`Go George Go,' Texas patriots tell Bush, press

Waco area welcomes chance for better image

War On Terrorism

November 18, 2001|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WACO, Texas - Central Texas is a place that prides itself on patriotism, a place where many people drive pickup trucks and a place that is proud to call President Bush a neighbor. All that was apparent yesterday in an extraordinary scene on Texas Highway 6.

Almost 20 vehicles - plenty of pickups, the occasional RV and an old Cadillac - formed a caravan and took a half-hour journey from a strip mall in Waco to Crawford, near Bush's ranch. The vehicles were plastered with American flags. One man painted an entire side of his truck like a big flag. And in a state where bigger is always better, he took home the day's "Most Patriotic Vehicle" award.

Kurt Hall, 43, an irrigation consultant, wrote a scorecard on the window of his Chevy pickup: "America 10, Osama 0." His other window read, "Go George Go!"

The residents of Waco and surrounding communities who took part in the caravan said they wanted to let the world know how supportive they are of the war and how giddy they are to call Bush a neighbor.

They have been expressing the latter sentiment since Bush was elected but said his transformation into a wartime leader and, in particular one accompanied by national and international media here last week during his summit with Russian President Vladimir V. Putin, gave them an opportunity to express themselves again.

`Show off their pride'

They take any chance they get to declare their area Bush's home. Until the president was elected, this area was better known for the 51-day standoff at the Branch Davidian compound just outside Waco in 1993, which ended in the death of religious leader David Koresh and about 80 followers.

"It has been hard to display a sense of pride here for the last eight years," said Steve Smith, vice president of the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, who, like most people here, harbors resentment toward the media, saying they gave Waco a stigma even though the city is 16 miles from the Davidian compound and had nothing to do with events there.

"It is difficult to comprehend what that did to us," Smith said yesterday, attending a picnic in Crawford where the caravan from Waco wound up. "It was such a false perception. But when we traveled around, instead of us being able to promote Waco, that was all anyone wanted to talk about." Bush's presence, he said, "has given everyone here a new energy to show off their pride."

The chamber does not have statistics on whether the president's proximity has helped businesses here, but anecdotal evidence suggests that it has. Several businesses, including a gift shop, have opened in Crawford, population 600, catering to tourists who drive in for a look at Bush's 1,600-acre ranch.

And, Smith said, most hotel rooms in Waco were taken during Bush's trip to the ranch in August and in the past week, times of the year when few visitors tend to come to Waco. Many rooms were occupied by reporters and government staff trailing Bush.

The chamber was a sponsor of yesterday's caravan and picnic, which attracted a couple of hundred people; other sponsors included a country radio station and an automobile dealership. A police car escorted the vehicles as flag-waving people cheered from their ranches along the route. Volunteer fire departments provided such Texan culinary delights at the picnic as nachos, sausage on a stick and old-fashioned barbecue.

Even local Democrats said Bush had helped them eradicate their image and given them a chance to burnish a new one. "I used to travel around and people would say, `Waco, oh, David Koresh,'" said County Judge Jim Lewis. "Now it's, `Waco, oh, home of the president.' We had a negative. Now there is a positive. Time heals, but this is helping to get rid of the negative a lot faster."

`We reflect rural feelings'

Yesterday offered more than the sense that this place has fully embraced Bush. With the war raging in Afghanistan, American flags have sprouted across the country, even in places never considered overly patriotic. But in a swath of Texas where residents say they have always been patriotic, they tell you they are trying to go over the top.

"We reflect rural feelings here," said Helen Quiram, chairwoman of the Texas Federation of Republican Women Conference. "That means we are proud of whatever our government does - 100 percent."

Bumper stickers reading "Let's Roll" were handed out yesterday, and most participants displayed that pithy phrase, which Bush used in a recent address in Atlanta to energize the nation behind the war effort.

The day's big award - a gift package that included T-shirts and CDs - went to Gerald Evans, the 32-year-old construction company employee who had repainted his entire pickup. "I'm supporting my country," said Evans, who brought along his three children. "And I'm not afraid to show it."

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