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The Nose

Covert Operations

Posted 5/5/2004

Presidential visits are carefully managed affairs, usually replete with advance notice to the public, press releases, and media alerts--especially during an election year when every event is a carefully orchestrated campaign moment. Not so for President George W. Bush 's recent visit to downtown's U.S. Veterans Medical Center on North Greene Street last week. Instead, the April 27 event--part of a series of appearances begun the day before in Minneapolis, designed to promote one of the president's least-controversial initiatives, a national computerized database of medical records--happened suddenly and was only announced by local media outlets that morning. In accordance with post-Sept. 11, 2001 , protocol, the commander in chief's points of arrival and departure, as well as his motorcade route, were kept secret. Sun national staff writer Julie Hirschfeld Davis wrote a story announcing the event, but the Nose found the positioning of the story odd. Instead of giving it front-page, above-the-fold status, Hirschfeld Davis' story was relegated to Page 3, and an important piece of information, the timing of Bush's visit, was missing from the story altogether.

The day of the event, the Nose did a quick and fruitless search for details about the visit. We first checked the Bush campaign's online calendar and then the White House Web site to see if the Baltimore trip was mentioned. Nothing there. We then turned to Gov. Robert Ehrlich 's Internet site and found what we were looking for: Not only would Ehrlich be meeting with the president and Laura Bush at the veterans hospital between 2 and 3 p.m. , but he would be greeting them at Fort McHenry between 1:30 and 1:45.

By the time the Nose got the essential information, it was already after 2 and the traffic between Fells Point and downtown was heavier than usual, so we settled for a post-event drive by. Perhaps there would be straggling supporters or protesters, discarded signs, a police cordon, or some other evidence of the president's visit. But when the Nose arrived, there was nothing--not so much as a bush was here graffiti tag.

Turns out, plenty of other Baltimoreans shared our disappointment. Kathryn Parke of the Baltimore Green Party says her organization was unable to plan an event around Bush's visit due to the lack of advance notice. She says the way the visit was handled was "sneaky," and expresses dismay that she and other Green Party members missed an opportunity to let the president know how they feel about his policies.

American Friends Service Committee spokesman and local activist Max Obuszewski was likewise saddened that Bush's visit was so under-the-radar. "This was planned," he insists. Obuszewski says the secrecy of the president's visit does not surprise him, noting that local anti-war activists and others who oppose the president's policies are could have staged a very large, very loud protest.

At least one person managed to stage a protest in honor of the event: Al McKegg , a local member of Veterans for Peace . McKegg tells the Nose that he was outside the veterans hospital, anti-war sign in hand, along with about 300 other people who came out not to protest but to watch the presidential motorcade roll in.

"What I find most interesting is that I only saw one other person, a woman named Michelle who works a few buildings away from the center, who was there specifically to protest," McKegg says. "But, when [Bush] went by, a spontaneous chorus of boos went up. And it seemed like there were more people booing than cheering. They certainly drowned out the people cheering."

Like Obuszewski and Park, McKegg found the Sun story's lack of details suspicious. McKegg says he thinks the exclusion was intentional--though not on the newspaper's part. McKegg says he contacted the veterans hospital after reading Hirschfeld Davis' article and asked what time the president was scheduled to arrive, but the center would not say (though hospital spokesman R. David Edwards tells the Nose that he would have shared the information if he was contacted). He then called Hirschfeld, who was more helpful, "after she made sure I wasn't an assassin," he says.

Sun reporter Hirschfeld Davis says the reason the timing of Bush's visit wasn't included in the story is because the Bush campaign embargoed that information so she could not include it in her story. Further, according to Sun managing editor Tony Barbieri says the Secret Service wouldn't disclose some information to The Sun, such as the president's arrival site and his motorcade route. Barbieri says the paper wanted to print a graphic showing the motorcade route, but the Secret Service refused to release the information, citing a policy put into place following the Sept. 11 attacks.

A few other local news outlets carried announcements of Bush's visit the morning of April 27 as well, though none revealed specifics about the president's schedule either. WJZ Channel 13 News noted the visit that morning but did not say when the president would be appearing. Channel 11 news mentioned that the president would be in town sometime in the afternoon. Meanwhile, Channel 2 employee Debra Schindler says she pored through transcripts of newscasts that aired before Bush's visit but found no mention that the president would be in town.

The Bush campaign did not return the Nose's calls for comment; The White House press office says it does not comment on the planning of events.

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