Like pulling an all-nighter with the aid of caffeine pills, protesting a speech by a controversial political figure is a time-honored tradition on college campuses. So it should have surprised no one — least of all officials of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library at the University of Texas at Austin — that Henry Kissinger‘s February 1 appearance there would raise a few hackles. If a man whom UT journalism professor and activist grise Robert Jensen calls “a uniquely evil figure in American history” can’t get a rise out of a crowd, who can?
Alas, the former secretary of state never got the chance to engage in a heavily accented shouting match with Jensen or other would-be demonstrators from groups like Students Against Sweatshops and Amnesty International. On January 28, mindful of what happened the last time he appeared at the LBJ Library — back in 1984, when he shared a stage with former secretary of defense Robert McNamara, fifty protesters were dragged out and hauled off to the clink — Kissinger decided to stay home, citing concerns about public safety. Subsequent newspaper reports played the blame game, with UT officials accusing the protesters of squashing Kissinger’s right to free speech and the protesters countering that UT was interfering with theirs, but they didn’t answer the relevant question: Was the threat real?
According to two sources with intimate knowledge of the preparations for the speech, the law enforcement authorities monitoring the situation felt certain it was. The sources say that the Austin Police Department obtained inside information indicating, first, that one of the groups that planned to protest was No to WTO, an affiliate of the organization at the center of the melee in Seattle during the World Trade Organization gathering several months back. Jensen doesn’t deny that No to WTO members were going to be on hand but thinks the connection to recent events is spurious. “The group that caused all the trouble in Seattle was the Seattle police force,” he insists.
Second, the sources say, the protesters rigged it so they could pack the auditorium where the speech was to be held. In late January the LBJ Library set aside five hundred of the one thousand free tickets for UT students, faculty, and staff; to get one, you simply had to show up at the reception desk and produce a university ID. The remaining five hundred were for Friends of the LBJ Library. But law enforcement authorities learned that the protesters had counterfeited several hundred tickets and planned to arrive early enough to take the seats of most of the non-UT crowd. Jensen acknowledges that counterfeiting was “discussed” but denies it ever happened.
The final straw, the sources say, was the discovery of a specific plan to disrupt Kissinger’s speech. At the three-minute mark, law enforcement authorities were told, the protesters in the audience were going to stand up en masse and shout out questions until he stopped speaking and answered them. Jensen claims not to know of such a plan, but he says that any action would have been a direct response to what he understood to be the library’s policy of allowing only written questions. “Kissinger never answers hard questions about his role in various atrocities,” he says. Yet the sources insist the intention all along was to take questions at microphones set up in the aisles.
Regardless, the sources say, once it became clear that the protesters meant to stir things up inside the auditorium rather than outside in the adjoining plaza, concerns were raised about the safety of the Friends of the LBJ Library, many of whom are 65 and older. The Secret Service was worried enough about 87-year-old Lady Bird Johnson that they told speech organizers there had to be emergency medical services present. “When you’re an older person, things happen to you,” one of the sources says. “Women faint. Men faint.” Before backing out at the suggestion of library director Harry Middleton, Kissinger himself proposed that Mrs. Johnson not attend, but, the source says, she insisted upon coming and taking her usual front-row seat. “If someone is in such ill health that chanting might trigger a heart attack,” Jensen says, “I’m not sure they should be out at all. And I don’t understand how noise threatens someone. We’re talking about asking questions. This is civil disobedience.”
As a certain president might say, that depends on your definition of “civil.”