Political criticism shouldn’t be silenced

By Leonard Pitts: Syndicated columnist

I am not cynical enough.

Surely those who do not suffer this deficiency have already read conspiracy into the controversy over two shirts last week on Capitol Hill. But my ability to do likewise is impaired by a need to believe my elected leaders are not total horse’s patoots.

Partial patoots, maybe. Three-quarters patoots perhaps. But “total” horse’s patoots? I don’t want to think it.

For those who haven’t heard: Two women attempted to wear shirts bearing messages into the gallery last week where President George W. Bush was delivering his State of the Union address. One was Beverly Young, wife of Florida Republican Rep. Bill Young. Her long-sleeved shirt said, “Support Our Troops.” She was asked to leave the chamber.

The other was Cindy Sheehan, the woman who lost a son in Iraq and responded by spending last summer camped outside the president’s Texas ranch, demanding to speak with him. Sheehan, last seen being embraced by Venezuela’s loose cannon of a president, Hugo Chavez, was a guest of Rep. Lynn Woolsey, Democrat from California. She showed up wearing a T-shirt that referenced the U.S. death toll in Iraq. “2,245 Dead. How Many More?” For this, she was also asked to leave the gallery. And arrested. And, she said, treated roughly enough that she was left with bruises.

The upshot is that apparently neither woman should have been removed, much less arrested. “We made a mistake,” U.S. Capitol Police Chief Terrance Gainer told CNN. Simply wearing a shirt with a slogan on it, he said, breaks no law.

Not that anyone asked, but I don’t think people should be allowed to watch the State of the Union address while wearing T-shirts or jerseys unless doing so from his or her couch. It is, for criminy sake, the “State of the Union” “Address.” If you’re watching it from within that august hall, you ought to show a little respect.

It’s called a dress code. They have one at my job; maybe they have one at yours. So from where I sit, politics ought not be the issue: I would not have wanted to see Jesse Helms show up to Bill Clinton’s State of the Union speech wearing a Monica Lewinsky T-shirt any more than I’d have wanted to see him wearing a faded Rolling Stones T-shirt. Either demeans the dignity of the occasion.

Of course, all that’s academic because in this case, politics is certainly the issue. So long as such shirts are allowed, we have to wonder why police would remove two women from the building for wearing them. More critically, why would they arrest only the one whose shirt bore a message unfriendly to the Bush administration?

Honest mistake, got to be. I mean, not even an administration as thin-skinned, filled with yes-persons and hostile to criticism as this one could be quite so petty, right?

OK, granted a police officer who asked to remain unnamed did tell The New York Times that guards had been told to keep a close eye on Sheehan, but that doesn’t prove anything, does it? They probably just wanted to make sure she found her seat, don’t you think?

Besides, contrary to the evidence of your lying eyes, the president is actually open to criticism. Heck, he said so in his speech. Just so long as it’s “responsible criticism” that aims to help win the war in Iraq and not the other kind, which says we never should have been there in the first place. In other words, you have his permission to criticize the White House, so long as you agree with the White House.

That’s fair, right? And any suggestion that the administration is so hostile to voices of dissent that it would actually, and illegally, employ the Capitol Police to silence them, why that’s just paranoia, isn’t it?

I’m certain it is. Almost certain. Kind of certain.

Not that Cindy Sheehan has any doubt. “I got arrested and Beverly Young didn’t,” she said. “What does that tell you?”

It tells me I’m not cynical enough. But I’m getting there fast.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Readers may contact him at: lpitts@herald.com