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01 October 2023

US activists vent their rage as Bush exits

Outgoing US President George W Bush (GETTY IMAGES)


As George W Bush prepared to leave the US presidency, protestors hurled shoes at the White House Monday in a symbolic farewell for the man they accuse of gross mismanagement, obstructing justice and war crimes.

Activists and tourists eager to see the Bush era end appeared throughout the day in front of the famed residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to snicker their good-byes.

There were no huge crowds celebrating Bush's pending departure, as the focus of the human flood that descended on Washington was on celebrating Barack Obama's historic rise to the presidency. But many were bitter over the Bush years.

"President Bush is leaving office and he's not being held accountable for his offenses. There is a laundry list of things he could be charged with," said activist Jamilla El-Shafei, who organised the shoe-throwing protest.

The protest honored the Iraqi journalist who threw his shoes at the US president on December 14 during Bush's farewell visit to Iraq, an action considered a grave insult in the Arab world.

El-Shafei inflated an eight-metre effigy of Bush with a long Pinocchio nose at Dupont Circle, away from the heavy flow of tourists, and invited activists and people passing by to throw shoes at it.

A few hundred protesters then marched to the White House, where they threw shoes at the building's iron gates.

Jay Marx, an activist with the Washington Peace Center, stood on a walkway outside the rear White House gates and called for Bush and Vice-President Dick Cheney to be tried as war criminals.

"You've killed millions, displaced millions, [brought] endless shame, wasted trillions. You've wasted our time," Marx cried. Two security guards surveyed the cluster of shoes that littered the ground near Marx, grinning.

A woman dressed as the Grim Reaper and a man in a paper mache Bush headpiece, prison garb and ball and chain posed for photographs with tourists.

"I hated Bush before it was cool," read one banner.

Bush "was given his eviction papers by the American people", said Arizona resident Diamond Dar, using a touch of embellishment.

"As a Native American we never trusted the US government because they've always lied to us," said Dar, but she said she expected conditions to improve under Obama.

In downtown Washington a lone protestor stood in the middle of a human flood heading into a subway station holding aloft a small sign that simply read "Arrest Bush".

Bartholomew Jackson, 17, said he wanted to bring the outgoing president to justice for causing the deaths of thousands of American troops by ordering them to Iraq.

At a small square three blocks from the White House, protestors shackled their legs together, donned orange prison suits – similar to those worn by some detainees at the US naval base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba – and held signs including "Arrest Bush" and "No torture for empire".

Few people seemed to take notice.

"Bush used scare tactics to silence the opposition," said Gary Brooks, a middle-aged African-American doctor visiting Washington for the inauguration. "The use of patriotism went a long way" in keeping dissidents quiet, he said.

"The Iraq war was a war for oil," added his friend Derrick Buckingham, a computer security analyst. "The Bush administration was government for the oil industry. That will change under Obama."

Not everyone thought ill of Bush.

"It's going to be sort of like Richard Nixon. Ten, 15 years later he'll become an elder statesman," said Howard Brown, a substitute high school teacher from the state of Connecticut.

"People will realise what he did, and that he did it with the best interests of America in his heart," he said.


Parting gift

President George W Bush, in a final act of clemency, commuted the prison sentences of two US Border Patrol agents but steered clear of high-profile pardons for former vice presidential aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby and others.

Bush commuted the 11-year prison sentence of Ignacio Ramos and the 12-year sentence of Jose Alonso Compean, who were tried for shooting an unarmed Mexican drug smuggler in the buttocks in a case in Texas that drew widespread attention.

Their 2006 conviction drew an outcry from supporters who said the agents had been treated too harshly and were just doing their jobs. Under the commutation, their prison sentences will expire on March 20.

"He [Bush] believes that the length of the sentence and the conditions of their confinement were too harsh, they suffered enough for their crimes," a White House official said on condition of anonymity.

"He does believe that both men received a fair trial and a just verdict," the official said.

Mexico criticised the decision and said Bush was pressured by anti-immigrant groups.

"We think this sends a bad message," Carlos Rico, deputy foreign minister for North America, told a news conference.

It was expected to be Bush's last act of clemency before his presidency ends at noon on Tuesday when Barack Obama takes office.

The two commutations were in marked contrast to predecessor Bill Clinton, who issued a flurry of 140 pardons on his last day as president.

Controversy still reverberates over Clinton's last-minute pardon of fugitive financier Marc Rich, whose ex-wife was a major Democratic donor.

Obama's choice for attorney general, Eric Holder, faced questions about the Rich pardon during confirmation hearings and said he erred in supporting the 2001 pardon when he was Clinton's deputy attorney general.

The Justice Department said Clinton granted 459 clemency petitions and President Ronald Reagan granted 406 during their times in office.


Bush has been more tight-fisted with pardons, having issued 189 pardons and 11 commutations of sentences during his eight years in office, according to the White House. None has generated the controversy of Clinton's pardons.

Perhaps more notable than the commutations were the pardons not issued on the eve of the presidential transfer of power.

No pardon was granted for Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff who was convicted of lying to a grand jury investigating the leaked identification of CIA operative Valerie Plame. Bush commuted Libby's 30-month sentence in 2007.

Also omitted was former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, who is fighting his October 27 conviction for failing to report significant gifts on his financial disclosure forms. Stevens, a Republican, lost his re-election race in November, and has accused federal investigators of misconduct in his case.

Bernard Ebbers, the former WorldCom chief executive who was convicted of securities fraud, also did not receive a pardon. (Reuters)