For a small W.Va. town, Bush's message is clear

War: Residents indicate his rationales for Iraq are getting through to grass-roots America.

February 28, 2003|By David L. Greene | David L. Greene,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WESTON, W.Va. - Carol Queen, who prepares hundreds of chili dogs a day at a hot dog eatery in Weston, W.Va., says she has little time to watch the news or read a newspaper. Yet she understands why President Bush seems ready to invade Iraq.

"Sept. 11 - that's what pushed Bush into doing something," she said. "Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein are involved in some way."

Speaking as she spooned chili and mustard on hot dog buns, another employee, Natalie James, mentioned a second reason given by the president.

"Someone needs to push the United Nations into doing something," she said. "If you are going to have this organization, you have to make sure Saddam follows the rules."

In Weston - a factory town of 5,000, tucked in a valley more than 100 miles from any sizable city - many residents say they don't follow the news closely. Yet in nearly two dozen interviews, most who were asked to name one of the Bush administration's justifications for war were able to do so. Their comments suggest that, at least in Weston, the president has met one of his challenges in building his case: making sure that his rationales for war have filtered through to grass-roots America.

Not everyone here finds the president's arguments persuasive. But most people could at least identify them.

They spoke of Bush's argument that Hussein has chemical and biological weapons, and ties to terrorists who would gladly turn his weaponry on the United States. And they mentioned that Bush says the Iraqi leader has long defied the United Nations, which must punish him if it is to remain relevant.

Braving a snowy morning in a booth at Hardee's this week, Don Detamore, 59, a retiree who used to work in one of Weston's glass factories, ticked off just about every point Bush has made.

"Saddam has got connections with bin Laden," he said.

"We're never going to eliminate terrorism without going to war," Detamore added.

He noted the president's position on the United Nations.

"There is no need to have the U.N. if we're not going to go about this together and if Saddam won't give up his weapons," Detamore said.

And he recalled Bush's dim view of weapons inspections.

"There is no way inspectors over there are going to find biological or nuclear weapons - it's a country the size of California," Detamore said, finally breaking for a sip of coffee.

In speaking to Americans about the likely need to invade, Bush faces a more complex task than did his father, who sent U.S. forces to drive the invading Iraqis out of Kuwait in 1991.

This time, Iraq has not provoked war in any obvious way. So, Bush has had to lay out a more nuanced case for war. Here in central West Virginia, he seems to have succeeded in getting his message out.

As recently as a year ago, Iraq had all but disappeared from headlines and coffee shop conversation. Today, in Weston, people speak of Hussein's regime in the same ominous tones that they do about al-Qaida.

Recognizing Bush's arguments does not necessarily translate into support for them. Most said Bush has been persuasive and that they understand why he is considering an invasion soon. But some say he has failed to convince them and that the president is pursuing war too rashly, without substantial support from allies.

Strikingly, some who say they seldom or never listen to Bush or read about his remarks can recall his explanations for military action. Over the past year, Bush has seemingly infused his arguments into the national dialogue, shaping the understanding of many Americans.

"Hussein is a downright mean man," said Don Sims, a retired state highway official. "Anyone who would kill his own family, and kill his own people, testing chemical weapons on them - there aren't many ways to deal with a person like that.

"That may not be exactly what Bush says," said Sims, even though it is almost precisely what Bush says. "That's just what I've heard."

Sims said he is conflicted about whether to back a war. Even though the president does not talk much about it, Sims said, a purported assassination attempt by Hussein on Bush's father in 1993 "has to be an influence" on the son's drive for military action. Sims added that he hopes the president attracts the support of more European allies before he starts a costly and high-risk war.

Melvin Shields, who retired from a General Motors plant in Cleveland, said he believes that Bush's chief argument for war is that Hussein possesses chemical weapons, "and terrorists could get their hands on them."

But Shields said he was not convinced that military action is necessary so soon. Weapons inspectors "haven't found much" in Iraq, Shields said, adding that Bush seems to expect Americans to back him without seeing enough evidence that Hussein is an urgent threat, as the president contends.

"If Bush is right," Shields said skeptically, "then he will have done a good job."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.