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Utah Town Has Question About President: 'What's Not to Like?'

By David Finkel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 31, 2006

RANDOLPH, Utah -- To get to the place where they like George W. Bush more than any other place in America, you fly west for a long time from Washington, then you drive north for a long time from Salt Lake City, and then you pull into Gator's Drive Inn, where the customer at the front of the line is ordering a patty melt.

"Patty melts! No one makes patty melts anymore," she is saying to the counterman, Ryan Louderman, who knew she wasn't local as soon as he heard the sound of a car being locked. "Can I get it without onions?" she says. "And can I get mustard? On the side? Dijon mustard?"

"I don't think we have Dijon mustard," says Louderman, who is 15 and would have voted for Bush if he could have. "I think we only have regular mustard." But he writes it down anyway and gives the order to Pat Orton, the owner and cook.

"No onions? With mustard?" says Orton, who voted for Bush in 2004 and 2000. "Oh, God, we get some weird ones" -- but she cooks it anyway, as requested, and passes the non-patty melt out to the woman, who takes a bite, declares it "fabulous" and wraps up the rest to go. She's on her way to a ski resort. She is going to be lifted by helicopter to the top of a mountain with untouched snow, and then she is going to ski down.

"Clang" goes the cowbell on the door as she leaves.

"Beep" goes the remote-controlled lock on her SUV.

"Dijon mustard," Louderman says as the woman drives away. "I don't know what Dijon mustard is. Don't care to find out, either."

On Tuesday night, when President Bush delivers his State of the Union speech, he'll be speaking to a nation that no longer approves of the job he is doing. According to recent polls, including a Washington Post-ABC News poll released over the weekend, Bush's overall approval rating -- once as high as 92 percent just after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 -- is down to 42 percent, with the percentages even lower on specific issues, such as health care, the federal deficit and the war in Iraq.

But within that 42 percent are places where approval of Bush remains high, such as Nebraska, where it's at 55 percent, according to a recent poll, and Idaho, where it's 58 percent. Highest of all, though, at 61 percent, is Utah, which also gave him 71.5 percent of the vote in 2004, the highest of any state.

"The mind-set of Utah" is how Frank Guliuzza III, chairman of the political science department at Weber State University in Ogden, explains the percentages. Not only is Utah the nation's most Republican state, "there's a sense of loyalty and patriotism that kind of overcomes the tendency toward cynicism that is evident in the rest of the country right now," he says.

In Randolph, though -- where Bush received 95.6 percent of the vote and support for him continues to be nearly unanimous -- the mind-set is even more specific to a place that seems less a part of the modern United States than insulated from it. It isn't just mustard, but everything.

There have been no funerals here from Bush's war on terrorism. There are no unemployment lines, no homeless people sleeping in doorways, no sick people being turned away from a hospital because of a lack of insurance, no crime to speak of, no security fence needed around the reservoir, no metal detectors at the schools.

Terrorist threats? That's anywhere but here. Iraq? That's somewhere over there. Hurricane Katrina? That was somewhere down there. Illegal immigrants? Not here, where everyone is fond of Ramon, who came long ago from Mexico and is married to the Catholic woman, who is the one non-Mormon everyone mentions when the conversation turns to religious diversity. As for racial diversity, everyone says there are three African Americans in the county, including the twins on the high school cheerleading squad, which also includes a Hispanic, according to the superintendent of schools, Dale Lamborn, which means "we've probably got the most diverse cheerleading squad in the state."

What else is here?

One main road that is 1.3 miles long from the county building on the north end to the fence on the south end with the faded yellow ribbon on it in honor of the only child of Randolph so far to have gone to Iraq.

One church, where everyone gathered to welcome the young man home from Iraq with ice cream.

One post office, with one full-time employee, Postmaster Gage Slusser Jr., who, as everyone knows, was one of the 17 to vote for John Kerry in 2004. "The village pseudo-intellectual," Slusser calls himself. "Don't get me wrong," he adds. "These are good people."

"Just good people," echoes Debra Ames, the county recorder, adding: " You try to feed your cows at 40 below zero." The courthouse where Ames works is near the one little market, which is near the one service station, the part-time hair cutter, and the one bank, where deposits are up and defaults are down and banker Adam Jensen says of Bush, "What's not to like about him?"

