George Bush comes to Australia


Bob Gould

US President Bush is making a whistlestop state visit to Australia this Wednesday and Thursday. The more militant section of the antiwar movement is planning demonstrations demanding withdrawal of US and Australian troops from Iraq in a number of cities, including Sydney and Canberra.

The Australian Labor Party parliamentary leadership of Simon Crean is trying to lay down the law, demanding that Labor MPs give Bush a standing ovation when he addresses federal parliament, despite the ALP’s opposition to the launching of the war on Iraq. A number of Labor parliamentarians, led by Tasmania’s Harry Quick, are threatening to defy Crean and stage a similar kind of demonstration in the Parliament to the one in the Philippines Parliament.

Greens MPs are threatening to bring the families of the Australians imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay into the Parliament as their one guest each. The Parliament has been closed to the public for the Bush visit, and the visit of the Chinese Premier the next day, and the main Canberra demonstration has been pushed down the hill, away from Parliament House.

The Sydney antiwar movement was recently split by the more conservative forces, who broke away. The breakaway group held a “hoedown” on Sunday in Prince Alfred Park, a curious event that trivialised Bush’s visit into rather Australian nationalist ridicule of Bush’s Texas background. This event was attended by about 1500 people (which was a pretty modest turnout) who were very thoroughly saturated by literature for the serious demonstrations organised by the more militant wing of the antiwar movement, in Sydney, the Stop the War Coalition.

The Sydney protest, on Wednesday at 5pm, at the Town Hall, will be addressed by Father Brian Gore, the Catholic Columban missionary-priest who was once imprisoned in the Philippines for allegedly supporting guerillas; Greens Senator Bob Brown; Senator; Labor MHR Harry Quick; and Democrats Senator Natasha Stott-Despoja, among others.

On Sunday, Alex Mitchell, Australia’s most accomplished tabloid journalist, had a double-page spread in the Sydney Sun-Herald, the newspaper with the second-largest circulation in Australasia — 550,000 copies, which equates to a readership of 1.2 million. This is a very large slice of the 4.5 million adult population of New South Wales.

Mitchell’s article covers the very spectacular demonstration back in 1966 when Lyndon Baines Johnson made the first US presidential trip to Australia, and compares the two situations. Among other things Mitchell quotes yours truly, getting in the date, location and time of the Sydney and Canberra demonstrations, which ought to be pretty useful in helping to build the demonstrations. There were three major illustrations in the two-page spread, two of the demonstration, and one of then 19-year-old Megan Stoyles with her famous T-Shirt, “Make Love Not War”, which ended up on the cover of Time and went round the world.

The text of the Sun-Herald article is attached.

Bush, LBJ and a city’s gay day

This week’s visit by President George Bush has prompted memories of the first US presidential visit by Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1966. Alex Mitchell compares the political landscape.

The analogies are spooky. President Lyndon Baines Johnson, 36th President of the United States of America and a former Texas Senator, arrived in Sydney on October 22, 1966, on a flying visit, while President George Bush, 43rd President and a former Texas governor, will arrive in Sydney on October 22, 2003 for a 24-hour visit.

Johnson’s host was Liberal Prime Minister Harold Holt, who held a snap election on November 26, 1966, and won the greatest electoral victory in Australian history, decimating the Labor Party led by Arthur Calwell from Victoria.

Bush’s host is Liberal Prime Minister John Howard who hasn’t announced the date of the next federal election when he is due to face the Labor Party’s old-style, uncharismatic leader Simon Crean from Victoria.

Johnson’s visit was controversial because of America’s invasion of Vietnam and Holt’s commitment of 4500 troops to the war against communism. Johnson wanted to help Holt win the forthcoming election and, for his part, Holt declared Australia was “all the way with LBJ”.

Bush’s visit is equally controversial because of the American-led invasion of Iraq and Howard’s commitment of Australian forces to the war on terror. Howard sees himself as “deputy sheriff” in the Asian region but Bush has promoted him to “sheriff” and “my good friend”.

Some things don’t change. The leader of the Vietnam Action Committee that organised disruption to Johnson’s motorcade through the streets of Sydney 37 years ago was Bob Gould and he is on the committee of the Stop the War Coalition organising this weeks demonstrations at Sydney Town Hall on Wednesday night, and outside Federal Parliament in Canberra on Thursday morning.

Gould, a Newtown bookseller, recalled the 1966 demo as “a turning point”, even though the 10,000 antiwar protestors were vastly outnumbered by 1 million Sydneysiders, almost half the population, who turned out to welcome LBJ with flags, banners and several tonnes of ticker tape.

The story of Johnson’s arrival was broken by Daily Mirror journalist Gerald Stone, later to become executive producer of 60 Minutes, whose front-page byline read “by Gerry Stone who telephoned the White House”.

Premier Robin (later Sir Robert) Askin established a citizen’s special welcoming committee, chaired by Sydney Lord Mayor John Armstrong, and comprising Sir Asher Joel, to spruce up the city and call out the citizenry. They chose the slogan “Make Sydney Gay for LBJ” without a hint of irony or foreknowledge of the arrival of the open homosexual culture.

