By Dana Milbank
Friday, August 24, 2007
The sign outside Accotink Unitarian Universalist Church in Burke announces that it is a "liberal, welcoming religious community." For Rep. Tom Davis yesterday, it was more liberal than welcoming.
The Virginia Republican, a possible Senate candidate who supports the Iraq war, had bravely agreed to attend a meeting of the antiwar Americans Against Escalation in Iraq. It was a journey into the belly of the beast, and Davis got out in one piece. Almost.
He accepted -- but did not drink from -- the bottle of water with the sticker saying "Iraq War/Wrong Way." He spoke from the lectern with the poster demanding "Representative Davis . . . End This War." He politely endured shouts from the audience: "Chicken hawks! Impeach Bush! Our children are dying! You didn't answer the question!"
Then, as the moderator tried to bring the forum to an amicable close, a man in the second row stood up. "This has been a terrible meeting!" shouted David Kuebrich. "Let's not thank Representative Davis, who has been for the most part lock-stepping with the Bush administration."
Others applauded, booed Davis and joined in the protest. The congressman, buttonholed by angry activists, beat a hasty retreat, pushing aside chairs to get out of the church.
Davis needn't worry much about the antiwar crowd if he opts to keep his relatively safe seat in the House. But if Sen. John Warner (R) retires and Davis runs for the Senate, he'll need to win over Virginia voters who last year abandoned Republican George Allen for Democrat Jim Webb. And this is tricky business.
The conservative Web site Free Republic, getting wind of yesterday's meeting by what it called the antiwar "moonbats," urged its patrons to attend and "inject a little verbal calcium into [Davis's] backbone." But the Freepers, as they call themselves, didn't show up, leaving Davis (dubbed a RINO, Republican in name only, by conservatives) free to pander to the moonbats.
Davis tried to soothe the crowd with phrases such as "there aren't any easy answers." He reminded the group that he was one of 17 Republicans in the House to vote against Bush's "surge" in Iraq -- though Davis played down his many votes in support of continuing the conflict. He condemned the "dysfunctional" Iraqi government and the "backwards" political developments in an Iraq under "anarchy."
Drawing applause from the skeptical crowd, he added: "We need to have more dialogues like this around the country that are civil."
The organizers tried to keep things that way. The man who introduced Davis spoke of his deep respect for the congressman. Organizers screened and read the questions. Rand Beers, the former Bush National Security Council aide who became an adviser to John Kerry's 2004 campaign against Bush, contributed solicitous phrases such as "Congressman Davis put his finger on the problem" and "I fully agree with Congressman Davis."
But Davis appeared less than comfortable from the moment he entered the church wearing yacht-club attire -- blue blazer, striped oxford, cotton chinos, brown bucks. Perhaps noticing all the Democratic bumper stickers on the cars in the lot, or the antiwar stickers and posters in the audience, he spent much of the session shifting in his seat.
The first speaker, Catholic Sister Marie Lucey, lamented the "untold damage" of the Iraq war. Davis scratched his brow. She spoke of the "diminishment of moral and political leadership." He looked at the ceiling. She said the conflict is "contrary to international law." He put his hand in his pocket. "Bring this war to an end," she advised. His leg jiggled.
Davis fixed his eye on the floor as Iraq veteran John Bruhns said he was disgusted with the "brand-new Vietnam" in Iraq. He moved his expressionless gaze to the back of Bruhns's head as the veteran chanted "End the war!"
Then came the questions. The muttering began when Davis said he would "reserve judgment" about military progress.
Laughter followed when Davis said he expects the White House will "probably tweak" the report to Congress next month by Gen. David Petraeus. Grumbling increased when Davis said he will "give General Petraeus the benefit of the doubt."
"How do you justify the continued waste of American lives, sir?" came the next question. Davis's answer must have been unsatisfactory to one listener, who shouted, "We had our civil war -- let them have theirs!"
"Let me answer the question," Davis requested. The congressman proceeded, as did the dissenting comments, though at a lower volume.
Bruhn, trying to end the session after an hour, offered the formulaic "Congressman Davis, we really want to thank you."
"I want to thank everybody for being polite about it," Davis reciprocated.
That was Kuebrich's cue to be impolite. He and the man next to him, Fred Millar, erupted with complaints. "We haven't really gotten to anything we should be talking about! . . . You control the questions -- that's a very undemocratic procedure! . . . You don't listen to the voices of the people!"
In the mixture of boos, applause and shouting that followed, Davis departed with a disclaimer. "I didn't set the rules," he said. "I didn't set the rules."
For a video version of today's Washington Sketch, go to www.washingtonpost.com/sketch.