WASHINGTON – The unceremonious ouster of three people from a recent White House Social Security event in Colorado has critics wondering how far President Bush will go to ensure friendly, sympathetic audiences at his town hall-style forums and rallies.
“He is the president, and regardless of affiliation, everybody should have the opportunity to go and see the president,” said Aaron Johnson, spokesman for Rep. Marilyn Musgrave, R-Colo. “It shouldn’t be the job of anybody to make sure the crowd is 100 percent sympathetic.”
Even without a guaranteed audience of backers, the administration does have the right to try and prevent threats and disruptions from protesters, which is why people are often barred from Bush events, according to White House officials. The removal of individuals can occur before and after a disruption.
“There is an active campaign underway to try and disrupt and disturb his events in hopes of undermining his objective of fixing Social Security,” White House spokesman Trent Duffy told FOXNews.com. “If there is evidence there are people planning to disrupt the president at an event, then they have the right to exclude those people from those events.”
But Linda Coates, a Fargo, N.D., city commissioner with an openly liberal background, said the administration is going way beyond protecting the president from hecklers and security threats. In fact, she found herself on a list of North Dakotans "banned" from a February Bush rally days before the event.
The list reportedly was found in boxes of tickets for distribution. It included two high school students, a librarian, a Democratic campaign manager and several university professors — the majority of whom had connections to a local group called Democracy for America (search).
After a local media uproar, the 42 people on the list were allowed to attend. The White House later said that the list was a mistake and may have been generated by its advance team — a mix of White House staffers and state and local volunteers. But Coates said she believes the list is a way for the White House to screen out people who disagree with the president's policies before they reach the meeting hall.
"These events are clearly so carefully crafted that they can't be considered 'open forums' anyway," she said. "They are pep rallies. This is a new thing in terms of having an administration that tries to have absolute tight control on public perception of events and of reality."
John Fortier, a political analyst with the American Enterprise Institute (search), said he's heard complaints about ticket-holder screening and "stacking the deck" in favor of filling meetings with the president's supporters, but none of it is new.
Past presidents have often packed houses with supporters, especially when they are on campaigns to advance new policy initiatives.
It's all part of the "permanent campaign," Fortier said, adding that Bush did much the same thing before his tax cuts passed Congress during his first term.
“I don’t know if it is working, but I don’t fault it too much that these rallies aren’t open forums for debate,” he said. “When the president goes out to the country, it’s meant to be on his turf.”
But critics bemoan the difference between keeping friendly audiences and treating people like criminals based on their political beliefs or affiliations.
Denver attorney Dan Recht, who is representing Leslie Weiss, 39, Alex Young, 25, and Karen Bauer, 38, told The Associated Press that his clients had tickets and were not planning to disrupt anything when they were asked to leave, without explanation, before the March 21 forum.
The three, who are members of the Denver Progressives (search) political activist group, did have T-shirts tucked under their business attire calling for Bush to “stop the lies,” but a plan to brandish them during the program had been abandoned earlier and the shirts never saw the light of day, Recht said.
Secret Service (search) in Denver told the three the next day that the bumper sticker on their car, which read “No More Blood for Oil,” a common anti-Iraq war slogan, triggered the ejection.
“They were kicked out of this venue and not allowed to hear what the president had to say based solely on this political bumper sticker,” Recht told AP.
The White House later claimed the man who turned them away was a “volunteer” but did not identify him or his affiliation. Since the forum was considered an official event, neither the Colorado Republican Party nor its volunteers were involved, party officials said.
Duffy said the White House sends advance teams to deal with logistics for any official event. These teams typically handle the screening for speakers and audience members who will be sitting with or addressing the president during the event. They also keep an eye on the crowds for possible troublemakers.
He said he did not have further information on the Denver incident, but “from what I was told it was fairly obvious to them that they had plans to disrupt the event. ... It was a judgment call.” He would not say who the "them" in question were.
Musgrave and Rep. Bob Beauprez, R-Colo., whose office had distributed the tickets to Young, Bauer and Weiss, both said the incident had been handled poorly and the three should have been allowed to attend. Democratic members had stronger words about the seeming exclusivity of Bush events.
“In politics, the best way to win support for a controversial policy is to sell it to people who are still undecided," said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo. "It appears that this White House has so little confidence in the president’s Social Security privatization plan (search), however, that administration officials are not allowing even undecided Americans into the president’s events."
Reports that these presidential events are closed to Democrats and that audience members are screened for their sympathy to Bush’s policies are inaccurate, Duffy countered. He said Democratic members of Congress and local organizations are typically asked to distribute tickets to anyone they choose.
“It’s easy for anyone to say, ‘You only include those who support the president,’ but that’s just not the case,” he said. “A lot of people come in with open minds, they listen to the president and continue to ask questions.”
Duffy did not indicate how citizens chosen to speak or ask questions are screened.
"There are steps being taken to ensure the president has a degree of order at these events," he said. "I think the president of the United States deserves to have a level of respect when he holds town meetings or any other forum.”
Complaints about audience choreography were also prevalent during the presidential campaign. Numerous reports described how attendees to Bush rallies were turned away for wearing pro-John Kerry T-shirts and stickers. The New York Times reported in September that in order to ensure tickets for the event, people were encouraged to do volunteering for the local Bush campaign.
A week before a Bangor, Maine, event in which first lady Laura Bush was scheduled to campaign for her husband, the paper reported that ticket seekers were asked to fill out questionnaires, stating home and e-mail addresses, Social Security numbers and pledges of support for the president.
More recently, The Albuquerque Journal reported that people seeking tickets through New Mexico Republican Sen. Pete Domenici's office for a March 22 Social Security event were quizzed about their support of the president ahead of time.
A spokesman for Domenici's office said Friday that the newspaper report was inaccurate, and that no such "litmus test" was given to the 1,000 people who acquired tickets for the event from the senator.
Nonetheless, critics say screening at these events is ultimately hurting the president's goals.
"The president would be better served if he were to listen to dissenting views at these town hall meetings," said Lawrence Pacheco, spokesman for Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., who wrote to White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card requesting an explanation for rejection of the three attendees to the Denver event.
"It would probably help him make the changes he needed to better his policy on Social Security," Pacheco said.