In Oklahoma, a Patriotic Silence

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 19, 2007

HUGO, Okla. R ep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.) was settling into his chair in the snug broadcast booth at K95.5 Country as the station's Jo Ann Matthews sing-songed her way through the subjects she wanted him to touch on.

There was the bridge collapse in Minneapolis. Of course, talk about federal livestock assistance, she went on.

"And I know the war is a big issue on everybody's mind, but," she said haltingly, her sweetly twanged voice tailing off to silence. Then, "I'm real impressed with the work you're doing on cancer," she finished.

If lawmakers in most parts of the country are being accosted with questions about the September showdown on Iraq, here, in the sleepy southeastern corner of Oklahoma, the war is the subject that almost cannot be discussed. The McAlester Army Ammunition Plant in Boren's district supplies virtually all of the war's munitions. The hamlets and small towns, such as Antlers and Hugo, Miami and Nowata, have sent their sons and daughters to fight. About 3,200 Oklahomans are deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan; 18,428 have served since the wars began, from a state of 3 1/2 million. Most of the parents of those warriors split their tickets and voted for President Bush as they voted for Boren.

And the voters' ambivalence on a conflict that has taken so many lives may go a long way toward explaining Boren's own tortured ambiguity. For other lawmakers still unsure about their stand on the war, August has been about sweating, with protesters in their offices and attack ads on their televisions. For Boren, one of the dwindling few Democrats opposing binding timelines for troop withdrawals, it has been a reprieve from the mounting pressure that he seemed to shrug off in Washington, only to own up to in Hugo.

"I'll tell you, the pressure that people receive from their political parties," he said, sighing and shaking his head. "The speaker appoints which committees I serve on. If I want to get money for Highway 3, if I want to keep furthering my career so I can be more effective for my district, there's all these pressures that go with it.

"And it's like any job," he went on, "you want people to like you. And I'll tell you, that last week, I took a lot of votes against my leadership, and you sit there, and nobody wants to talk to you. It stinks. It's like being back in the schoolyard."

As he chats with his constituents, tapes spots for the radio and holds town hall meetings, the 34-year-old conservative Democrat is quick to slip into criticism of the war.

"We have tried a preemptive strike," he said at a meeting in Hugo, parrying a pointed question on Iran from a retired major, Aubrey Jackson. "We tried that in Iraq, and you saw how successful a preemptive strike could be."

But that criticism has not changed his votes, which have been consistently with the president. For now, that seems to be just fine with the voters here, who pride themselves on suffering in silence. The day that Bush hailed "Mission Accomplished" aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, the town of Antlers was holding the biggest funeral anybody could remember to bury one of its own, a recent high school graduate who died in those "major combat operations" that supposedly just ended. And it has gone on from there. At least 15 of Boren's constituents have died in the war.

"The United States is all about fighting for this country. There is no question about that here," Matthews, of the radio station, said emphatically. "We understand you fight. You send your sons to war and, I guess now, your daughters. But you've got this dream out there, and after so many years, there's not even a light at the end of the tunnel. I hate talking about it.

"I hate sounding, you know, like I'm unpatriotic, like I'm against the president."

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