and a faith-based mentoring proposal. "Who runs Congress?" asked Vernessa Gibson, another Urban League member from Champaign, after the speech. "That's his party!"
Few expected Bush to get a rousing reception from an African-American organization; he won just 9 percent of the black vote in 2000. The speech was likely little more than an effort by the president to keep from appearing utterly disinterested in black America, after he snubbed the recent NAACP convention and ignored requests for audiences with black leaders and even the Congressional Black Caucus. But Bush's appearance did excite one group: the protesters gathered outside of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, whose numbers grew from about 40 at 11 a.m. to a peak of over 100 at noon.
Considering that they only learned about Bush's visit last week, local activists had scrambled to throw something together. And indeed, it was a beef stew of a protest -- a wide range of people against Bush, but few who unequivocally said they were for anyone in particular to replace him. Most said they weren't yet sure who they wanted on the Democratic ticket. One who had picked his candidate was Larry Rippel of Bloomfield, who said he supported Vermont Governor Howard Dean for his goal of providing universal heath care.
This civics-class earnestness didn't interest Swissvale's Mike Vesch -- who shook a "drum" made from a cookie tin filled with old chains and pennies. He said, "I actually want Bush to win -- it's got to get worse before it would get better." So to vote for a Democrat would be to forestall the people's revolution? "Yeah, a Democrat's a Republican in a cheaper suit," he said.
Carol Rosenberger said she had voted for Dennis Kucinich in the MoveOn.org straw poll, but "I want to hear a lot more from the rest" of the candidates. And why, specifically, was she against Bush? As with many protesters, this question prompted a sigh, a pause, some head shaking. "He's a lovely man, but we don't agree with anything he says," Rosenberger replied, in her best "sweet old lady" voice -- putting herself in character for her part with the Raging Grannies, a group of older women who sing for their subversion.
The vast majority of the protesters were focused on Bush's return-to-Reagan economic policy and on the war in Iraq. Jasmine Burton, 23, a CCAC student from Duquesne, hadn't planned to protest that morning, but "I saw all the anti-Bush signs and wanted to come stand with y'all. I didn't vote for Bush and I don't know anyone who did. I'm gonna work hard this election." But who for? She didn't have much enthusiasm for most of the Democratic hopefuls: "I wish Hillary Clinton would run."
Among the "usual suspects" at the anti-Bush rally -- peace-and-justice activists, social-services workers, union people, politically disheveled young anarchists -- was a young woman who was a dead ringer for The Girl Next Door. Cathy Troiani of Zelienople wore a loose ponytail, a flowered navy dress with white stockings, and a gold cross. Though several yards from the bullhorns and Bush effigies, she held above her head a poster reading "Bring Home Gabriella's Daddy," complete with pictures of her toddler daughter. She said she'd never participated in a protest until now, but "I felt I had to do something." Her husband, a member of the 444th Personnel Services Battalion of the Army Reserves, went on active duty in February. "I think we went to war without the proper information. I think Bush stretched the information. And I'm frustrated with the lack of checks and balances -- the Supreme Court, the Senate, the Representatives, they just do what he says."
Asked if she had been criticized by other military families for taking such a critical stance, she replied, "You know, people don't know what to say to me."