Bill Bivens has never campaigned for a political cause before. Life as an insurance broker in Peoria, Illinois, in the very heart of the American Midwest, doesn't usually arouse those sorts of passions. But now, at the age of 69, he is indignant as hell, and throwing all his energies into a grassroots local campaign to oppose the looming war against Iraq.
"I think it's an unnecessary war. I don't think the American people are behind it," he says. "Somehow, we have to get that across to our President, although I don't quite know how we're going to do it. All we can do is speak out and hope for the best. It's got to start somewhere."
"Will it play in Peoria?" is the line that old vaudeville bookers on the East Coast used to ask themselves before sending an act out on the road. The line was subsequently picked up by President Nixon as a sort of political bellwether, the thinking being that Peoria perfectly represented the norm of Middle America. The city is a little bit too white and a little bit too blue- collar to be considered quite so representative today the US has become a more ethnically and economically diverse country over the past 30 years but it remains as good a place as any to see which way the political winds are blowing. And those winds are blowing in one very clear direction. The war is not playing well in Peoria at all, and neither, for that matter, is the rest of the President's agenda all of which provides a worrying backdrop for President Bush as he prepares for today's key State of the Union address.
Traveling to Peoria in deepest winter evokes an old-fashioned sensibility familiar from other parts of the Midwest. People are unfailingly friendly, earnest and hospitable. The local paper, the Peoria Star Journal, runs a regular column called "Random Acts of Kindness" to chronicle instances of good neighborliness. The better parts of town are full of family-owned milk-shake cafés and antique shops trading in a peculiarly homey line of kitsch angel figurines, potpourri and embroidered cushions declaring there's no place like home. The downtown streets have good, solid presidential names such as Monroe, Adams and Jefferson. Across the main bridge are superb views of snow-covered, wood-topped bluffs overlooking the Illinois river. The rolling country, unusual in the flatter-than-flat Midwest, makes the Peoria area a favorite nesting ground for bald eagles, the very symbol of American patriotism. And this is certainly a patriotic place. Stars-and-Stripes flags are fluttering all over, in squares, atop shop awnings and on the back of family cars, just as they have ever since September 11.
Not that this patriotic display translates into unswerving support for the President. For the past couple of weeks, Bill Bivens has been circulating petition forms in the snowbound towns around Peoria. He has left them in churches, in cafés and shops, in a bowling alley and at the local chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars. In one grocery store, the very presence of the petition forms almost provoked a fistfight between two customers with opposing views on the subject. But for the most part his efforts at polling local opinion have been accepted gracefully, even welcomed.
On the form, he asks in a quiet, unassuming way he is a quiet, unassuming man whether people are for or against the war, whether they feel the US is justified in going it alone to oust Saddam Hussein or if it should act only with the blessing of the United Nations Security Council. So far, he has received 150 responses, more than 90 per cent of them opposed to war without UN backing. He has heard from young and old, Republicans and Democrats, even from a number of war veterans. (He himself served as a Navy corpsman during the Korean War, although he never saw action. He voted for Al Gore rather than George Bush in the last presidential election, but does not consider himself politically partisan.)
When Bivens's campaign was written up in the Peoria Star Journal, the newspaper received a flurry of about 40 e-mails in response, all of them agreeing with him that the US should not go to war without international support. The Star Journal's regular mailbag has also been much pre- occupied with the Iraq crisis. As with the petition forms, more than 90 per cent of the letters have been anti-war.
"We've had more response from men than from women, including a lot from Greatest Generation types," says Mike Bailey, a columnist with the paper, referring to the generation that lived through the Second World War. "That's a surprise, because there is never usually any shortage of bomb-'em-back- to-the-Stone-Age testosterone. The predominant sentiment is, we shouldn't go it alone. If the world is with us, people have far less objection."
The Independent's own admittedly less than scientific polling of opinion in and around Peoria drew very similar conclusions. In general, people were remarkably forthcoming, eloquent and well-informed on the subject of Iraq, and in almost every case they expressed misgivings of one sort or another: anything from anxiety about the impact of an expensive foreign war on the local economy, to outright fury at President Bush's apparent eagerness to shed blood in an unprovoked pre-emptive attack.
If anything, chatting to the locals shows that opinion in Peoria which is evenly split between the Republican and Democratic parties is more resoundingly anti-war than on the liberal-leaning West Coast, where views are too often conditioned by partisanship rather than careful individual thought. It took a whole day of scouring the frosty streets to find even one person (elected Republican Party officials excepted) who wholeheartedly backed the President. And even she, a young, well-dressed marketing executive and member of the Peoria school board called Alicia Butler, admitted that President Bush had not exactly spelt out his case for war. "He's the President. He knows what he's doing," she says, amid the splendid surroundings of the city's civic center."If he feels we need to go to war, we need to trust him."
If that line of argument a leap of faith, essentially is the most ringing endorsement the White House can find for its proposed military adventure, it suggests more trouble for Bush than even his slumping approval ratings would indicate. "I didn't vote for him, but I thought he was doing a good job. Now I think he's in too much of a hurry to get into this thing," says Sandra Quinn, a furniture and knick-knack store manager, expressing how the views of many moderate Democratic voters have fluctuated recently. "I'm nervous about a lot of things. People are scared financially they've lost a lot of their retirement money in the stockmarket. All kinds of budgets are being cut. It's all connected, and it makes me fear for what is going to happen."
Jack Bradley, a Korean War veteran and maverick Republican whom I find braving the frost on his daily morning walk, is even more forthright. "We're going to go billions of dollars into debt, and to save what? A pile of sand?" he asks. "Korea was the forgotten war, and I'm afraid this war in Iraq will be a forgotten war, too. It will create a massive explosion in the Middle East and only make people more inclined to hate us. If we don't rein in our imperialist tendencies, I think the US is on the same course as the Roman Empire."
