LOS ANGELES -- In a time of sharply defined feeling over the Persian Gulf War, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) fights back with a soft touch.
She hugs high school students. She dances with senior citizens. She embraces anyone who approaches her and invites them to share her sadness about the bombs falling in the Persian Gulf region.
But one thing she does not do, despite barely six weeks' experience as a member of Congress, is back off from her opposition to war of any kind, and to what she considers her country's mindless assault on Iraq.
"What about World War II?" asked Thomas Jefferson High School driver education teacher Gordon Hassman, one of the few people to approach her with a pro-war position during a series of speeches and meetings here last week.
"Doesn't have anything to do with it," Waters shot back. "I'm not talking about World War II. . . . How can you tell the Crips and the Bloods that you do not defend your territory by battling out when we have our own leaders battling out?"
Waters has come home from Washington every weekend since the 102nd Congress began last month and is well-attuned to the anti-war feelings that dominate her south-central Los Angeles district, which in the 1980 census was 51 percent black and 32 percent Hispanic. To her, President Bush's quick rejection last week of an Iraqi peace feeler did not make sense. "The president should not encrust himself in concrete," she said.
In the gang-divided neighborhood that Waters, 52, represented in the state legislature for 14 years, gunfire and death are not simply events on television. The Jefferson High area has one of the highest crime rates in the state. The Watts riots occurred near here in 1965 and some of the U.S. military surgeons sent to the gulf learned to treat gunshot wounds at local hospitals.
Her familiarity with violence has not made Waters any happier at having her ideas for social and education reform shoved aside by a war. As she rode about her district in field representative Merle Davis's dusty, hopelessly cluttered gray Honda, Waters exuded frustration and an inexhaustible desire to express both love for U.S. troops and contempt for what they are doing.
She did not encounter much opposition. "I've met a few World War II veterans who are supporting the war," Waters said of her talks with voters, "but most people I meet are anti-war types."
Some members of Congress who voted unsuccessfully to deny Bush war powers last month wrung their hands over the difficulty of the decision, but not Waters. "I did not agonize," she said in an interview. "I was not torn. I have been very sure from the very first that this was wrong, that war is an obsolete means of resolving conflict."
The mixture of firm beliefs and warm embraces has been the key to Waters's political success, and made her an automatic choice to succeed Rep. Augustus F. Hawkins (D) when he announced his retirement last year. She won 80 percent of the vote and, as a former California chair for Jesse L. Jackson's 1988 presidential campaign, is expected to become a more prominent force in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.
But at the Valentine's Day party for senior citizens at the Theresa Lindsay Center on Central Avenue, Waters assumed the role, as she often does, of an ordinary person from the neighborhood amazed at the idiocy of the outside world, but determined to do something about it.
Grabbing a microphone, she mildly chastised a beaming crowd of older voters. "Now, when you all sent me to Washington, you said, 'Maxine, go to Washington and do what you do.' " She gave them an exasperated look: "So why didn't you all tell me I was going to be walking straight into a war?"
As many of her constituents know, it takes a strong personality to resist Waters's arguments.
At Jefferson High, with a low-income student body, nearly half the students at two Persian Gulf assemblies voted to support the war. But they listened quietly as Waters described "something that frightened me to death" during a brief visit she made last month to the gulf region. "The tanks were lined up as far as the eye could see," she said.
Then she picked up steam, talking about the futures of their elder sisters and brothers in the gulf as the students began to cheer.
"It is not too late for principled representatives to speak out and ask for a cease-fire," she shouted over the din. "What will their futures be if we go into a ground war? Many African-American men and women, Latino Hispanics, they will not have any future. They're going to die."