By BILL ADAIR, Times Washington Bureau Chief
Expressing an opinion in Washington, D.C., can be hard when other people have other opinions, and they are nearby.
WASHINGTON - The news release said MoveOn would stage a protest in front of the White House. It promised "excellent visuals - signs reading "Shame' and "Help Hurricane Victims.' "
Indeed, the visuals were great: about 200 frowning MoveOn members holding the signs, with the White House in the background.
The problem was the audio. There was another anti-Bush protest under way in Lafayette Park, and the MoveOn news conference was drowned out by chants of, "One-two-three-four! Stop the violence in Darfur!"
Tom Matzzie, the Washington director of the liberal political group, tried to speak up.
"The federal response to Hurricane Katrina was a national disgrace," said Matzzie, a stocky political activist with a degree in economics and international peace studies. "This is what government looks like when it is in the hands of people that don't believe in government."
Matzzie noted that President Bush was going to assess the government's response but that he "should begin his investigation by looking in the mirror."
Next at the microphone were hurricane victims from New Orleans.
Iona Renfroe, an attorney who was rescued from a neighbor's roof, said the federal government has done little to help the victims. "There was absolutely no response," she said. Next came Michelle Augillard, 28, but reporters had difficulty hearing her because of the shouts of the Darfur protesters.
Once the Darfur group was finished, the MoveOn group got its turn on the sidewalk in front of the White House. The MoveOn supporters were an eclectic group - people of all ages, a few government employees on their lunch hour. "Let's make our voice heard across the street!" said one of the MoveOn leaders. They assembled at the White House fence and began walking in a circle, shouting, "Shame! Shame!"
Suddenly cries came from the middle of the protest, near where Clarice McMillan stood silent, holding a piece of paper.
In contrast to the professionally printed "Shame" signs, her message was scrawled in ball-point pen: "Support our president, love our people."
A MoveOn supporter screamed at her about how babies had died in the hurricane. McMillan stood her ground.
Reporters arrived and began interviewing McMillan, a former administrative assistant at US Airways who described her age as "in the 50s." She said it's important to be respectful of President Bush and that MoveOn was taking advantage of the hurricane to attack him.
"I really think we have to stop blaming everything on the president," she said.
MoveOn supporter Lori Watzman didn't like all the attention McMillan was receiving and told the reporters to focus on the protest. "This isn't her event!"
Someone else told McMillan, "We need you to move back. You're in the way."
She stood her ground.
Then, more shouting.
Kristinn Taylor clutched a sign that said, "Shame On MoveOn - Exploiting Katrina Victims." He argued with Jerry Stein, a government employee and MoveOn supporter.
"All you're doing is tearing this country apart!" said Taylor, his hand trembling as he held the sign.
Stein fired back, "Bush is tearing this country apart!"
"You all are pathological in your hatred of him!" Taylor shouted. "You are all a bunch of looney liberals!"
Washington bureau chief Bill Adair can be reached at email@example.com or 202 463-0575.