Throughout this week’s flying shoe coverage, the comedic details of the debacle dominated headlines. But humor couldn’t dominate the essential moral. Bob ruminates on what the hurling of the footwear revealed about the extent of Iraqi discontent and of President Bush’s denial of the same.
Tired Of Fighting
Artist: The Menahan Street Band
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: News happening now – an Iraqi man threw his shoes at President Bush during a news conference. FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: An Iraqi journalist hurled one and then another shoe at the President. MALE CORRESPONDENT: The shoe-thrower yelled in Arabic, this is a farewell, dog. BOB GARFIELD: A guy throws his shoes at George W. Bush. In the midst of war and staggering economic news, what an odd little story to dominate the headlines for three days. But, the target was the President of the United States, the incident was rich with subtext, and, most of all, it was all on tape – like the Zapruder film, only non-lethal. [CLIP]: [HUBBUB] [END CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: Wow, nice reflexes, Mr. President. The New York Post headline was, “Lame Duck,” but I beg to differ. This was one of the few times in eight years when Bush didn't look awkward at the podium. His missile defense system should only be that nimble. Oh, and a little deflective humor, too. All I can report is, deadpan Bush, it is a size 10. Ha ha ha.
So, yeah, comedy, check. Man bites dog, check. Man calls president dog, check. Suitable for slo-mo? Double super check. But none of that is why this episode will live forever, nor even the brazenness of the attack smack in a sea of press and Secret Service. It sure wasn't the journalistic angle. Despite a fairly severe breach of decorum – I mean, just think of Dan Rather. [CLIP]: PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON: Are you running for something? [LAUGHTER AND APPLAUSE] DAN RATHER: No, sir, Mr. President, are you? [LAUGHTER] [END CLIP] BOB GARFIELD: The CBS newsman became a public enemy in some circles for merely talking back to President Nixon. Media etiquette-wise, winging footwear is definitely a press conference don't.
But this barely seemed to register. Even the media focused less on their colleague the culprit than on his weapon. MALE CORRESPONDENT: In much of the Muslim world, throwing a shoe at somebody is considered the worst possible nonviolent insult. It shows extreme disrespect and contempt. MALE CORRESPONDENT: They say there literally could not be a more insulting gesture in the Muslim world than to be assaulted with one’s shoe. MALE CORRESPONDENT: The shoe is considered something that’s unclean in Iraq and across the Muslim world. BOB GARFIELD: Uh-huh, whereas in France and Cambodia and Iceland, throwing shoes at someone’s head is – what? – a compliment? Okay, so now we know that the gesture was not mere insult but extreme insult, a kind of breathless attention to a minor detail that might have obscured the most significant part of the episode, but it could not. Not even the most pernicious media filter, its own triviality, could filter out the real story. The tape told it plainly.
A working journalist – not a Baathist insurgent, not a Shiite cleric, not a foreign Jihadist, but a journalist – was finally so outraged by the blood and chaos visited upon his country that Muntazer al-Zaidi lashed out at the most powerful man in the world at who knew what cost to his career and personal safety.
Maybe he guessed that he would become a hero throughout the Arab world, but he could just as easily wind up a martyr. His family has said he’s already been severely beaten in prison. What would make him risk everything?
The answer was immediately forthcoming, provided, generously enough, by the President himself. PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: And the guy wanted to get on TV, and he did. I don't know what his beef is. BOB GARFIELD: He doesn't know. Exactly. Here was George Bush for one last photo-op in what he sees as a fertile crescent of Arab democracy and what most Iraqis see as the ruins of their society. As if to underline the very self-delusion and denial that so infuriated his attacker, the President depicted the incident as an illustrious emblem of freedom. Here he was with CNN’s Candy Crowley. PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I believe that a free society is emerging and a free society is necessary for our own security and peace. BOB GARFIELD: Not an unexpected reply from the President who, minutes later, would deny once again that waterboarding is torture or its use against the law. More surprising, actually, was Crowley’s question, which framed the shoe assault as a display of Iraqi ingratitude. CANDY CROWLEY: Was there ever a part of you that, in reflection, went, wait a second, we have poured billions of dollars, not to mention U.S. blood and treasure, into this country – how dare this guy, even if he’s a single guy? BOB GARFIELD: Was she just baiting Bush or expressing her own patriotic resentment? It was impossible to tell. What was clear was that the odd little shoe incident was so much more than man bites president. It was a video apotheosis, high drama disguised as low comedy, cathartic, illuminating, and, I promise you, iconic.
If you believe in constructing your presidential legacy with indelible images, well, mission accomplished.
WNYC 93.9 FM and AM 820 are New York's flagship public radio
stations, broadcasting the finest programs from NPR, PRI and American Public Media, as well as a wide range of award-winning local
programming. WNYC is a division of
New York Public Radio.