Protesters: Use Your Shoes

Muntader al-Zaidi, the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at President Bush, probably isn't happy that he's been sentenced to three years in the slammer. But perhaps he can take comfort in the knowledge that he joins the great Nikita Khrushchev in the immortal pantheon of Folks Who Use Their Shoes As a Medium for Political Statements.

Don't laugh. This is no minor honor. As Khrushchev proved when he banged his shoe on his desk at the UN in 1960, using footwear to make your point is a pretty good way to become a legend. Apparently, shoes speak louder than words.

Khrushchev ruled the Soviet Union for a decade and nearly touched off a nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis. But ask most Americans about him and what they remember is the banging of the shoe. The incident is so famous that many people swear they saw it on TV. Actually, the shoe-banging was never captured by any camera, although there is a photo of the shoe sitting on Khrushchev's desk after he stopped pounding it.

"In each of my lectures, they ask about the shoe," Sergei Khrushchev -- Nikita's son, who now teaches at Brown University -- told me when I interviewed him for K Blows Top, my forthcoming book on Khrushchev's misadventures in America. "I say, 'Please raise your hand if you saw it' and many people raise their hands. They really think they saw it."

For those who only think they remember the incident, here's a brief synopsis:

In 1960, Khrushchev, a world-class ham actor, traveled to the United Nations to vent his anger over the American U-2 spy plane shot down over Russia a few months earlier. In three weeks, he delivered 11 speeches to the General Assembly. But when compelled to listen to other people's speeches, he got bored. When he disagreed with those speeches, he got angry. Sometimes he drummed his fists on his desk to protest -- an act that caused other communist delegates to drum their fists in solidarity (or maybe sycophancy.)

On October 12, 1960, Filipino delegate Lorenzo Sumulong delivered a speech denouncing the Soviet Union for colonizing its Eastern European neighbors. Enraged, Khrushchev jumped up, his face beet red, and waved his shoe -- a tan loafer -- like a club. Then he sat back down and began banging the shoe on his desk. His first blows were mere taps but then he pounded harder and louder.

"He banged to a regular rhythm, like the pendulum of a metronome," his bodyguard, Nikolai Zakharov, later recalled. "That was the moment that entered world history as Khrushchev's famous shoe."

Over the decades, Khrushchev's shoe has become part of pop culture. It inspired a million-dollar question on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? as well as a book on public speaking, Khrushchev's Shoe: And Other Ways to Captivate An Audience of 1 to 1,000.

A bogus version of the story appeared in Mark McCormack's best-selling business book, What They Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School. "Anger and other strong emotions can be effective negotiating tools but only as a calculated act," McCormack wrote. "I read somewhere that a photo of Nikita Khrushchev's historic shoe-pounding incident at the United Nations revealed that he was still wearing both his shoes. A third 'for pounding only' shoe? That's calculation."

Of course, no such picture exists and there was no third shoe. But legends are stronger than mere facts.

Al-Zaidi's delightfully hilarious shoe-throwing incident has already entered the realm of legend. In Saudi Arabia, a man reportedly offered $10 million to buy one of the shoes. In Iraq, a statue of a giant shoe was erected to immortalize the great event, although the Iraqi parlimaent later demanded that it be dismantled.

Throughout the Middle East, shoe-throwing has become a popular mode of protest. And in Washington, on the weekend before the inauguration, anti-war protesters set up a effigy of President Bush and passersby gleefully tossed shoes at it.

All of which teaches us a valuable lesson in the art of political protest: If you really want to go down in history, don't bother writing a blog. Use your shoes.