Decline and fall in Illinois? It's a possibility. Despite the contented surface, Peoria has had its share of problems. It was founded by Caterpillar Inc, the world's largest manufacturer of tractors and heavy machinery, and for decades it was, to all intents and purposes, a company town. Then, in the 1980s, came a deep recession, followed by almost two decades of job cuts and deep labour unrest, resulting in the loss of three-quarters of Caterpillar's blue-collar workforce. The white middle class fled downtown for the suburbs, leaving a trail of urban blight and deep racial tension that is felt to this day. Suburban schools are thriving, but 13 downtown schools all with a majority of black pupils have been put on an academic watchlist because of plummeting standards. The racism cuts both ways: the man credited with being the fieriest white supremacist in the US today, Matt Hale, comes from East Peoria, where he founded his World Church of the Creator and inspired a small band of followers, including one man who went on a racially motivated shooting spree across the Midwest three years ago. Hale himself is currently in federal custody in Chicago, charged with plotting the murder of a federal judge whose husband is Jewish.
If Peoria seems generally well attuned to events in the wider world, it is partly because its fortunes have always depended on them. Despite some successful recent attempts to diversify into new areas such as medical research and biotechnology, the city still leans heavily on Caterpillar as its economic guarantor. And Caterpillar's fortunes, in turn, depend largely on the broader business cycle in the US and beyond. To sell its earth diggers and cement-mixers, Caterpillar relies on big construction and public works projects. If there is a war in Iraq, such projects may very well be postponed or cancelled amid the general economic disruption. No wonder people are nervous.
"I don't know whether to trust President Bush," says Karen Hathaway, a product pricing analyst with Caterpillar. "My fear is that he's just being a Texan cowboy, shooting first and asking questions later. I'm not at all sure this is necessary."
Diane Oberhelman, a local property developer who votes Republican, says she has a direct concern about consumer confidence holding up in the event of a war, because she is building a shopping mall. "But my biggest concern is for our country. I hope we're not going to wage a war when it might have been wiser to get the better of the situation in other ways. I had a lot of confidence that Bush and Powell would approach international issues intelligently. Now I'm disappointed in them. Brute force isn't always the way to accomplish one's goals."
Brute force might also have a very tangible effect on government spending. Already, many US states are struggling to make up budget shortfalls because of the lackluster economy and the withdrawal of federal funding due to the ballooning deficit in Washington. Illinois' own deficit is one of the largest among US states, as much as $5bn (£3.5bn). The expectation in Peoria is that severe cuts to health care, education and other services are in the pipeline, including the loss of up to 15 per cent of teachers in local schools.
As the budget cuts kick in, there are signs of growing disquiet at President Bush's continuing insistence on tax cuts and stimulus measures that mostly benefit the wealthiest echelons of US society. In much of the country, that disquiet has become apparent mostly since the Republican victory in last November's elections that unexpectedly gave them control of both houses of Congress. In Illinois, though, the feeling has been growing for some time; the state bucked the national trend in November and passed a number of key political offices, including the governorship, from the Republicans to the Democrats. A war, naturally, would only add to the financial pressures in Washington; estimates put the cost of invading and occupying Iraq at anywhere between $200bn and $1,600bn.
The change of political tone was evident on a tour of some of the most conservative areas of Peoria. In the impeccable suburb of Washington, Elaine Lucas, a candy store owner with Stars-and-Stripes rosettes in her windows, explains that there was a big difference between being patriotic and supporting Bush: "My country will always be my country, but the President will change. I'm dead against the war. I know too many boys that age, and I hate to see them fight for something they don't understand."
A scenic drive near the Peoria Country Club, site of some of the most expensive homes in the city, results in a crop of anti-war voices. "We have never launched a pre-emptive, unprovoked strike against another country. It is humiliating, and horrifying to me, and I'm afraid that my grandchildren will have to pay for the consequences," says Tom Murphy, a sturdy Episcopalian priest who also runs a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center. Although he never liked Bush, he has plenty of friends who did. Of them, he says: "I don't know anybody who is passionately for the war."
A little further along the drive, I was promised an interview with an ardently Republican 17-year-old called Evan Dreifuss. But Dreifuss had been doing some thinking. "For a while, I was very supportive of the upcoming war, because I thought the President had evidence against Saddam Hussein," he says. "But at this point I think it is just rhetoric. If he has proof about the weapons of mass destruction, why doesn't he show it to us, or at least to the UN inspectors? You can't justify military action without a strong basis. This is just a joke. I'm not sure I'd even vote for George Bush today."
Peoria boasts a small number of military celebrities for native sons, including John Shalikashvili, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Wayne Downing, the former head of the Rangers in Somalia who features prominently in both the book and the film Black Hawk Down. Bizarrely, both men have proved, in different ways, to be out of synch with the White House. General Shalikashvili testified before Congress last autumn that he did not favor a war against Iraq without full UN backing. General Downing, meanwhile, recently quit his job as number two to Tom Ridge, who runs the newly formed Department of National Security. He has not explained his reasons for stepping down.
Just this weekend, Peoria also came face to face with the other very tangible reality of war: the need to provide manpower. About 200 reservists, most of them Marines, left town for Camp Pendleton in California, their destination thereafter still unknown. One mother said she admired what her son was doing, but could not hold back her tears as she thought about where he might end up. There are those in Washington who believe the war will become more popular once it starts, something that was true of the last Gulf war. This time, though, the motivation for war is much less clear and the final goal regime change? disarmament? US occupation of the Iraqi oilfields? equally uncertain. The heart of America is skeptical now; pretty soon, it will need some answers to its increasingly urgent questions.
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd