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Mary McGrory

To My Very Persuasive Readers

By Mary McGrory
Thursday, March 6, 2003; Page A23

Dear Readers:

We have been through a great deal together -- the Kennedy assassination, Vietnam, El Salvador, Grenada, Lebanon and Florida. For the first time I can remember, we are estranged. That is, you have been since I wrote a column Feb. 6 about Colin Powell's U.N. indictment of Saddam Hussein. You have declared yourselves to be shocked, appalled, startled, puzzled and above all disappointed by what you thought was a defection to the hawk side. "I'm Persuaded," said the headline, which went a little beyond the story.

But it was my fault. I did not make it clear enough that while I believed what Colin Powell told me about Saddam Hussein's poison collection, I was not convinced that war was the answer. I guess I took it for granted that you would know what I meant. The flow of letters has abated somewhat, but last week I had a call from a woman who identified herself as a longtime reader and asked me sternly, "Don't you think you should explain yourself -- this schoolgirl crush on Colin Powell?" I hope it's not too late.

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I write about this outrage because the letters tell you, if the demonstrations didn't, that opposition to the war is deep and widespread. I received just two letters commending me for being a turncoat. One was from Germany, from a man who said he was glad to see my position was "evolving." A man from Lowell, Mass., urged me to "break away from the left in this country." I regret to say that several members of Congress who cravenly voted for the war resolution sent word that my column had "liberated" them.

Otherwise, it was all reproach and dismay. "What happened to you?" asked San Diego. "Has the White House threatened you?"

"Did they torture you?" Springfield, Va., inquired, or had I been "intoxicated" by my paper's pro-war editorials? A woman from the District made me flinch with just two lines: "How could you? Truly, how could you?"

Burke, Va., said: "We were very disappointed to see you so duped by Colin Powell."

"George Bush and Richard Perle are gloating," wrote another reader from nearby Virginia. And in fact, I was mentioned, for the first time ever with approval, by Ari Fleischer, who cited me as Exhibit A of the newly convinced.

I have thought well of Colin Powell since I heard him say that the most important lesson to teach the young is that they should do whatever job is assigned and do it well. As a teenager he mopped the floors at a soft-drink bottling factory so well he was promoted to the bottling line. His role in the Iran-contra scandal as an aide to Caspar Weinberger was not glorious, but I was ready to vote for him for president if he ran in 1996. I was grateful he was Bush's secretary of state, and more so when I read in Bob Woodward's "Bush at War" that he was the buffer between two gung-ho Baghdad cakewalkers, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumseld. He was not a peacenik, but he was all we anti-invaders had.

But now Powell, apparently convinced by his own speech, has joined the "time is running out" crowd, and the pope and Ted Kennedy are the high-profile holdouts.

One disillusioned local enclosed a letter from a public health physician named David Hilfiker, who has helped the homeless in Washington. From Baghdad, the doctor describes the misery of children who are dying for lack of pure drinking water -- sanctions forbid importation of parts for water treatment plants, he says.

What impressed me about Powell's presentation, besides his magisterial presence and impeccable prose, were the poisons he showed and the malice behind them. I did not have the benefit of the informed criticism that followed. The Post's Walter Pincus wrote a summation of the weakest link in Powell's speech, the al Qaeda connection. Lately, the coming conflict is presented seamlessly as "a war against Iraq and terrorism."

The last time I experienced large-scale consumer protest was in September 2001, when I wrote that Bush should have returned immediately to the capital after the 9/11 attack. The response was explosive -- floods of letters, a 71/2-inch pile of e-mails and furious phone calls that tied up the line for days.

The difference in the tone of the thunder from the left is instructive, I think. The right-wing readers came at me like eagles with claws unsheathed. I was accused of working for Osama bin Laden. I should go "back to Afghanistan." I was castigated for a want of intelligence and patriotism. I was called unprintable names.

By contrast the lefties were reproving. Some thanked me for having, in the past at least, gotten it right and given them comfort. I failed as a writer to take time to make myself clear. And I did something that George Bush never does: I offended my base. You see how sorry I am. I hope now that all is forgiven and that I can come home again.


The Unintentional Wanderer

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