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Sunday, November 27, 2005

In Niceville U.S.A., Tone on Iraq Changes

In Niceville U.S.A., Tone on Iraq Changes
International Herald Tribune

Things have a way of slopping together in the all-talk, Christian contemporary, news/talk, country/oldie, adult contemporary, true gospel AM airwaves propagating above the K-Mart parking lot on Route 20.

A $59 offer from a "star registry" to get an asteroid officially named after you in time for Christmas segues into the claim that since nobody would take a broken foot to a dentist, smart folks hire Keith Vanover, the Florida Panhandle's specialist DUI/DWI lawyer, to handle their drunk-driving citations.

Where Okaloosa and Walton counties align, deep in a part of America where George W. Bush has been held in reverence by more than 70 percent of the voting population, the background audio can get easily turned into a hyper-caricature of how a redneck, conservative world is supposed to sound: commercials for Abner's chicken restaurant and rant-level commentary going after the liberals.

In fact, next to K-Mart there's an Italian deli called Joey Tomato's with terrific sandwiches and a photo of Jacob Javits, the old New York (liberal Republican) senator, on the wall.

And last weekend, a voice from the car radio was saying, stop arguing about how we got in there, George Bush needs a better plan on Iraq right now. A steadying hand moved to the knob to hold the wobbling signal. I got this much:

Americans should ask themselves what would have happened if we had pulled out of Germany after killing Hitler, the voice said. We didn't then, and we can't quit Iraq now either. The thing is, it went on, the president has to explain how we win. So people understand.

To the Panhandle's ears, here was a new kind of admonition from inside the conservative reservation, representing a real change in tone. If much of official Washington appears to be finally engaging in a deep debate on the American military presence in Iraq, that's a development. But it's the unmistakable on-air legitimization here of real concern about Iraq that may convince the president he has a problem in his rock-hard constituencies.

A little more than a year ago, Niceville, its cheery Welcome Wagon of a name, its air force base, its colony of retired colonels, and its locals' strong ties to the Christian right wing, all made the town an early campaign stop for Bush on his way to re-election.

The mood on Iraq was such then that Jim Anders, the Republican Party chairman in neighboring Walton County, proclaimed that Neville Chamberlain would have been a Democrat.

Okaloosa and Walton went, as expected, on the high side of 70 percent for Bush. When hurricanes, although not Katrina, whacked the Panhandle's coast on the Gulf of Mexico, even Democrats said federal and state aid seemed adequate. Unemployment here for 2005 was running at about 3 percent last month. And Susan MacManus, who watches the region's politics from the University of South Florida, said the local congressional seats seemed locks for the GOP in 2006.

All the same, Jim Anders, having breakfast at the Doughnut Hole over near the beach in Destin, seems a different guy these days. Sure, he said at first, there was uncertainty about Iraq, and look how Lincoln, that Republican, had a hard time during the Civil War.

But just suppose, Anders was asked, you got a call from Dubya and he wanted to know what his support was like down here. What do you say?

"I support you."

Full stop. Pause. Anders moved the conversation to what he felt was some wavering in the economy, a sense of diminished vibrancy, something less entrepreneurial making the rounds. O.K.

But when the question came back to Iraq a second time, Anders leapt over both a strategy for the present and the idea of winning. His response was not a cave-in, but an attempt at a phrase that would skirt the president's here-and-now misery.

He said, "I think Bush is sincerely working hard to get us out of Iraq, and I think he will."

Ray Padgett seems a different man too now. A retired Coca-Cola executive, he moved back to the pineywoods near DeFuniak Springs and became Walton County Democratic chairman before the 2004 elections. With a real homeboy's sense of redneck sensibilities, and experience in the great world beyond, he thought he could make a political dent.

Padgett resigned last month. He said he had become frustrated not being able to speak his mind. In the context of Washington's party-linked partisan political debate on Iraq, he said, that means being able to say out loud how he backs Representative John Murtha's call for an immediate withdrawal of American forces.

Padgett explained he was appalled to see how most Democrats in Congress gave lip service to Murtha's status as an elder, but fled from real support of his position.

But what about the local section of Bush's kamikaze constituency, Padgett's friends from way back, all Republicans, how do they feel now about the president's handling of Iraq?

"We've got a group I call the Old Farts Club," Padgett said. "We get together regularly. What's changing is what's not said. They're not proselytizing like they used to."

Back to Niceville, driving through Panhandle air-time taking time off from the moment's new touch of reflectiveness on Iraq: voices talking instead about proposed boycotts, one of San Francisco because of an army recruiter being refused access to a city school, another against department store chains that reject the word Christmas in their advertising.

At Joey Tomato's, an air force colonel who retired in July, and promised an hour of his opinions on Iraq and Bush in a straight trade for anonymity, said "the perception here is we are not solving the problem."

Like Anders and Padgett, I had spoken to him a year ago about people made nervous by George Bush. Then the colonel described America as being full of guys who think Bush's being judgmental and decisive is terrible "when it's being judgmental and decisive that will save us."

Now, the colonel said, "I fault him strategically. You've got to take the battle to the roots."

That meant to Syria, or even Iran in order to win in Iraq.

The former military man said, "Bush needs to be more vocal, to stand at his own bully pulpit and say exactly what he's doing. That's his shortcoming right now."

In the heart of the Panhandle, where there are often Great Certainties and a craving for no-ifs-or-buts, I heard confusion about that lack of direction for two days. Among the president's faithful, that could be called slippage on once-consecrated ground.


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