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.
He worries that the situation in Iraq will inflict long-term damage on the professional military he has spent much of his career helping build. He isn't advocating getting out of Iraq. We are stuck there, he says. "Our country can't come out second-best, or we'll be fighting decades of trouble." But he is sharply critical of the Bush administration's approach. "We need more international participation, but it's going the other way. This administration has turned those folks off -- we're going in the other direction."
The U.S. foray into Iraq has made the country less safe, he argues, especially by distracting the military from going after the al Qaeda terrorist network. "No question about it," he says while riding in an aide's 2002 Buick Rendezvous to the Missouri State Fair at Sedalia. "I think we would be in the final phases of cleaning up al Qaeda had we not gone into Iraq."
Walking into the fair, he sees the choir director for his church. "Brenda, how're you doing?" He stops by nearly every one of the dozens of long picnic tables at the Farm Credit Services tent, then poses for photographs with Leah Reid, the newly crowned Queen of the Fair, who is from Sweet Springs. Most of his conversations are small talk about families and friends, with much news of births, deaths and automobile accidents. Half the men -- mostly farmers in this tent -- address him as "Congressman." The other half of the men, and almost all the women, familiarly call him "Ike."
Skelton knows that most of them disagree with his stance on Iraq and are still willing to give Bush the benefit of the doubt. "I sense people here do support the president," he says, sitting down to lunch.
But he says he is confident that eventually he will be vindicated. "Barbara Tuchman wrote a book, 'The March of Folly,' about how government leaders did things against their own long-term interests," he says over his "porkburger," which is a high-class version of Spam. "It's turning out to be -- with the revelations of no weapons of mass destruction, and the poor aftermath planning -- that this would be another chapter for Barbara Tuchman, if she were alive.
"Let me tell you something," he says. "History will not treat this administration well, 50 or 100 years from now." Right now, he says, he is "deeply concerned about the security of the country -- underline the word 'deeply.' "
As for reconciling his position with that of his constituents: "They know I support the troops."
They do. Skelton was pro-military before it was politically cool, and they remember that. "In this country, prior to 9/11, there wasn't a lot of awareness, in everyone's family, of the military," says Kenneth L. Miller, general manager of the Laclede Electric Cooperative, in Lebanon, Mo., who identifies himself as a solid Republican who votes for Skelton "because he's a great American." Miller says that "this man really carried the flag for the military before it was an issue, before it was popular."
'Ike Tells It Like He Sees It'
Before each meeting, Skelton or an aide tucks his left hand into his pocket so that the lifeless arm doesn't swing loose. Stricken with polio as a teenager, he competed on the school track team by strapping his arms to his side with a belt and throwing his shoulders forward as he ran. Although he had dreamed of attending West Point, he instead went to the University of Missouri and became a lawyer. Today his right forearm works slightly, and only because an operation connected the live muscle in the bicep to his forearm. "I don't talk about it," he says. "You don't want people feeling sorry for you."
At Skelton's next stop, to present a $10,000 Agriculture Department rural development check to the town of Warsaw, Homer May, a retired federal investigator who does a bit of reporting for the weekly Benton County Enterprise, says he and his friends are "divided" on Iraq. "I think our servicemen deserve our respect and support, but I don't think we should ask more of our servicemen than is necessary," he says.
State Sen. Delbert L. Scott, a Republican, adds that Skelton's reputation for honest speaking helps bridge the gap with voters who disagree with him on Iraq. "Ike tells it like he sees it," says Scott, who looks like a slimmer version of the comedian Chevy Chase. "And he has enormous credibility around here."
Back in the SUV, Skelton talks about a book he has just finished on Hitler's aides. As the vehicle rolls past grazing cattle and into the Ozark hills, he recommends a biography of the great Shawnee Indian chief Tecumseh. He is a constant reader, and has plowed through all 50 volumes on his recommended reading list, from a life of Alexander the Great to "Supreme Command," a study of how Abraham Lincoln, Lyndon Johnson, the first President Bush and other civilian leaders have handled -- or mishandled -- militaries in wartime.
The instinct of people here is to, as many put it, "support the commander in chief." And there is no question that everyone feels that they back the troops. But there also is worry in surprising places.
Over a breakfast of salt-laden country ham and biscuits in sausage gravy at the Waynesville Technical Academy, Michael Dunbar, a former Army officer who is now a bank lawyer, says that here, near the Army post at Fort Leonard Wood, Iraq isn't political, it's personal. "It's your friends" who are fighting over there, he says.
Yes, concurs Bill Ransdall. "There are 20 people from my church," he says. "There's a list in the Sunday bulletin."
A third person touches on the undercurrent of unease. "Me, personally, I'm not sure from one day to the next about whether we should be in Iraq," says Virgie Mahan, leader of a group of local business boosters of the Army base. "What I do know is that these soldiers are doing what they are told, and we support them."
Skelton stands in a sky-blue shirt and yellow tie and splits the difference with his 50 listeners, dwelling not on his stance on Iraq but on his fears about the consequences of being mired there. Iraq, he says, is causing "a stretching and straining of the U.S. military like I have not seen before." That especially bothers him, he says, because today's military is so competent. "They are professional. They know their duty." But, he continues, "I fear some will not want to continue." He also worries, he says, about Afghanistan. And about North Korea. And about what happens if Islamic extremists take over nuclear-armed Pakistan.
His back to the yellow-painted cinderblock wall of the room, he circles back to the fundamental point of agreement he shares with his audience. "What it all boils down to is, we can't lose these conflicts. That's why it is so important to continue to support the troops."
