WASHINGTON — In the beginning — back when most Americans believed Saddam Hussein was responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when Donald Rumsfeld was known for his quick verbal jabs and not the quagmire in Iraq, and when President Bush still could hope to be revered as a great wartime president — the women of Code Pink would stand quietly on the broad sidewalk in front of the White House and hope someone would pause to take their fliers.

I never did. Nor did I see more than an occasional tourist pause briefly, more out of curiosity than agreement with the grandmotherly ladies in their pink windbreakers. The women were genial enough, but so far beyond where the collective mind of the American public was in 2003 and 2004 — still in sync, if not in complete sympathy, with the president’s policies in Iraq — that they were easily ignored.

They were ignored by Democrats. They were ignored by Republicans. And they were ignored by the Bush White House, which paid them no mind — even when they helped to organize massive anti-war protests — because Bush paid the tens of thousands of street protesters no mind, either.

Now Code Pink, whose tactics have become increasingly confrontational and disruptive as the Iraq war has wound on, has become an applause line in a presidential speech. It is a turning point and an unnerving preview of ugliness still to come. “When it comes to funding our troops, some in Washington should spend more time responding to the warnings of terrorists like Osama bin Laden and the requests of our commanders on the ground, and less time responding to the demands of MoveOn.org bloggers and Code Pink protesters,” Bush said in a speech to the conservative Heritage Foundation.

This is not the most dangerous sophistry in which Bush has engaged over the past seven years. But it is a precursor to the Nixonian demonization of dissenters that looks to be a hallmark of next year’s presidential campaign, complete with the distortions and untruths that helped undo the presidential campaign of decorated war hero John Kerry in 2004 and ended the Senate career of Vietnam veteran and triple-amputee Max Cleland of Georgia.

Deconstructing the Bush smear is simple. “Some in Washington” — notice no one is named — should spend more time worrying about terrorists and funding the troops. Well, Democrats in Congress have funded the troops, at the levels Bush has sought and sometimes with more money than he’s requested for Afghanistan and for veterans. In this sense, Democratic congressional leaders aren’t listening to either MoveOn.org or Code Pink. If they were, funding for military operations in Iraq would have been cut off by now. And, most likely, the abysmally low public approval ratings that Congress gets in national polls would be higher.

Though MoveOn.org is linked to Democrats (it was started in protest of the Clinton impeachment and routinely funds Democratic candidates), Code Pink is not. The group has been almost as critical — and practiced its unnerving, in-your-face protests — toward House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton. Code Pink members have been “sitting outside my home, going into my garden in San Francisco and angering my neighbors, hanging their clothes from the trees, building all kinds of things … (putting) couches, sofas, chairs, permanent living facilities on my front sidewalk,” Pelosi complained at a lunch with journalists recently. As for Clinton, Code Pink has tried to overrun her New York offices, trailed her around Washington and dogs her at fundraisers. The group targets both Pelosi and Clinton on special Web sites (PelosiWatch.org and ListenHillary.org).

Democratic congressional committee chairmen have thrown Code Pink members out of hearings and had them arrested. Democratic lawmakers have confronted their Code Pink confronters in the hallways — most famously when Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey of Wisconsin was caught on tape in an angry tirade, lecturing the protesters about the realities of the legislative process. There is no evidence whatsoever that “increasingly Congress is being run by Code Pink,” as White House spokeswoman Dana Perino charged after a protester with red dye on her hands was arrested while badgering Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at a hearing.

But a lack of evidence did not stop Bush from launching a disastrous war. Certainly it will not stop him from hurling divisive political broadsides. The only antidote to official disinformation is truth. It is missed, deeply, by a discontented public that yearns for an end to the Iraq war and a change in this nation’s course.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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