A man from Leningrad, a visiting scholar out to sample Austin's celebrated musical scene, walked into the Alamo Lounge the other night. His hosts from the University of Texas introduced him to the performer, Butch Hancock, a singer and songwriter from West Texas.
"What the hell's going on in Afghanistan?" Hancock asked him.
The visiting Soviet didn't even flinch. "Same old story, same old pain," he shrugged, and with that propped himself against the bar and starting toe-tapping to the music.
Foreign policy is on the public mind these days, and while it may be temporarily embarrassing to touring Soviets, it may be even more of a problem for President Carter.
There has been little of note in the presidential campaign here other than foreign policy. George Bush has tried to make his experience in foreign affairs -- contrasted to the inexperience of Ronald Reagan and Carter -- the focus of his last minute effort here, with some success. Ronald Reagan, who has mostly ignored Bush, has spent the week talking about foreign policy. Carter drew even more attention to the issue by flying here Monday to visit the burned survivors of the desert mission.
The last time foreign policy began to dominate the campaign, it resurrected Carter. Today, the opposite appears to be happening. In conservative and patriotic Texas, the raid in Iran has many sympathizers. Campaign workers for Bush report that his swift support for the mission brought an immediate and enthusiastic response from the public. "We couldn't get off the phones last Friday and Saturday," said Dorothy Golden of Dallas.
But the raid has only contributed to Carter's personal political problems. The voting here on Saturday isn't likely to be a referendum on the failed rescue mission, if for no other reason than the fact that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy is not popular here. But the raid and the subsequent problems Carter may have in foreign affairs are likely to weaken him further for the fall campaign against his likely Republican opponent, Reagan.
It isn't that the judgment of the people here is so harsh, but that it echoes the words of the Soviet scholar, "Same old story, same old pain," The president gets credit for trying but no sympathy for failing.
Bob Beckel, Carter's Texas coordinator, said his office got a lot of response from people Friday and Saturday, "Much of it from campaign workers who were 'charged up' by the president's action. Since then there has been little response." But it is clear that people are thinking about the raid and the problems it has created. It is hard to find anyone who feels positively toward the president in the aftermath of the raid as more and more details of it are made known.
In that intervening time, criticism of Carter grew sharper by the day. To enthusiastic audiences, Bush implied that Carter was responsible for the maintenance problems that torpedoed the rescue mission, blaming the president for slashing the defense budget early in his presidency and failing to pay attention to the deterioration of U.S. military capability. He also criticized Carter's "contradictory" policies and the public view of Carter seemed to confirm to that.
"Carter not only does nothing, he changes his mind four or five times," said Janice Jay, a former social worker and homemaker.
But Talmage Boston, a 26-year-old Dallas lawyer, has a different view. He showed up Tuesday night at a Bush rally in the north Dallas suburb of Richardson. In an auditorium festooned with a Patton-sized American flag, nearly 1,000 people roared their approval of a tough foreign policy, a stronger Central Intelligence Agency and no quarter for the ayatollah and his militant students. Boston was on his feet cheering with the rest of them, and as Bush left in his car, Boston was at the front of the crowd applauding.
"I was with Carter until two weeks ago," he said. "Then I was undecided.
Now I'm for Bush."
What changed his mind? "The illfated rescue mission," he said.