In preparation for the president and Lady Bird Johnson’s arrival at the Art Gallery of NSW — it was chosen over the Sydney Town Hall — a mini bush park was built and stocked with koalas, kangaroos, wallabies and a lonely echidna raided from Taronga Zoo.

Sixteen-year-old Lee Rhiannon wagged school to join anti-war demonstrators, who had been allocated an area in Hyde Park in an agreement reached with the head of NSW Special Branch, Fred Longbottom (1916-1996).

Gould, a Trotskyist, and Mavis Robertson, a Communist, who is now a director of the Conference of Major Superannuation Funds and a trustee of the National Breast Cancer Foundation, maintain today that they were “double-crossed” by Longbottom because part of their turf was occupied by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Croatian National League, both cheering for LBJ.

Rhiannon, who recalled the demo as “one of the highlights of my life”, was in the same crowd as Sylvia Hale but the two didn’t know each other then. Both now sit in the NSW Legislative Council as Green MPs, Hale after a successful career as a publisher, who founded Hale & Iremonger with the late John Iremonger.

Hale said one of her abiding recollections was the Mormon choir booming out The Yellow Rose of Texas and The Battle Hymn of the Republic over and over again until a wharfie rushed to Woolworths, bought a pair of wire cutters and silenced the microphones.

Barrister Charles Waterstreet had been bussed into the city from Waverly College by the Christian Brothers to cheer the eminent visitor but he quickly escaped to join his girlfriend Georgina, a passionate anti-war activist.

“As I’m still at school, there’s no chance I want to go fighting in the jungles of Vietnam, but I’m happy enough to cheer on those who do,” he wrote in his brilliant memoir Repeating the Leaving, published in 2001. “I’m prepared to go all the way with LBJ as long as I don’t have to go myself.” Air Force One landed at Mascot Airport on time and the 19-car motorcade began sweeping towards the city along streets lined with flag waving crowds and more US secret service men than Sydney had ever seen.

The assassination of John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, three years earlier on November 22, 1963, had propelled Johnson into the White House and turned presidential security into a task of epic proportions.

He passed through Taylor Square, where a banner hung over the street saying “Sydney’s Gay for LBJ”, and headed for the corner of College and Liverpool streets where Gould and his companions were screaming their lungs out “Hey, hey LBJ, how many kids you killed today?”

As the first bulletproof limousines swung into view, a group of 50 self-styled “commandos” readied themselves to rush forward and lie on the roadway. One of the first to hit the bitumen was student activist Sandra Levy. Others were sisters Anne and Jean Curthoys.

Levy is a successful television producer and now head of ABC Television while Ann Curthoys, a history professor at the Australian National University, was recently appointed as the Group of Eight Visiting Professor of Australian Studies at Georgetown University, Washington, DC. Before taking up her appointment, Curthoys, who participated in the 1965 Freedom Ride with Jim Spigelman, now the NSW Chief Justice, met the US Ambassador to Australia, Thomas Schieffer, a Texan and business crony of Bush. When she demonstrated against Johnson in Liverpool Street, one of the dignitaries in the motorcade was Ambassador Ed Clark, a Texan and one of LBJ ‘s political cronies. (That’s enough analogies — Ed).

Hall Greenland, also a follower of Leon Trotsky and now with The Bulletin, recalled: “I jumped into the stalled press bus full of American reporters, delivered a very short speech in favour of the Vietcong and jumped back off.” The street scene was chaotic. Hundreds of protestors had rushed forward to halt the presidential cavalcade, police were grabbing demonstrators and dragging them out of the war, the air was filled with chants and screams.

A red-faced premier Askin could hardly believe that his triumphal event had been brought to a halt by what he called “the great unwashed” and that he was being publicly humiliated in front of the President of the USA. He wrote himself into the 20th-Century Australian history by shouting at the official driver: “Drive over the bastards.”

Eventually the official vehicles edged through the crowd to the Art Gallery where officially invited and screened guests, including the late Charlie Perkins, also a Freedom Rider from a year earlier, greeted LBJ and the first lady.

Askin made a gift of twin albino wallabies to the startled president while a koala fell from a pole to its death after electrocuting itself. The presidential circus then moved to Canberra where the nation’s capital saw its biggest-ever demonstration as well as 19-year-old student Megan Stoyles wearing a “Make Love Not War” T-Shirt outside Johnson’s hotel. The LBJ visit changed many people and their attitudes. Within a year, the Labor Party was led by Gough Whitlam, the Vietnam War broke Johnson and the anti-war movement moved from the fringes to the mainstream carrying many of its offspring into respected positions of power and influence.

There was electricity in the air, things were changing, they were happening times. A 24-year-old reporter in the press gallery of Federal Parliament was torn between covering Johnson’s tour for his 35-year-old anti-war proprietor Rupert Murdoch, or joining the protestors chanting outside in the streets. But that’s another story.

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