Bush's Call to Arms Draws Mixed Reaction

Times Staff Writers

The view of President Bush's unflinching call to arms was emotional and immediate Tuesday night from Southern California's main streets and restaurants, to its living rooms and houses of worship.

Once the U.S. commander in chief made it clear that a war is certain, if Iraq fails to disarm, customers at Yolie's Fresh Mex Grill in Ventura declared his State of the Union address no ordinary speech.

"We're going to have a big attack, that's for sure," Carlos Avellazquez, 56, a retired business executive, said enthusiastically. "America will go for it. We don't want another Hitler."

Avellazquez's firm support for the president was echoed by many others throughout the region. But Bush's justification for an attack on Baghdad met a skeptical reception elsewhere.

"It was as if it was scripted by 'Saturday Night Live,' " said Lisa Bivens, 34, a polling company researcher, watching at a Fountain Valley restaurant.

From Orange County to Los Angeles to Pasadena, somber groups of residents huddled around televisions to turn their attention to Bush's plans for the future and assessment of the nation's condition.

Viewers were not so much interested in the president's broader agenda for 2003: a massive tax cut; a fundamental restructuring of Medicare; or a worldwide attack on AIDS.

"We're watching because we're interested in what the future is going to be in a few days ... Whether it's war or no war," said David Cobian, a restaurant employee in Ventura.

At the Abbey, a West Hollywood restaurant and bar, about 25 members of the Stonewall Democratic Club clapped when the president voiced support of hydrogen cars, AIDS assistance in Africa and the war on terrorism. But they hissed when the president expressed antiabortion sentiments and favored federal financial support for faith-based groups.

The gay and lesbian political organization expressed skepticism toward war, doubting the president's assertions that clear evidence has been presented of Iraq's failure to destroy weapons of mass destruction.

"Give us some real proof," said Jim Phillips, a 48-year-old escrow officer at the Abbey.

A crowd of 500 gathered at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena to watch the president on a big-screen projection near the altar.

Much of Bush's speech was greeted with derisive groans, hisses and boos -- particularly when the president foreshadowed war. A panel of clergy and activists gave the president low marks for, in its view, advocating unfair advantages for the United States, at the expense of other nations.

"I don't care how you slice it," said Tim McDonald, pastor of the First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta. "We are talking about smart bombs being sent on dumb missions."

There were mostly critics, too, at Natale's coffee shop in Fountain Valley.

Bill Neblett, 68, a philosophy professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles, stood up and walked out barely 15 minutes into the president's talk.

"I'm opposed to the war because I don't think it's needed," he said. "I hope they continue with the inspection process instead."

Despite Orange County 's conservative image, Natale's rang with boos, especially when Bush spoke on the environment and against some forms of abortion.

Barbara Stecker, 54, a Huntington Beach public school teacher, found Bush's talk of war troubling.

"I felt it was a really good, well-written speech, but that it had ugly thoughts and ideas," Stecker said. "This language about 'first strike' and freedom against tyranny, bad versus good: Well, it's all about oil."

In the San Fernando Valley, Mehran Kamrava said he fears Bush squandered whatever goodwill the U.S. has in Europe and the Middle East.

"It just pains me," said Kamrava, 38, chairman of the political science department at Cal State Northridge. "This sort of talk of war being imminent and signaling the occupation of Iraq doesn't sit well with the average person in Amman or Cairo, and it doesn't win any hearts in Baghdad."

But in Ventura County, where Republicans outnumber Democrats, Bush's speech had plenty of support.

"I'm hearing a person who has a very strong sense of his place in history," said Ted Richey, 48-year-old composer. "I think people should listen.... I feel he's a great president."

Seated nearby, graphic artist Jeff Cameron, 55, said he is no fan of war, but would support one if needed.

"I want to see some facts," Cameron said. "But if Bush makes a good case, then you have to do what you have to do."


Times staff writers Wendy Thermos, Larry Stammer and Kishan Putta contributed to this report.

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