The Elvis impersonator had just left the building -- and George W. Bush and Karl Rove had not yet arrived -- when a speaker at the National Guard Association's annual convention called for a moment of silence to honor 99 members of the National Guard who were killed in active duty over the course of the last year.
Sherwood Baker was one of them.
A 30-year-old man with a wife and a young son, Baker was killed in an explosion in Baghdad in April 2004. At the time of his death, he was providing security for the Iraq Survey Group, an outfit assigned to find the weapons of mass destruction that provided the casus belli for Bush's war. "I don't want to get into clichés about whether my brother died in vain," says Baker's younger brother, Dante Zappala. "But I hear people say that he died making us safer, and I honestly do not believe that is true."
Zappala was in Las Vegas Tuesday for a press conference with an antiwar group called Military Families Speak Out. If Zappala had made his way out of the Las Vegas Hilton where the press conference was held and into the convention center next door, if he had weaved through the Secret Service and the celebrity impersonators Dolly Parton and the Temptations, among them -- he might have heard the president speak. He would have seen Bush stand stiffly while the band played "Hail to the Chief," he would have seen Bush wave sharply when the music ended, and then he would have heard Bush say that U.S. troops in Iraq are "defeating the terrorists where they live, and that makes us safer." And when Bush was done speaking, Zappala would have seen a few thousand Guard members cheer wildly for their commander in chief.
Zappala was on the phone a few minutes after Bush's speech, and there was a little resignation in his voice. "People don't want to believe that the commander in chief would put soldiers in harm's way for a needless cause," he said. "We're a hopeful country. We have faith in the office. We want to believe in the president."
For a lot of Americans, that may be getting harder to do. With each passing day, new revelations about Bush's own National Guard service make it harder to believe that the president has told the full truth about his youth. (Tuesday in Las Vegas, he said only that he was "proud" to have served in the National Guard.) The White House's prewar statements about Iraq -- about how we knew where the weapons of mass destruction were, about how we'd be "greeted as liberators" -- have all turned out to be false. And with the latest news from Iraq --at least 59 people were killed in bombings Tuesday -- it is growing ever harder to accept the White House spin that things are getting better on the ground and progressing steadily to the neocon dream of a free, peaceful and democratic Iraq.
And among National Guard members and their families, the president's credibility should be particularly low. More than 50,000 National Guard and reserve troops are currently in Iraq, and many have had their tours of duty extended far beyond what they had been told to expect. Meanwhile, back home, the president has resisted at least one measure that would have improved the lives of Guard members and reservists; when the Senate tried to insert $1.3 billion for medical benefits for Guard members, reservists and veterans into the $87 billion in supplemental funding for Iraq and Afghanistan, the president, through his Office of Management and Budget director, threatened to veto it.
But none of that seemed to matter to the 4,000 National Guard members and their spouses who turned out to hear Bush speak Tuesday. Bush gave the foreign-policy half of his stump speech Tuesday, and they roared their approval at each of his applause lines. Bush rolled out his usual sneering riff on John Kerry's Iraq votes -- Kerry voted for one version of the $87 billion that would have been paid for by rolling back some of the Bush's tax cuts, then voted against the version that simply added the cost of Iraq to the federal budget deficit. Noting that Kerry had said that the votes were "complicated," Bush bellowed: "There's nothing complicated about supporting our troops."
Of course, Bush found it complicated, too, evidenced by his own threat to veto a version of the $87 billion funding package. And some in the audience Tuesday even knew about that. "We're hoping that he changes his mind on it after coming here," said Ellen Hignite, whose husband is a colonel in the North Carolina National Guard. But neither Bush's stands on veteran's issues nor his own spotty military record made a bit of difference to Hignite. She wore a Bush-Cheney sticker on her dress -- one of the few visual signs of partisanship in a largely uniformed crowd -- and it was clear she's sticking with the president. "He served his country, and whatever he did wasn't as bad as throwing away medals," she said.
It was a stab at Kerry, who has worked hard to win over the military vote only to see his progress fade in the echo of allegations from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth. The Kerry campaign tried to push back Tuesday, arranging a conference call with reporters, during which former Guard leaders explained the price that Guard members and reservists have paid for Bush's "miscalculations" in Iraq. "The administration simply deluded itself into thinking our forces would be welcomed as liberators, [and] now we have a full-blown insurgency," said retired Gen. Gerald Sajer, the former adjutant general of the Pennsylvania National Guard.
Kerry will speak at the National Guard convention Thursday. While he'll surely be greeted politely, the Democratic candidate isn't likely to get the kind of reception the president enjoyed Tuesday. Asked if there were any Kerry supporters at the convention, a member of the Kansas Air National Guard said Tuesday: "There are 5,000 people here. I'm sure there are a couple of them around here somewhere."
Frank Gonzales, a colonel in the Nevada Army National Guard, says guardsmen are keeping an open mind about Kerry but it's clear where their allegiances lie. "The president says, 'This is what we're going to do, and this how we're going to do it,' and he does it, and I like that," Gonzales said. "I haven't heard that strong rhetoric from John Kerry. I haven't heard, 'This is the plan, and this is what we're doing.'"
When it comes to Iraq, the Guard group didn't hear that Tuesday from Bush, either. Bush talked a little about U.S. accomplishments -- such as they are -- in Iraq, but said virtually nothing about his plan for the future. He mentioned the latest killings only in passing: "Despite ongoing violence in Iraq," he said, "that country now has a strong prime minister, a national council, and national elections are scheduled in January. The world is changing for the better."
In a statement released by his campaign, Kerry used Bush's speech to amp up -- again -- his criticism of Bush's war effort. "George W. Bush keeps saying that things are getting better even when we all know that's just not true," Kerry said. He said "things are getting worse" in Iraq, and that the Pentagon "has even admitted that entire regions of Iraq are now controlled by insurgents and terrorists. The situation is serious -- and we need a president who will set a new direction and be straight with the American people."
Zappala had a similar view. He said that Bush and the Pentagon failed to plan for the reality of Iraq and failed to prepare soldiers for what they would face there. For Zappala, it's all part of a pattern, a pattern of disregard that the National Guard members inside the convention hall either can't or won't see. "Our president has been very careless with his responsibility toward our troops," Zappala said, "and he has compromised their safety for his own reckless agenda."