And in the exact middle of this: Gator's Drive Inn, where Orton is explaining that her mother died of lung cancer on Sept. 6, 2001, and that the viewing was five days later, which is why she missed a lot of what happened on 9/11.

"I'm the boss, applesauce," her mother used to say, and Orton can imagine Bush liking that sentence as much as she does.

"Don't be wise, bubble eyes, or I'll knock you down to peanut size."

That, too.

Sooner or later, everyone stops by Gator's, which makes it the best place in Randolph, population about 480, to listen to people talk about their beloved president.

In comes Debra McKinnon, 53, who says she nearly dropped dead nine months ago from heart failure and is working for one reason only: health insurance. She takes 12 pills a day, for which she pays several hundred dollars a month, which, without insurance, would be four times that. Is that Bush's fault, though? "No," McKinnon says. "It's a problem from the drug companies to the lawyers to the doctors to Congress, and it's not because Bush isn't a caring man. I think he's a very caring man. I think he's a decent, God-fearing person, and I hope we are, too."

In comes Blair Hurd, the high school shop teacher, who says: "This whole thing with domestic spying? I think there's a little bit of it that needs to go on. I do. And if he" -- meaning Bush -- "is listening to my calls? I'm not doing anything wrong. Why would I care? He'd be bored to death is what I think."

In comes Charlene McLean, who runs a flower business out of her garage and says that the problems in America are due to a "gimme, gimme, gimme" attitude that is the fault of the Democrats and is turning the country cockeyed. "We can't do this because it offends the gays. We can't do that because it offends the atheists," she says. "Well what about the average American? What about the common person?"

In comes Lois McLean, Charlene's mother-in-law, who is 77 and works at Gator's part time because Social Security isn't quite enough to finance her modest life. "I think he's doing a good job," she says, her voice hoarse from having a tube pushed down her throat. That happened when she went to the dentist to have a tooth pulled and she suddenly stopped breathing, and then passed out. She woke up in the hospital emergency room, where, once she was stable, the dentist finished yanking out the tooth.

Adapt to your circumstances, she says. That's what the dentist did, that's what Bush has done, and that's what she tries to do, too. "I myself have to make my life better," she says.

Bush's believers: One after another, in they come to say "It's not Bush's fault" and "He's trying to protect us," and on this goes until early evening, when what must be the entire population of Randolph gathers at the high school to cheer on the basketball teams.

Gator's, never that busy anyway in the winter, is especially quiet now. Ryan Louderman remains by the counter, lost in thought, and Orton is listening to a Paul Anka CD when the clang of the cowbell catches them by surprise.

"Hey, Aaron," Orton says, and in comes a young man who is 16, and who is considered one of Rich County's three African Americans even though he considers himself a mix of a white mother and black father.

He spells his last name: "C-H-E-N-E-Y."

"Yeah," he says. "Distant relatives." His grandmother did the genealogy and explained the connection. He has no idea if it's true, he says -- but even if it is, the reason he likes Bush has less to do with that than with his mother's decision to come to Randolph when he was 8 years old.

"I enjoy pushing cows, chasing girls and shooting guns," he says of who he has become here.

Also: "I'm a Republican."

And one more thing: "I love it here. I love the people here. It's a small town. Everybody knows everybody. I wave at everybody; everybody waves back."

Eight o'clock now, and out Cheney and Louderman go into what's left of a day in Randolph.

"Bye, boys," Orton says.

She turns off the "open" sign and starts adding up the day's receipts. It isn't much. She netted $10,000 last year, if that. She has no savings. She has no retirement plan. She works seven days a week, 12 hours a day. Her last vacation was a quick trip last Thanksgiving to see her in-laws in southern Utah, where "I cooked turkey, and they didn't like the turkey, and that's how that went," and the longest she ever remembers shutting down Gator's since opening day 18 years ago was when she helped a family member move to Oklahoma.

In small-town quiet, she finishes her work. Somewhere out there are the sounds of chattering terrorists, and shivering homeless people, and helicopters ferrying soldiers, and a president rehearsing a vitally important speech. Here in 71.5 percent Utah, though, and 95.6 percent Randolph, and 100 percent Gator's, the only sound is of a believer explaining why, come Tuesday night, she doubts she will bother to listen.

"I don't think there's anything he could say that would make me dislike him," she says.

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