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Demonstrators can give good advice

Published Oct. 2, 2005

Presidents hate demonstrations. Lyndon Johnson was outraged by them. Richard Nixon was unhinged. The irony is that if either of them had ever listened to war protesters who filled the streets of Washington, they might have saved their presidencies. People carrying posters will put the "real" in the realpolitik that often seizes the White House.

Last week's demonstration against Chinese President Jiang Zemin was puny when compared with the hosts of Vietnam _ more than 1-million people joined a march on the Pentagon in 1967, and hundreds of thousands followed them over the years. On Wednesday, some 2,000 people turned up in Lafayette Park. But it was enough to cloud the day of the old protest organizer in the White House.

The protest was a spirited affair, with some of his people _ labor, Hollywood, Kennedys _ there, and about 98 percent of the speakers were Democrats.

The tone of White House spinners, beginning with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, tried to put the discussion in a rigid either-or equation. It would be "irresponsible" not to engage with a country of the size and importance of China.

The protesters in the park did not want to go back to the pre-Nixon era of pretending that China did not exist. Said Sandra Cuneo of the Kennedy Human Rights Memorial as she picked up litter, "It's the terms of engagement that worry us."

But Clinton, at age 51, is still subject to fads and crushes. He discovered Asia and swallowed it whole. He is hell-bent for trade and sees unlimited opportunities in Beijing. He found campaign gold in the Chinese-American business community. As in the case of NAFTA, he was so insistent on extending trade that he made compromises on labor, civil rights and the environment that bedevil his attempts at fast-track negotiations. On China, said one of his former advance men who was helping out in Lafayette Park, "He inherited a mess from Bush _ and he bought into it."

Americans who remember the interventionist years when we expressed our displeasure with recalcitrant countries are puzzled by our passive response to China's in-your-face policies on human rights. In the old days we bombed, invaded and subverted countries that refused to get with our program. Just cast your mind back to Guatemala, Chile, Cuba, El Salvador, Nicaragua. But we're selling nuclear reactors to Beijing and inventing a history of "cooperation" on non-proliferation.

Why? The short, crass answer is money. U.S. firms drool over prospects of trade with billions of buyers. They are putting factories in China that will compete with their own at home _ just in the hopes of more Chinese deals. The most baffling aspect may be the exertions and contortions that are occurring against the reality of a $40-billion trade deficit.

Johnson and Nixon dismissed street smarts as mob rule. Johnson had many chances, before the ultimate demonstration of the presidential campaign of Eugene McCarthy, to make for the exits. Michael Beschloss' Taking Charge, a book of LBJ tapes, tells us that he feared condemnation from his archenemy, Robert Kennedy. Nixon had promised he would end the Vietnam War, but 20,000 more Americans died while he weighed the consequences of withdrawal on his re-election, and his accomplice, Henry Kissinger, intoned to gullible senators and journalists, "If you could see the cables."

Well, eventually we did see them, and they had the same fatuous jargon we heard in the speeches from the throne.

The current example of the efficacy of taking to the streets comes from Italy, where President Romano Prodi was unseated _ and restored by the timely intervention of common people.

Prodi's coalition partner, Fausto Bertinotti, a reconstituted Communist, withdrew his support for the government proposal to cut Italy's extravagant pension system to bring the country into compliance with European Union fiscal standards. He had heard Italians moaning and groaning about austerity and taxes.

He failed to understand the underlying commitment to EU. He went to Perugia to a peace rally, where he was straightened out. He was booed off the scene and scurried back to Rome to make his peace with Prodi.

Large groups are no more infallible than small groups or even one person. But they often have something to say. At least one protester thinks they reached Clinton. Bianca Jagger, a veteran activist, thinks Clinton listened _ or at least someone at the White House did. "At his press conference with Jiang, he talked about a "universal human rights standard,' which is what we were talking about."

Universal Press Syndicate