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The Nation | DISPATCH FROM CRAWFORD, TEXAS

Local Paper Snubs Favorite Son

September 29, 2004|Peter Wallsten | Times Staff Writer

CRAWFORD, Texas — President Bush may be leading in the national polls, but Tuesday he awoke at his ranch in conservative central Texas to some surprising news: The hometown newspaper had endorsed his Democratic challenger, Sen. John F. Kerry.

Never mind that a massive sign on the five grain silos that loom over the center of town declare this "Bush Country," or that Bush-Cheney signs adorn the Yellow Rose gift shop. Ignore the fact that the same paper endorsing Kerry also proclaims in blue and red: "Crawford, Texas ... Hometown of the President of the United States!"

The weekly Lone Star Iconoclast backed Bush in 2000. On Tuesday, it devoted half of Page 2 to its endorsement and topped it with the headline: "Kerry Will Restore American Dignity."

The editorial, penned by publisher W. Leon Smith, assailed Bush for his policies on Social Security, Medicare, taxes and stem cell research. It called the Iraq war "deadly and highly questionable," and said the country had been "duped" by the argument that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

"We were ready to follow Bush's lead through any travail," the newspaper said. "He let us down."

The editorial urged Texans "not to rate the candidate by his hometown or even his political party, but instead by where he intends to take the country."

Smith, a Democrat, runs the Iconoclast from nearby Clifton, where he is also the mayor and the publisher of that town's newspaper. He said publishing the Kerry endorsement was "probably the hardest journalistic decision I've ever had to make."

"It was an easy decision to make that we preferred Kerry over Bush, but it was a hard decision about whether we should run the editorial," Smith said. "We knew there would be people lashing back at us. This is Texas, and there are quite a few people here who are going to support Bush no matter what happens in the world and no matter what he does. He's really one of us."

The Iconoclast, with 425 subscribers, is a recent addition to life in Crawford. It opened in 2000 to fill a void in a town that had gone without a local newspaper for 35 years, since the Crawford Sun merged with the nearby McGregor Mirror.

Smith said he had received both "pats on the back and kicks in the butt" from many in this town of 750 associated with the nearby ranch where Bush has spent most of his vacations since becoming president. But, as he expected, the kicks have outweighed the pats.

After all, Crawford and the ranch, offering those familiar photographs of Bush clearing brush, have served as suggestions that the president has a down-to-earth nature -- and here was the local paper knocking its own.

"They think the Taliban and I are in cahoots," Smith said of locals complaining about the endorsement.

At the Yellow Rose, one of a handful of businesses that have opened since Bush bought the ranch while he was Texas' governor, manager Teresa Bowdoin rolled her eyes when a reporter asked if she sold the paper at the store.

"I'd just as soon burn it," she said. "I understand it's a free world, but sometimes I feel like they're shoving the free world down our throats."

Bowdoin said several local business owners had talked about pulling their advertising from the paper because of the endorsement. She said the Iconoclast was hurting itself by opposing the man who had brought fame and economic growth to town.

"We'll never advertise with them again," she said.

Some said the editorial, published on a day that the national press corps was in town to cover Bush as he prepared for his debate against Kerry on Thursday in Coral Gables, Fla., proved that Crawford was not the uniformly pro-Bush area that many outsiders assume it is.

The mayor, Robert Campbell, is a Democrat and local church pastor who has endorsed Kerry.

"It has always been made to appear that everyone in Crawford supports Bush, and that's just not the case," Campbell said. "I'd say it's a mixed bag here."

The mayor said it was not necessarily the case that Bush's presence had helped Crawford. Tax revenues are up from the influx of reporters, Secret Service, White House staff members and tourists, he said, but there were strains as well.

"The roads weren't built for this kind of traffic," he said.

The White House downplayed the editorial's potential effect.

"I haven't seen that, but I feel pretty confident about the people of Crawford and the state of Texas in this election and where they stand," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

Still, the town was buzzing over the episode. And at the Iconoclast's offices, the phones rang all day -- much to the delight of the staff.

"It's not like we turned the Alamo into a Taco Bell," said Nathan Diebenow, 25, the staff reporter who covers Crawford. "Bush is not this sacred object. We, as citizens of America, can give our opinion, even in his hometown, and that's so cool. And I think the president would agree with me."

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