CLIMAX SPRINGS, Mo.
Charles Green, clerk of the board of this small town (pop. 80) in the foothills of the Ozarks, where the main street is still a dirt road, buttonholes Rep. Ike Skelton to recommend a new U.S. approach in Iraq.
"Get the women and children out of the way, and drop one of those mushroom things," says Green, leaning in his overalls toward the congressman.
"I don't know what to say," Skelton, in a white shirt and red tie, responds noncommittally.
"Bush did the right thing by toppling Saddam Hussein, 'cause that was another Hitler," Green presses on. "He did the right thing. But letting them terrorists go, go, go . . . " The 79-year-old veteran of the Pacific theater in World War II shakes his gray head. "If you fight a war, fight a war to win."
Looking back on that meeting later in the day, Skelton comments, "That was 'Merica" -- that is, the clipped home of true-blue 'Mericans. He means it approvingly, even proudly. Though he may be at odds with many of his constituents on Iraq, he is with them in other ways. "Wonderfully warm people," he says of these people. "Conservative. Religious. Hardworking. Patriotic."
And torn. To travel the two-lane blacktops of rural Missouri with this man is to plunge into the churning unease that Americans feel about Iraq. How they ultimately come down on the issue promises to go a long way toward determining who wins the presidency. Missouri, in the middle of the country, is one of the key swing states in the election. Skelton is a middle-of-the-road Democrat who has agonized about Iraq for two years, and now finds some distance between himself and the home folks on the issue -- but also thinks they are catching up with his skepticism about how the Bush administration is handling it.
This pro-military, anti-Bush stance is hardly the first paradox that Isaac Newton Skelton IV has put before his public. He is a history-steeped intellectual in a district of small farmers and Ozark country folk. He is a man with two near-paralyzed arms from adolescent polio who is successful in a glad-handing job. And he is a Democrat in an increasingly Republican district.
His 4th Congressional District contains 25 counties, almost all of them rural, in the west-central part of Missouri, sprawling 150 miles east to west and north to south, from the soybean and corn fields along Interstate 70 down to the edge of the Ozarks. Bill Clinton took the Southern border states -- West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri -- in 1996, and Bush swept them in 2000. This year at least some are up for grabs. Skelton says that for John Kerry to prevail in Missouri 10 weeks from now, he doesn't have to win the 4th District, he just can't lose by the nearly 2-to-1 margin Bush clobbered Al Gore with four years ago.
The Home Front
In mid-August, Skelton's workweek begins on the screened porch behind his modest yellow-brick house in the Missouri River town of Lexington. A front window displays a white pennant with two blue stars, denoting that the Skelton family has two children on active duty. Such small flags were a common sight in World War II but aren't much used today. For fear of endangering them, Skelton declines to talk about what his sons are doing in the military.
Just down the street is the house where Skelton, now 72, grew up. He remembers standing on this pavement during World War II and looking up at the C-47 airplanes droning overhead as they pulled gliders, training pilots for the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
He looks down at that day's edition of the Kansas City Star next to his coffee cup and taps a finger on the four-column headline bearing the latest bad news from Najaf. It reminds him of a news story he just saw on television. "On CNN this morning, they said, 'Two U.S. troops dead.' Then they changed it to, 'Three U.S. troops dead.' And it was almost like a footnote." He sounds anguished.
His qualms are both personal and professional. Skelton has spent much of his 27 years in Congress helping pull the military out of its post-Vietnam funk, rising to become the senior Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, where he has consistently thrown his weight behind new weapons systems and big defense budgets. He played a role in the Goldwater-Nichols Act, the key legislation that re-shaped the Pentagon's command structure during the late 1980s. He is widely respected among today's generals, especially for his dedication to military education at the service's war colleges and other institutions. Reflecting that interest, last year he released his own "National Security Book List" of 50 key volumes of military history and analysis.
His influence also shows up in less erudite ways that directly benefit his district. Whiteman Air Force Base was kept open largely because he persuaded the Air Force to station the B-2 stealth bomber there, and now features Ike Skelton Park. When he dines with Army commanders at Fort Leonard Wood, at the other end of his district, he is received by them at Ike Skelton House, just inside the front gate.