When Karl Rove drew up his plan for a post-State of the Union political narrative, he probably didn't anticipate the most captivating angle being Cindy Sheehan's T-shirt. Nevertheless, the day after an address that was mostly warmed-over rhetoric from last year, Sheehan is, once again, dominating political discussions. What's gone largely missing from the national conversation, however, isn't the war on free expression -- it's the war on T-shirts.
As has now been widely reported, Sheehan, an invited guest to the State of the Union by Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), was escorted from the event in handcuffs after Capitol Police saw Sheehan wearing a T-shirt that read "2,245 Dead -- How Many More?" Today, officials dropped the charge of "unlawful conduct" and apologized for the overreaction.
Around the same time Sheehan was taken into custody, Beverly Young, wife of Rep. C.W. Bill Young (R-Fla.), was also thrown out of the House gallery because she was wearing a T-shirt that said "Support the Troops - Defending Our Freedom." She, too, received an apology this afternoon.
The common reaction to these incidents has been to question why the Capitol Police would take such dramatic steps to keep non-obscene attire from even being in the same room as the president. As it turns out, it's not necessarily the Capitol Police's fault -- the entire Bush administration has been working under a similar assumption for quite a while.
* In August 2004, John Prather, a mild-mannered math professor at Ohio University, was removed by security from a presidential event on public property because he wore a shirt that featured John Kerry.
* On July 4, 2004, Nicole and Jeff Rank were arrested at a Bush event in West Virginia for wearing T-shirts that criticized the president. (About the same time the Ranks were being taken away in handcuffs, Bush was reminding the audience, "On this 4th of July, we confirm our love of freedom, the freedom for people to speak their minds." The irony was rich.)
* In August 2004, campaign workers removed a family from a presidential event in Michigan because Barbara Miller, a 50-year-old chemist, carried in a rolled-up T-shirt emblazoned with a pro-choice slogan. (She wasn't even wearing it.) Miller later said, "I just wanted to see my president," and brought the extra shirt in case she got cold.
* In July 2004, Jayson Nelson, a county supervisor in Appleton, Wis., was thrown out of a presidential event because of a Kerry T-shirt. An event staffer saw the shirt, snatched the VIP ticket, and called for police. "Look at his shirt! Look at his shirt!" Nelson recalled the woman telling the Ashwaubenon Public Safety officer who answered the call. Nelson said the officer told him, "You gotta go," and sternly directed him to a Secret Service contingent that spent seven or eight minutes checking him over before ejecting him from the property.
* In October 2004, three Oregon schoolteachers were removed from a Bush event and threatened with arrest for wearing t-shirts that said, "Protect Our Civil Liberties."
In each instance, the "accused" had tickets to see the president. Moreover, none were disturbing the peace, disrupting an event, or causing a ruckus. Their crime was their shirt.
In this sense, Sheehan's arrest was predictable. The "war on T-shirts" has merely claimed its latest victims.