July 15, 2005,
From a distance it looked like any other muggy, mid-summer afternoon in the front of the White House. About two-dozen tourists lingered around taking pictures and enjoying the scene. Meanwhile, clouds in the sky were gathering for an evening rain shower while just off Pennsylvania Avenue a minor tempest of its own was brewing.
Approximately 250 protesters had assembled across the street from the White House with organizers from the newly renamed MoveOn.org Political Action Committee and were beginning to march against the president’s chief political advisor, Karl Rove. With the high humidity levels, a number of protesters and the reporters covering them were already drenched in sweat before the first chants of “Fire Rove!” were uttered.
While the tourists looked on, the demonstrators formed a merry-go-round circle in front of the White House gates while carrying professional protest signs that read, “Fire Karl” and “Stop the Cover-Up: Fire Karl.” As they made their way round and round the circle, the diverse group of liberal activists chanted a mixture of slogans that ranged from the demanding, “What do we want? Pink slip! When do we want it? Now!” all the way down to “Liar, liar pants on fire!” One otherwise normal-looking gentleman in business slacks and a buttoned-down shirt shook his right index finger at the White House while screaming, “Traitors!” at the top of his lungs.
Inside the circle were the faces of MoveOn. First there were the college students on summer break with their t-shirts offering tribute to the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Marley. One piece of standard-issue Che Guevara-branded apparel. Along for the protest were a number of children. One small girl had partially climbed the White House gate. Wearing oversized sunglasses, she held a “Fire Karl” sign tightly to her chest while reporters gathered to take her picture. Another small child ran from camera to camera flaunting his Rove sign while other protesters smiled and cheered him on. It seemed of little concern to the crowd that Rove was in fact traveling with President Bush that afternoon and was nowhere near the White House grounds.
When I asked one MoveOn organizer to ask him how many were in attendance, he muttered, “Uh, about 100?” That seemed a conservative estimate until I looked down at the official MoveOn press release, printed and distributed before the actual protest began, which declared, “A crowd of more than one hundred joined MoveOn.org Political Action members today in front of the White House to demand that President Bush fire his top political adviser, Karl Rove, for outing Valerie Plame, an undercover CIA operative.”
Standing just outside the circle of protesters was MoveOn.org Political Action Washington director Tom Matzzie. Matzzie, dressed in a black suit, was sweating profusely while giving a number of interviews to television affiliates, including NBC News. For each cameraman, Matzzie reiterated the same series of talking points, “Karl Rove put his partisanship above his patriotism,” and “The president should keep his promise from last year and fire Rove.” As I waited in line to ask Matzzie a question, a woman walked by with her dog, which had a sign fastened its back reading, “Huskies against treason.” The dog looked hot and thirsty like the rest of us, though it could have been the thirst for direct political action that drove the canine forward.
Matzzie explained to reporters that the protest was only part of a larger anti-Rove campaign. “We’re going to send people into the districts of Republicans in the House and Senate who have tough reelections. Those members who sit on investigative committees that are not holding Rove accountable are going to hear from us. We’ll be there in their hometowns with television, radio, and newspaper ads.”
When it was my turn to speak, I asked Matzzie if it was fair for MoveOn to be demanding Rove’s termination when he had not even been formally accused, let alone found guilty, of any wrongdoing. Matzzie looked irritated and said, “I have to go speak to the group," before hustling into the crowd of protesters who had begun moving from the White House gates back onto Pennsylvania Avenue. Just when I thought I had missed my opportunity, Mattzie reemerged, pointed a finger at me and shouted, “He needs to be held accountable! Now!" before disappearing back into the crowd.
As the protesters encircled Mattzie with shouts of “Whose house? Our house!” the MoveOn operative waved a MoveOn press release in the air then repeated his talking points to the crowd. Mattzie seemed to struggle with his words, stumbling over the line about Rove and patriotism, before finding the strength to yell, “Rove must go!” Meanwhile, near the back of the crowd a small group had decided to take the protest in a different direction. I heard cries of “Bush’s Iraq policy…” before a MoveOn organizer quickly rushed to the scene and put the demonstrators back on message.
And their message is clear. Rove has long been a target of MoveOn, but he is far from the big prize. The group’s press release was more forward, asking, “Next Question: Did Rove Act Alone? What did Bush and Cheney know and when did they know it?” Mattzie is further quoted in the release stating, “While it’s nearly impossible to believe that Karl Rove didn’t know he was outing an undercover CIA agent to a reporter, the fact remains he did reveal her identity as Ambassador Joe Wilson’s wife who worked for the CIA. Rove either broke the law or was grossly negligent. The president should fire him as promised last year. Rove may be only the tip of the iceberg: What did the president, the vice president and their top aides know about any of this, and when did they know it?”
But Mattzie and his MoveOn supporters didn’t stick around to answer the question. After little more than a 15-minute march and a 60-second speech from Mattzie, the camera crews receded back to the streets of downtown Washington followed closely by the protesters themselves. I passed one elderly couple on my way out. The wife looked to her husband and said with resignation, “Well, I expected more than that.”
Eric Pfeiffer writes the daily political "Buzz" column on NRO.