One Year After 'Axis of Evil'

As the citizens of this shabby old city consider this year's State Of the Union Address, many are still remembering last year's speech.

Then, President Bush not only connected the dots from North Korea through Iraq to Iran — an "axis of evil" — but summarized his objectives with this brief promising assurance:

"We will win this war," he said. "We'll protect the homeland and we will revive the economy."

It was a tough speech for tough times, but tough times are nothing new to this place, once one of the richest and prettiest cities in the country.

Now, it isn't.

Local steel-mills have closed or are in deep financial trouble, coal mining just isn't what it used to be and on any given afternoon, the odds are that an artillery shell fired straight down Main Street would hit exactly nobody. The place is pretty much deserted, lined with dozens of vacant storefronts and office buildings.

But most people in Wheeling voted for Bush and many are reluctant to blame him, eager to back him and willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. For example, at a breakfast restaurant on the outskirts of the city, Russ Riggs, formerly a Republican but now an independent, said he thinks the president has "a very difficult job to do and he's doing it as well as he can."

‘A Moral Person’

Nearby, Mary Jo Terry, a registered Democrat who supports Bush, rates him as an effective leader. "I think he's a moral person. I think he's much better than his predecessor — and in that respect, it's easy to look up to him," she said.

At the same table, her Republican friend, Becky Van Pelt, agrees. "Seeing him as a family man and as a Christian means a lot to me," she said — and she says she feels safer now than she did last January.

Nurse Christy Tarr, the infection control coordinator at Wheeling Hospital, says she's very impressed with how quickly Bush's smallpox vaccination program is shaping up. "Without a doubt in my mind," she said, "this is one he has followed through on. I think they're doing a marvelous job. It's an awesome task for the number of hospitals, county health departments and states that all have to coordinate — and it is definitely a coordinated effort — and they have, from what I've gathered, done that in a very short amount of time."

At a downtown firehouse, as a couple of men practiced decontaminating themselves and their hazmat suits, chief Steve Johnston was of two minds on how Bush's plans for protecting America are being managed.

The state has received $5.5 million to fund its bioterrorism preparations, but that's divided among all 55 counties in the state — and Johnston doesn't think it's enough. When asked if there were an event tomorrow, would he and his firemen be ready, he paused for a moment, then said: "Frankly, no. We're better off — but are we ready? I'm not sure that any of us are."

Nor does it seem that a great many Wheeling citizens are ready for a war with Iraq.

War's Shadow

Terry, finishing her breakfast, said, "I'm not sure if I believe in the 'just' war. I'm not convinced that we need to go bomb Iraq yet."

Kim Young, taking her first sip of coffee, concurred. "I hope we don't go to war. No one wants to. I don't want to see that happen."

At another table, Nick Dolgovskij, a Republican, wondered whether it's fair to send young Americans into war then welcome them back into a country unable to offer them much. "We've got thousands of boys overseas ready to do battle for us," he said. "When it's all said and done and they come away victorious, what kind of economy are they going to come home to?"

If they come home to Wheeling … it won't be much.

In his speech last year, Bush said: "When America is working, America prospers, so the centerpiece of my economic security plan can be summed up in one word: jobs."

But since then, Wheeling has recorded the largest one-year increase in joblessness in the entire country — more than 50 percent — and the unemployment office has become one of the busier places in the city. Among those filing claims was 20-year-old Joshua Elliott, just laid off by a local steel-mill trying to emerge from bankruptcy. He said he understands the president's focus on fighting terrorism. "But maybe now," he added, "his focus needs to be more on America and America's jobs."

At a table nearby, Eleanor Feiock was filling in her forms as well. Her view of Bush is much less positive now than a year ago. "Working on terrorism? I get that — but what about people who are out of work, who are losing their homes. What about them?"

All in all, most Wheeling folks, like most Americans, are showing considerable patience with the president. They like him, they respect him, they want him to succeed; but on economic matters, that window of tolerance may be slowly closing.