When Iraqi journalist Muntazar Al Zaidi heaved his two shoes at the head of President George W Bush during a press conference in Baghdad, he did something that the White House press corps should have done years ago.
Al Zaidi listened to Bush blather that the half-decade of war he had initiated with the illegal invasion of Iraq had been “necessary for US security, Iraqi stability (sic) and world peace” and something just snapped. The television correspondent, who had been kidnapped and held for a while last year by Shiite militants, pulled off a shoe and threw it at Bush — a serious insult in Iraqi culture– and shouted “This is a farewell kiss, you dog!” When the first shoe missed its target, he grabbed a second shoe and heaved it too, causing the president to duck a second time as Al Zaidi shouted, “This is from the widows, the orphans, and those who were killed in Iraq!”
I’ll admit, listening to Bush lie his way through eight years of press conferences, while pre-selected reporters played along and pretended to get his attention so they could ask questions which had been submitted and vetted in advance, I have felt like throwing my shoes at the television set.
Al Zaidi, who paid for his courageous act of protest by being brutally beaten by security guards, is a hero of the profession. He stopped taking the president’s BS and called him what he is: a murderer and a criminal, with the blood of perhaps upwards of a million Iraqis on his hands. Al Zaidi used what was supposed to be a staged photo-op for the president as an opportunity to speak up for those whose lives have been ruined by this president — the ones our suck-up journalists routinely ignore.
I’m not suggesting that journalists should routinely leave presidential press conferences in their stocking feet. We have different ways of expressing our sentiments to people we feel have insulted our intelligence than throwing shoes at them, but it would be nice to see a journalist or two flip the president the bird when he lies so blatantly to them. Or they could all get up and just walk out, leaving him standing alone at the presidential lectern.
It’s time for the press corps to stop treating presidents like royalty. If he accomplished anything at all in eight years in office, President Bush has demonstrated that, to the contrary, the president is a very ordinary — and in his case a rather less than ordinary — man. The office of president deserves no more respect than that of the mayor of Detroit, or of Wasilla.
My suggestion is that the press corps use the remaining five weeks of the Bush administration to develop a new relationship with the presidency — one in which they drop all the phony propriety and tradition and start acting like boisterous newshounds of old, barking questions, laughing cruelly at inane answers, demanding follow-ups when they are given the run-around, and, where necessary, walking out, or perhaps tossing the occasional shoe.
The journalism profession was a full-blown disaster and an utter disgrace during the Bush administration, and with all the crises facing the country and the world, in part because of that failure on their part, we cannot afford to have them continue that failure into the Obama administration.
With the Bush administration reduced to a running joke at this point, it gives the journalism profession a chance to redeem itself by using these few remaining weeks to establish a new tradition for presidential press conferences and photo-ops–one that can continue on into the new presidency.
Meanwhile, I’m suggesting that my alma mater, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, hire Al Zaidi to teach a class in press conference journalism techniques. They should make it a multi-year appointment, because if he left after just one year, his would be difficult shoes to fill.
The writer is a Philadelphia-based journalist and columnist. His latest book is “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006).