FOR MANY SEATTLEITES, Bellevue is a foreign country whose towers poke up from behind the trees on the far eastern shore of the lake. Only


The Battle of Bellevue

There was no tear gas at the Bush demonstrationsjust two different realities.

FOR MANY SEATTLEITES, Bellevue is a foreign country whose towers poke up from behind the trees on the far eastern shore of the lake. Only 50 years old, the city seems unfinished. Its office towers have a strange, two-dimensional graph-paper quality. They lie flat against the sky like cutouts. Standing at the town's main crossroads of Bellevue Way Northeast and Northeast Eighth Street, a busy intersection where traffic is fueled by Bellevue Square shoppers, the unfinished structure of Lincoln Square looms over some of the town's prime real estate. Construction cranes dot the skyline. Despite a new art museum and a maturing central city park, the downtown is still defined by a mall. Like many suburbs, the heart of Bellevue is boxed and private.

But that doesn't mean it's not beating.

Last Friday, Aug. 22, the day of President Bush's visit, the street corners outside the mall were packed with demonstrators ranging from rabid pro-Bush supporters in red, white, and blue to Seattle liberals who waved their anti-Bush signs lustily as they wandered through a kind of sterile Oz and were confounded by their surroundings. They were also surprised to meet lots of people who love George W. Bush and think he's doing a terrific job. Adding to the surrealism was the fact that black-clad anarchists were actually walking on the sidewalks and obeying the traffic signals. Starbucks' windowsand here they are big picture windowswere safe.

THE PRO-BUSH SIGN wavers congregated on the four corners of Bellevue Way and Eighth, the best place to get your sign read. It was also a spot the Bush motorcade might pass if it took a shortcut to Hunts Point (it didn't; the president went via Highway 520, bypassing Bellevue). The anti-Bush crowdby far the larger of the two groupswas ensconced a few blocks south at Northeast Fourth Street and Bellevue Way. Both groups were shouting and waving signs under the low-key gaze of Bellevue cops and the mall's private security force. No one visible was dressed in riot gear.

Mixed in, along the sidewalk in front of the mall, were street artists there for the Chalk Walk, a fund-raising event that showcases sidewalk art. In front of the Hyatt, where many of the pro-Bush forces were gathered, an artist named Brian Major was rendering in chalk a copy of the famous David portrait of Napoleon showing the great dictator in full imperial glory on his rearing stallion. Either side could view it as an appropriate commentary on current foreign policy.

IF THE WTO PROTESTS in Seattle were entertaining because it was fun to watch too-nice Seattle behave badly, in Bellevue it was fun because any street life outside of a street fair is rare, and almost never involves people putting their political views on public display. The protesters vied for the attention of passing cars and also engaged in real debates. Liberals and conservatives stood outside Crate & Barrel and argued politics, morality, war, and peace. They were often speaking different languages. Said one Bush supporter: "Freaks. You can't reason with them!" The debates were mostly civil, though often passionate. This wasn't the Internet or talk radio, where you can flame someone anonymously: Here, your opponents were flesh and blood.

One frequently broken taboo was horn honkingsupporters of both sides blared when they passed. Some Seattleites were startled. One marveled that he actually saw a Hummer drive by with two anti-Bush signs poking out the windows. A lesson in American politics: You can't always judge someone's politics by the car they drive.

Kids and families were all over, with kids being used as political statements. Like the tired-looking grade-school girl who was holding a sign that read, "Another child left behind." Now that's a self-esteem builder! Call me cynical, but I also doubt the precocity of infants adorned with "Bush in '04" or "Impeach Bush" stickers.

I WAS STRUCK, though, that many middle-class, moderate-looking anti-Bush folks held signs with such strong languageEastside soccer-mom types with banners using words like "lying," "cheating," "murdering," and "warmonger." Pollsters take note: Those who don't like Bush really, really hate his guts. Also, I noticed that liberals didn't have a monopoly on moral superiority. "Grownups in charge. Yeah George" read one sign. In a kind of '60s flashback, many of the pro-Bush protesters seemed to see the anti-Bush folks as dumb indolent hippies. (If so, how'd the guy get that Hummer?) Several times, I actually heard people in polo shirts yelling "Get a job!" at anti-Bush people.

The pro-Bush people were mocked for being billionaire, limo-riding buffoons, a cartoon image that really needs an update: Most of the zillionaires in Hollywood are Democrats.

But the differences about money led to at least one hilarious misunderstanding. A couple of Bush protesters had a banner that said "Bush is green," along with a cartoon of trees turning into dollar signs. When they waded into the pro-Bush crowd, some people actually complimented them on their sign: Yeah, money! They saw Bush turning trees into cash as a good thing.

This lesson in semiotics is worth remembering. Part of what divides us isn't a disagreement about the facts, but the values we project on them. Bush's visit was an occasion for pro- and anti-Bush forces to meet and see how much alike they are as people, and how far apart their political realities are.

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