NEAL CONAN, host:
A couple of weeks ago, President Bush made a surprise visit to Baghdad and held a news conference there with Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, that will not be soon forgotten.
(Soundbite of news conference)
Mr. MUNTADHIR AL-ZAIDI (Iraqi Journalist): (Shouting in Arabic).
(Soundbite of crash)
(Soundbite of shrieking)
(Soundbite of people talking)
CONAN: Iraqi journalist Muntadhir al-Zaidi, throwing his shoes at President Bush. He's since been charged with assaulting a foreign head of state visiting Iraq, and he faces up to 15 years in prison. Mark Bowden, the national correspondent for the Atlantic Magazine, argued in a piece for the Washington - for the Wall Street Journal that President Bush would do well to ask Iraq's government to pardon Zaidi. A small outrage, he wrote, requires a grand gesture. Mark Bowden joins us now from a studio in Wilmington, Delaware. Nice to have you back on Talk of the Nation.
Mr. MARK BOWDEN (National Correspondent, Atlantic Magazine): Thank you, Neal.
CONAN: And that clip has been seen and heard by, well, maybe a billion people.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. BOWDEN: That's right. It went viral, as they say, on the Internet, so...
CONAN: And probably, as you write, is one - going to be one of the iconic images of the Bush administration, a quick, but frankly, ridiculous president of the United States, ducking out of the way of these shoes.
Mr. BOWDEN: I don't think there's any way of avoiding that. I mean, it is such a vivid image. It will stand, I think, with some of the other unfortunate images from the Bush presidency. What comes to mind is the - is Bush arriving in full flight gear on the deck of the aircraft carrier beneath the Mission Accomplished sign.
CONAN: And those images are hard to eradicate, but you suggest there is one gesture that he could make which could, well, morph that shoe-throwing image a little bit.
Mr. BOWDEN: That's right. I think he should ask the Iraqi government to pardon this shoe thrower. You know, a picture, in this case, a short video, tells a story, and at the end of this story is that this protester gets locked up in prison for 15 years. I think he'll become - and he's already become - a kind of folk hero to anti-Americans throughout that region. So, it's a way, I think, for President Bush to reverse the tables on him a little bit, and with a gesture of magnanimity, he could turn himself into the hero of the story.
CONAN: And the gesture, you suggest, would have to come from President Bush, the Iraqi government in no position to do that right now.
Mr. BOWDEN: That's right. It couldn't come from President Obama either. I mean, Bush was the person insulted, and so, he is the only one who could decide to rise above the insult. And my argument is that it would be, I think, the right thing to do. It would cost us nothing, and it would also be the assured thing to do.
CONAN: And the sound we heard toward the end, those were the beginnings of consequences for this journalist, who stepped out of his shoes to throw them at President Bush.
Mr. BOWDEN: Right.
CONAN: No joke for him.
Mr. BOWDEN: No, apparently not. And you know, I don't know exactly what's happening to him, but he was being beaten as he was being hauled out, and some of his family members have reported that he's had broken limbs and he's been tortured with cigarettes and whatnot in imprisonment. And so, the punishment for this fellow, apparently has been quite harsh as it is, and I think, you know, facing a 15-year prison sentence, as I put in the piece in the Wall Street Journal, a year for every minute of his fame seems to me to be a bit overdone.
CONAN: Magnanimity is also a word that we associate with, well, with one president in particular.
Mr. BOWDEN: With Abraham Lincoln, who, I think, was that way by nature, but it also served him really well as president. I mean, he famously - as we all have read around the election of Barack Obama - he reached across the aisle and appointed his rivals to his Cabinet. He's very famous throughout the Civil War in pardoning union soldiers who were sentenced to death for things like falling asleep on guard duty or running away.
But by the same token, Lincoln was not just a softie. I mean, he signed many a death warrant for soldiers who were accused of serious or convicted of serious crimes. If he sensed real criminality or cruelty, he wasn't inclined to go easy on people like that. He's very famous, of course, for not insisting on the prosecution and execution of Jefferson Davis and the other leaders of the Confederacy, and I think he did that for a very important political reason. Likewise, I think in a much smaller way, this case in Iraq affords President Bush the opportunity to make a gesture to the Iraqi people who have, I think anyone would agree, including President Bush, suffered a great deal because of the United States' decision to invade.
CONAN: Yet, some say, look, it was a genuine insult. It was also an attack, a strange attack. But nevertheless, do you take the case lightly?
Mr. BOWDEN: No. I don't think this has been taken lightly, and I think, in fact, you know, in order to show - in order to make the kind of gesture I'm talking about, the person has to be guilty of something. You know, he's guilty of insulting the president of United States. What he did was an embarrassment to his country. I think, though, that the fact that he's guilty of these things doesn't warrant the punishment that he's likely to receive, and I think it basically just would be in our best interests, and I think, certainly in terms of the legacy of President Bush, it would do him a great deal of good if he were to ask the government of Iraq to pardon this man.
CONAN: Mark Bowden, thanks very much.
Mr. BOWDEN: My pleasure, Neal.
CONAN: Mark Bowden, national correspondent for the Atlantic Magazine, author most recently of "The Best Game Ever: Giants Versus Colts, 1958, and the Birth of the Modern NFL." You're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News.