Fred Stutzman happened to walk to the bank late last Friday afternoon in Chapel Hill. On his way across the UNC campus, he spotted a media circus of TV trucks. Curious, Stutzman quizzed a passing cameraman, who tossed something about the "joint chiefs of staff" over his shoulder while scurrying into the throng of men and women with braids on their shoulders and very shiny shoes.
Stutzman, a newly minted peace activist who works in UNC's electronic library, took a quick detour to the store for poster board and made a futile last-minute effort to round up some like-minded friends. A half-hour later, he took up a post as the lone protester outside Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Richard Myers' hastily announced press conference.
"I couldn't pass up this opportunity--it's the Joint Chiefs of Staff, for god's sake," said Stutzman, 24, holding his "No Blood for Oil" poster. From his spot on the South Columbia Street sidewalk, Stutzman endured honks of goodwill, a few gestures of not-so-good will, and the wary eye of a campus police officer, who declined to smile at a joke about man-to-man coverage.
Inside the Reserve Officer Training Corps Armory, impatient reporters checked their watches and spoke furiously into cell phones as the press conference scheduled for 1700 hours, sharp, didn't get going until nearly a half-hour later. Myers arrived with a large entourage, took the podium in front of a backdrop of camo netting, and apologized for his tardiness.
Though billed as a discussion of "the global war on terrorism, Iraq, and the U.S. armed forces," Myers offered little commentary, simply introducing himself and then fielding a handful of lame questions before rushing to his dinner engagement. In response to inquiries like whether the United States will invade Iraq and what role technology will play in military strategy there, Myers offered patriotic platitudes like: "It's our men and women of the U.S. armed forces who will make the difference," and, "If the president asks us to go into Iraq, we'll get the job done."
Under normal circumstances, a campus appearance by a national figure like Myers would generate much advance hoopla from UNC's public relations machine. But these days, when a peace march draws a crowd of President Bush's critics large enough to span several blocks of downtown, normalcy takes a detour of its own.
UNC News Services, the university's media relations arm, announced Myers' press conference just five hours before it occurred, leading some would-have-been protesters to feel hoodwinked. Mike McFarland, UNC's communications director, says the chairman's schedule was subject to change in the days leading up to the visit, and details weren't firm enough to announce it until that morning. But a public affairs staffer in the Joint Chiefs of Staff office states pretty frankly that the government holds the schedule of the president's top military adviser under pretty tight wraps as a usual practice, even more so in recent months.
"We try to be very careful with operations security," says Joan Asboth, who helped arrange the chairman's trip to the Triangle. "We don't announce anything very far in advance."
In addition to the very brief media Q&A on Friday, Myers participated in a private panel discussion at a Friday night gathering of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies, a consortium sponsored by UNC, Duke and N.C. State that specializes in education, research and communication in the field of national and international security. Saturday morning, the Vietnam veteran met with ROTC cadets from local universities, so it's no wonder he bragged to reporters Friday afternoon that his schedule was really hectic, but "no busier than the schedule of most of the men and women in the armed forces right now."
Of course, the rank-and-file troops from Fort Bragg and other American bases awaiting orders to invade Iraq are probably a little too busy to spend Saturday afternoons like Myers did, celebrating his 61st birthday at the UNC-Georgia Tech basketball game. The sports outing, preceded by lunch with former UNC coaches Dean Smith and Bill Guthridge, with whom Myers shares Kansas ties, was apparently a main draw for his trip south, which Asboth called a "chance for a little respite." Though we presume the lunch conversation turned more on basketball than bombs, Myers' itinerary does beg an interesting question: Is having access to mid-court ACC seats the trick to getting an audience with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff?
Certainly, Stutzman's approach apparently wasn't very successful, considering the words of his public affairs person.
"The American people support the armed forces," Asboth says. "If you see one person holding up a sign, do you think that sends much of a message? I don't think so."