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WHAT IS BUSH SO AFRAID OF?

If President Bush is so insistent that his political adversaries talk to him about fixing Social Security, why does he keep throwing them out of his "town meetings" on the subject?

Lately, he has been chastising Democrats for not sitting down with him to fashion a solution. "I think there is a political price for not getting involved in the process," Bush said this week in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "I think there is a political price for saying, 'It's not a problem, I'm going to stay away from the table.' "

But when Bush's critics show up at the president's taxpayer-financed events, they are often told there is no place at the table for dissenters.

Just ask Karen Bauer, who tried to attend Bush's Social Security event in Denver last week with her friends Leslie Weise and Alex Young. They were given tickets by the office of Rep. Bob Beauprez, R-Colo. "We had on suits, we didn't have any buttons or pins," Bauer said. Beneath their sober attire, they wore T-shirts that read "Stop the Lies," but decided to keep them covered.

Before the three could enter, she said, they were stopped and directed toward "a man wearing a smiley-face tie." The man said the Secret Service was coming to see them. Someone "in a suit wearing an ear piece and a lapel pin" came along to say that "we had been ID'd" and "that if we had any ill intentions, we would be arrested and jailed." They were initially seated, she said, but the organizers had second thoughts and escorted them out.

According to the Secret Service, the man they spoke with was not a government agent but a local Republican volunteer. It appears they were "ID'd" by a bumper sticker on their car that read: "No More Blood for Oil." So don't dare display a controversial bumper sticker if you want to hear your president. The Republican Party is watching you. This was not an isolated case.

The Social Security tour consists of strictly controlled political meetings similar in spirit to the authoritarian style of Bush rallies during the 2004 campaign. In a famous instance last September, a distraught mother whose son was killed in Iraq was arrested for protesting at a New Jersey rally for first lady Laura Bush. The charges were later dropped, which makes you ask why she was charged in the first place.

The White House's explanation for the treatment of the Denver three was not reassuring. "If they want to disrupt the event, then I think that, obviously, they're going to be asked to leave the event," said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. But this is free speech pre-emption. The three had not disrupted the event. Do we live in a country where the president's representatives are authorized to read citizens' minds to determine who is suitable to hear his speeches?

Yes, all presidents try to present themselves in the best light, a fact acknowledged by Joe Lockhart and Doug Sosnik, top aides to former President Clinton. "We clearly used our allies to try to build crowds," Sosnik said. But the Clintonians did not exclude opponents, as a review of scores of news stories reporting hecklers at Clinton speeches confirmed. "I'd guess that at one of out every six events, people heckled," Lockhart said, "and Clinton came out ahead." Facing dissent head-on is part of the job description for the leader of a free people.

And so you wonder why a president who sells himself as a tough, confident bring-'em-on type of guy seems so anxious about facing average citizens who disagree with him. Why does he insist on being surrounded, always, by people who tell him that he's right, great and wonderful?

Some of Bush's Social Security events have been held at public colleges and universities. Why should institutions devoted to free inquiry allow themselves to be used in this way? Shouldn't universities tell the president he is most welcome as long as he upholds the traditions of free speech by permitting opponents and supporters alike to hear him? And if he is serious about transcending partisanship, why does he taunt his adversaries at partisan rallies where the opposition is told to get lost?

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