Texans appear to harbor skepticism about Clinton



FREDERICKSBURG, Texas -- Here along Route 290, the field are bright with wildflowers -- acres of bluebonnets and Indian paintbrush -- and the negotiations between President Clinton and the Senate Republicans over the stimulus bill seems terribly remote. The crisis in Bosnia seems even more distant.

Harvey Keibler, who lives off Highway 87 near Mason, is more interested in Nolan Ryan's knee operation and the fishing in the Pedernales now that the weather has broken. "The politicians are doing just what they always do," he tells a visitor from Washington. "You people up there have a genius for going through all these complicated deals, and then you end up with some program that nobody ever sees anyway."

Keibler, a "semi-retired" cabinet maker, voted for Bill Clinton in November, returning to the Democratic line after two votes for Ronald Reagan and one for George Bush. But now he thinks he might have been better with Ross Perot. "We've got a new man in there, but the same old thing is going on. I thought he was going to change things."

Tom Williams, a computer salesman in Austin, says he doesn't pay much attention to the newspapers or television news now, although he followed the campaign avidly last fall. "The drill is so familiar I could write the headlines myself," he said. "You can see it coming, more taxes that don't help and a war on the Serbs to take our minds off it."

Irene Gillian, sharing coffee with Williams, is less pessimistic. "I still think Clinton's trying to get something done," she says, "and it wouldn't surprise me at all if he succeeds. But I don't think we'll see any of those jobs very soon, so it's not something people are all caught up with." A moment later she adds: "Let me tell you one thing that's for sure. Nobody wants to go to war over Bosnia. They want the president to pay attention to things at home. That was the trouble with Bush, always off fighting some damned fool war."

Two dozen conversations here a few miles from the Lyndon B. Johnson ranch don't represent any kind of scientific survey of public opinion. But they do find a consistent pattern of skepticism about Clinton, Congress and the federal government every level -- a skepticism not unlike that so evident when the electorate turned against George Bush a year or so ago.

"We're already going to pay the energy taxes," says Dean Markle, a truck driver for a bottled gas supplier, "and that's tough to take here in Texas [because] we still make our living off oil. But, let's say that's OK, that's necessary. But let's use the money for something worthwhile like the national debt. I'm afraid we're going to give it to the Russians or the Bosnians and I still don't know where the hell Bosnia is anyway."

Markle, too, voted for Clinton and is willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. "I think he's trying," he says, "but I don't know if anyone can do anything up there. It seems like it's the same as ever even when you get new people."

Some other Texans are less forgiving of the new president. A lawyer from San Angelo reflects the opinion of perhaps one-third of this small sample when he complains bitterly about Clinton's decision to permit homosexuals in the military. "We elected this man to do something about the economy and what is the first damned thing he does?" he asks rhetorically. "He picks a fight with the Joint Chiefs of by-God Staff about this damned fool thing."

Ely Wailing, a teacher in Austin, agrees in part. "I'm not necessarily saying he's wrong on this [gays in the military]," he says, "but I don't understand why he bothers wasting time on it. That's not why we put him in there."

Linda Lee Krebs agrees vehemently with Wailing. "That's the deal," she says. "It's like there's no connection with why he got elected and what he's able to get done. I don't know if it's his fault, but he needs to get his priorities back."

What is most striking about a day talking to Texans at random is the discouraged and querulous tone of their conversation, at least when it turns from the wildflowers to what's going on in Washington. And that, in turn, makes you wonder how Clinton will find it possible to rally the support he needs for his economic program and health care reform.

"I don't say we just throw in the towel on Bill Clinton," says Harvey Keibler, "but right now it's old Nolan Ryan I'm worried about. If the Rangers are going to make it, they need him."

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