Meet the face of war

In September 1968, the Democratic vice presidential candidate, Edmund Muskie, was campaigning in Washington, Penn., when he was heckled by a crowd of antiwar protesters.

Muskie and his running mate, Hubert Humphrey, were still running as supporters of the Vietnam War. So were Republican candidates Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew, giving opponents of the war no place to go.

Muskie responded to the hecklers by inviting them to send one of their spokespeople up on stage to give his or her point of view. They chose Rick Brody, a 21-year-old who mounted the stage and told the crowd, “We want America to stand for what the Constitution stands for, which is everybody equal under the law … The reason I am out here in the streets is because no one listened to us in Chicago.” (Muskie and Humphrey had been nominated at a raucous convention in Chicago.)

When Brody finished, Muskie responded. He didn’t change his position, but he was willing to listen and to take the political risk of putting himself on the same level with an ordinary citizen and critic.

It’s a lesson George Bush should take to heart. Cindy Sheehan, whose son died in Iraq, met with him at the White House with several other Gold Star parents on June 18, 2004. But Sheehan was still grieving the loss of her son. The passage of a year has raised more questions in her mind about the war, particularly when another son announced his intention to enlist in memory of his brother. She is now camped out in front of Bush’s ranch seeking a meeting with him, a vigil that has cost her a lot—a neighbor fired a shotgun, the right wing media machine has geared up against her (a Web page called the National Ledger gave her the poisonous label of anti-Semite), and her husband filed for divorce.

Bush needs to walk down to the gate and bring Sheehan inside. There is no danger to him of standing with a concerned citizen. There is only political risk. Balancing that risk is the need for this sheltered president to hear from those who don’t agree with him.

In 1965, when race riots were breaking out around the nation and the African American west side of Las Vegas was restless, Nevada Gov. Grant Sawyer and his aide Richard Ham walked through the streets of the area, chatting with residents. No riot occurred, and Sawyer’s technique was later emulated by New York Mayor John Lindsay.

If Bob Cashell had been mayor when the railroad trench was being planned, there probably would never have been the anger we have seen over the project. He might not have agreed with detractors of the trench, but he would have treated them with respect and listened instead of adopting the “We know better” attitude that characterized city government then.

Good people deserve to be listened to, and good leaders will listen. They don’t have to agree with their critics, but they need to hear from those critics.