Clarence Page: Save the empty words

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Organizers of the “Million Vet March” on Washington insist they had nothing to do with interlopers who try to score political points off their event. But, sorry, guys. We are judged by the company that we keep.

March organizers are trying to distance themselves from folks who showed up at their protest at the World War II Memorial, tore down barriers around it put up during the government shutdown, carried them a few blocks to the White House and piled them up outside the fence. It was a short walk for the men and a giant photo opportunity for publicity seekers.

One man at the megaphone, Larry Klayman of a conservative group called Freedom Watch, demanded a “peaceful uprising” to impeach the political right’s most galvanizing figure, President Barack Obama, who he called a Muslim. “[D]emand that this president leave town,” he said, “... put the Quran down ..., get up off his knees, and ... figuratively come out with his hands up.” Donations to Klayman’s cause are cheerfully accepted, I’m sure.

Another fellow attracted even more news coverage by waving a Confederate flag in front of the White House. Some people saw racism in this gesture. I won’t try to read the man’s mind. I am more annoyed by the lack of action by the other participants.

I can only imagine, for example, what the world would have said about a similarly racially volatile symbol at the mostly black Million Man March in the 1990s. During that event, no one moved barricades or otherwise misbehaved.

The only racially volatile presence was the march’s organizer, Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan, who is quite provocative enough.

No wonder, then, that the organizers of the Million Vets March, which fell way short of a million, by the way, want you to know that they had nothing, nothing to do with all that political foolishness.

“The political agenda put forth by a local organizer in Washington, D.C. yesterday was not in alignment with our message,” says a sober statement on the Million Vet March on the Memorials homepage. “We feel disheartened that some would seek to hijack the narrative for political gain.”

Fine. But trying to take the partisan politics out of such protests is like trying to take the bees out of honey.

Before the Million Vet March, Republican senators and congressmen and Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus already had stepped up to make the World War II memorial a symbol of their efforts to blame Democrats for the government shutdown that Republicans caused. Judging by the polls, those efforts have spectacularly failed.

As a Vietnam-era Army vet who’s been observing Washington up close for a couple of decades, I am not shocked to hear about people trying to make politics out of a war memorial. I am only disgusted by politicians who claim to salute veterans’ honor while putting veterans’ benefits in jeopardy.

Days before the march, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki told a congressional oversight committee that all public access to the VA’s 56 regional offices was suspended when the partial government shutdown began Oct. 1. More than 7,000 employees judged “nonessential” were furloughed because of a lack of funds.

Suspended was the VA’s program to reduce the agency’s scandalous backlog of disability and pensions claims, a backlog that slightly increased after the shutdown, Shinseki said, after falling for months to about 418,700.

And compensation checks would not be issued on Nov. 1 to more than 5 million veterans if the impasse continued, he said. That would include more than 400,000 fully disabled veterans and 360,000 surviving spouses and children of wartime veterans.

If our lawmakers think these expenditures are not necessary, they should say so. They have a right to that opinion, however wrong it would be. But instead they line up at the mere mention of the word “veteran” to let everybody know how much they love our retired warriors.

Save the empty words and photo ops. The best way for lawmakers to thank veterans for their service is to stop playing politics with veterans’ services.

CLARENCE PAGE’s column is distributed by Tribune Content Agency.


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