Reprinted with permission from Creators.
In early 2006, the City Club of Cleveland invited President George W. Bush to speak.
At the time, this invitation was a controversial one, as the Iraq War was becoming increasingly unpopular and plenty of Americans blamed Bush for having relied on false intelligence to wage it. Some liberals here in Cleveland grumbled: Why give Bush another chance to promote lies about this war?
The City Club, with its storied history as a citadel of free speech, was undeterred. It had welcomed plenty of controversial figures in the past, and it would welcome this one. Bush addressed a packed house on March 20 — the third anniversary of the day the war began.
One of the traditions of the City Club is audience participation. Only one speaker in the forum’s history didn’t take questions: U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, who spoke the day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
On the day that George W. Bush spoke, a City Club legend rose to his feet to ask a question that made national news.
Stanley Adelstein was an 87-year-old attorney who had joined the City Club in 1941. Like his wife, Hope, Stanley was a philanthropist and a community activist. He was a former city councilman, a veteran and a champion of the First Amendment. He was also a beloved friend to countless people, including my husband and me.
Stanley had a habit of looking harmless, with his slight, bent build and eyes squinting through oversized glasses, but he was more than ready for George Bush. In his soft, gentle voice, Stanley calmly laid out the three reasons Bush had given the country as justification for the war:
“Weapons of mass destruction, the claim that Iraq was sponsoring terrorists who had attacked us on 9/11, and that Iraq had purchased nuclear materials from the Niger.”
“All three of those,” Stanley continued, “turned out to be false.”
The audience hummed.
Stanley wasn’t done. “My question is: How do we restore confidence that Americans may have in their leaders and to be sure that the information they are giving is now correct?”
Bush’s response included this admission: “Like you, I asked that very same question: Where did we go wrong on intelligence?”
Stanley was a local hero after that.
Two years before he died, in 2015, Stanley told me over dinner that he had no idea he would “stir up things” with his question. “It’s the City Club,” he said, flashing his shy grin. “It’s what we do here. It’s what keeps us strong.”
This week the City Club has stirred up things again by inviting Corey Lewandowski, a former campaign manager for Donald Trump. He is not a president, but he influences our current one. He is also, in my view, a full-time troll.
Lewandowski has trafficked in racism, promoting the lie that Barack Obama was not born in the U.S. He defended an anti-Semitic meme tweeted by candidate Trump and later deleted. He grabbed a female reporter and yanked her so hard she had a bruise on her arm. Lately he has been regularly spewing his lies Fox so-called News.
Reaction to the City Club invitation has been decidedly mixed, with mostly liberals opposing it. Many of these people are my friends. I understand why they argue that the last thing Lewandowski needs is a respected forum that could give him legitimacy and increase his influence. I understand, but I disagree.
How little we seem to trust our fellow Americans these days, to the point where we think we have to control what they hear. If the argument is that we must now limit our tolerance for speech, count me out. I hate that the City Club invited Lewandowski — and I support its decision to do so.
To shut down Lewandowski here in Cleveland would be to mirror what Donald Trump is trying to do to this country. He demonizes those who dare to question him, calling journalists the “enemy of the people.” Slowly, but ever so steadily, he is shutting down traditional White House avenues of communication, which means he is shutting out the American people. People like you, to be specific.
Which litmus test applies, and whose? The guarantees of free speech are not meant to bend and sway to our whims, but rather to stand strong in spite of them. Denying Lewandowski a City Club forum is not suppressing his First Amendment rights. It would, however, diminish us.
We are sturdier than any ridiculousness that comes out of Lewandowski’s mouth.
His words reveal him, and in Cleveland he cannot hide. Let him speak, and let the audience have its say.
“It’s what we do here,” Stanley Adelstein said. “It’s what keeps us strong.”
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and professional in residence at Kent State University’s school of journalism. She is the author of two books, including “…and His Lovely Wife,” which chronicled the successful race of her husband, Sherrod Brown, for the U.S. Senate. To find out more about Connie Schultz (firstname.lastname@example.org) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.