Roots of Doubt
Skelton's own misgivings about the Bush administration's handling of Iraq date back to the morning of Sept. 4, 2002, when he and other congressional leaders met with President Bush at the White House. At the meeting's end, he recalls, he and Bush had a quick private exchange.
"What are you going to do once you get it?" he recalls asking the president about Iraq.
Bush responded, he recalls, "We've been giving some thought to it."
So had Skelton. That afternoon, he sent Bush a letter laying out his concerns about the duration and costs of a U.S. occupation of Iraq. In typical fashion, he quoted the Prussian military theorist Karl von Clausewitz (on the requirement in war "not to take the first step without considering the last") and the Chinese strategic thinker Sun Tzu ("To win victory is easy; to preserve its fruits, difficult").
With the benefit of two years' hindsight, the letter is strikingly accurate in foreseeing the troubles awaiting the United States.
"I have no doubt that our military would decisively defeat Iraq's forces and remove Saddam," Skelton wrote. "But like the proverbial dog chasing the car down the road, we must consider what we would do after we caught it."
He was especially worried, he told Bush, about the "extreme difficulty of occupying Iraq with its history of autocratic rule, its balkanized ethnic tensions, and its isolated economic system." So, he said, he would like to know more about "the form of a replacement regime and . . . the possibility that this regime might be rejected by the Iraqi people, leading to civil unrest and even anarchy."
Before invading Iraq, he concluded, the president should make it clear to the American people that the occupation would require money and troops "for many years to come."
There was, he says, no White House response. But in a meeting, a White House congressional liaison named Daniel J. Keniry told him, he says, "Well, Congressman, we really don't need your vote. We've got the votes." (A White House spokesman said that Keniry's recollection is somewhat different, that he told Skelton simply that he expected the Iraq resolution would pass with a large bipartisan majority.) A month later, Skelton grudgingly backed the resolution authorizing the president to use force in Iraq. "We must have a plan for the rebuilding of the Iraqi government and society," he said in a speech on the House floor.
On the eve of the March 2003 invasion, Skelton sent a second letter to Bush. That one also expressed worry about the "great potential for a ragged ending to a war as we deal with the aftermath." But it has proven less prescient in its specifics, such as the worry that Turkey might intervene in the north or that lengthy urban combat might trigger a humanitarian crisis.
In response to his second letter, two National Security Council staffers, Elliott Abrams and Stephen Hadley, came to Capitol Hill to see him. "They told me, 'It's going to be all right, Ike,' " he recalls. He shakes his head slowly.
He wonders why his concerns didn't get more attention back then -- not just from the White House, but from other members of Congress and from journalists. "I was out there by myself," he says. "I got no encouragement. The news media didn't seem to follow through on it.
"No one paid any attention to me, my two letters," he says.
Now Skelton is getting a bit more attention.
What Truman Would Say
He is greeted boisterously by Gib Adkins Jr. as he enters the coffee shop of the Wyota Inn in Lebanon. "Last time I saw you, you was buddy-buddy with Kerry and Edwards" at a recent campaign event, the insurance agent says. "They were just smooching all over you."
But Skelton has not lost Republican support, according to others at this morning coffee meeting. "This is a very conservative Republican county," says Lebanon Mayor Stanley "Bud" Allen, himself a Republican. "It's probably 65 percent Republican, 35 percent Democratic. But he always manages to get 70 percent -- and he deserves it."
Worry about Iraq splits this room nearly in half. Of the 17 people attending the coffee, all say that it will be a major issue in the presidential election. Asked who will win, nine hands go up for Bush, and eight for Kerry.
In the car afterward, Skelton is cheered by that outcome. "Oh, my," he says. "This is Republican territory. If they're talking that way . . . "
But as he comes to that hopeful conclusion he also sounds almost wistful. When he was growing up, Missouri was unassailable Democratic turf, the proud base of President Harry Truman. When his father was a prosecutor in Lafayette County, Truman was the judge -- the job was really more that of county commissioner, Skelton says -- in neighboring Jackson County. In 1952, Skelton and a friend went to the train station where Truman was whistle-stopping for Adlai Stevenson, talked themselves past the Secret Service and spoke briefly with the president -- an event that has more in common with the times of another Missouri river-town boy, Tom Sawyer, than it does with today's white-knuckled security environment.
Truman's widow, Bess, endorsed Skelton when he first ran for Congress in 1976 -- a reimbursement, he says, for his own father backing Truman in a tough Senate primary in 1940. Take down a volume of Truman's memoirs from the shelf in Skelton's home library, and it is signed to Skelton by the former president. But the connection goes beyond family ties, to Truman's political mold of being pro-defense, internationalist and culturally conservative.
Times have changed. Today Skelton is the sole Democratic member of Congress from Missouri representing a rural district. And if current trends continue, he might well be the last for some time.
What would Truman say about Iraq? "Four-letter words," says Skelton, zipping over the rolling hills toward Sedalia on the second of two 250-mile days around his district. He shakes his head. "He didn't suffer fools gladly."
Back at the State Fair for a second visit, Skelton stops at the Armory building to meet with Army Brig. Gen. Dennis Shull, the commander of the Missouri National Guard. The officer tells Skelton about the strain on his troops from Iraq-related deployments. "They're getting tired," he says. "The thing we're finding that is a little bit problematic is riding 'em hard and putting 'em up wet." Skelton nods. He has been hearing many such reports lately.
At the end of the discussion, Shull turns to a reporter. "I'm just glad you didn't ask me if I support the war in Iraq," he says.
The reporter takes the bait: Okay, do you support the war?
His response falls strikingly short of a whole-hearted endorsement. "I support these soldiers," the general says.
Researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this article.