West Wing Story: Bush At Home In Calgary

"Buck the G8!" declared Darlene Cook and her buddy, who gave her nom de guerre as Olive Branch. The two Cowgirls for Justice, as they called themselves, rode paper horses through downtown Calgary, Alberta, to protest the international economic forum being held nearby. So far the protests--a good hour and half drive from the heavily guarded summit--have been tame.

The planned "Showdown at the Hoedown" turned into a street party last night. The only wild behavior happened in front of the Gap clothing store, where some 20 activists stripped to draw attention to what they claimed were that company's unfair labor practices. They certainly drew the attention of hundreds of onlookers, who later complained they had to wait through speeches and singalongs to get to the actual stripping.

This morning I saw one reminder of the violence at the last G8 in Italy. A young woman carried a handwritten sign that read CARLO GULLIANI PRESENTE. It was a reference to the Italian protestor killed by Italian carabinieri during confrontations in Genoa. Here in Calgary, Canadian police patrolled the streets on bikes rather than in riot gear. The Mounties seemed more plagued by a rash of food-poisoning that had hit their ranks than the largely peaceful protestors. The forum organizers were nonetheless concerned for our well-being. The White House press corps was given a stern warning not to cross against the lights. They give tickets here for jaywalking. Even the protestors abided by the traffic signs as they marched along Fourth Avenue early this morning shouting: "G8, it sucks. It's all about big bucks."

But if the protests seemed a little silly, their anticapitalist rhetoric against "giant international corporations" had a ring of truth--especially with the news that telecommunications company WorldCom inflated it's earnings by more than $3 billion. The company, coincidentally founded by a former basketball player born in nearby Edmonton, was just the latest in corporate misbehavior. The scandals have given some credence to the often conspiracy-minded activists. President Bush was quick to condemn the fraud today, calling it "outrageous" with no prompting. "I am deeply concerned about some of the accounting practices that take place in America," he told reporters. "There is a need for a renewed corporate responsibility in America."

Every chance he's gotten lately, Bush has wagged his finger at Corporate America. It's bad politics to appear too soft on big business these days. The Democrats have been looking for ways to turn the Wall Street scandals against the GOP. But Bush's concern is bigger than a partisan ploy. If he can't help restore faith in Wall Street, the economy could falter further--and with it his political strength. So while he is busy talking up what his government is doing to crack down on the likes of Arthur Anderson, he is also trying to rebuild confidence in the business world and the economy. "The good news is most corporate leaders in America are good, honest, open people who care deeply about shareholders and employees," Bush said today, adding, "And our economy is strong."

Some might dispute that last point. Back in Washington, Bush aides are fighting with Congress to get the national debt ceiling raised. Deficit spending has gone largely overlooked because of preoccupation with the war on terror. Bush claims that he said during the 2000 campaign that only in case of "war, recession or national emergency" would he operate in the red. "I never thought we'd get the trifecta," he said recently. But watchdog reporters have called him on the claim, saying he said no such thing back then. The White House has not been able to dig up those comments. What Bush said for sure back then was that there was enough of a surplus for cutting taxes, preserving Social Security and paying down the debt all at the same time. Now those claims are under attack by Democrats, who think the Bush tax cut was too costly.

Bush is getting grief for his economic policies here in Canada, as well. Prime Minister Jean Chretien has promised to take the president to task on his protective tariffs of steel, wood and agriculture. The Europeans--who are more protective than the United States--have enlisted Chretien to make their case. The prime minister has insisted that the Middle East--and Bush's plan for a Palestine without Yasir Arafat--would not derail the summit. "I set the agenda," Chretien insisted. When the Prime Minister was asked about Bush's end run around Arafat in his speech on Monday, Chretien gave it only tepid support: "I think perhaps it might be a good thing, but I don't want to comment on that."

Other leaders--like U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Anan--have been even more cautious, worrying that ostracizing Arafat could lead to even more Palestinian radicalization. The G8 leaders are waiting to hear more from Bush this evening at a working dinner where he'll make his case. "He is obviously very anxious to discuss it," a senior administration official said this afternoon. "It's hard for me to believe that people would not be committed to finding a way to move to a Palestinian state." Bush already made his case to British Prime Minister Tony Blair and to Chretien in bilateral talks.

The Canadian prime minister has had his issues with Bush before. He was widely reported to have complained that Bush sounded like a cowboy. That makes Bush more at home in Calgary than Chretien himself. This is cowboy country, best known for the world-famous rodeo blowout next week--the Calgary Stampede. When Bush landed yesterday, the city's mayor presented him with a white Stetson cowboy hat--a traditional welcoming gift. Bush put it right on his head (unlike France's Jacques Chirac who practically batted it away and Germany's Gerhard Schroeder who put it on the mayor's head). Whatever the Cowgirls for Justice and the other protestors think of them, Bush sees himself and the other G8 leaders as the good guys.