BLOOMINGTON -- Scott Ritter's a big man who looks like he might work for the mob cracking skulls for a living--or maybe just for pleasure. Even tossing back beers at a hotel bar in Bloomington, Minnesota, on the eve of the Republican National Convention, his eyes gleam with dangerous intentions, and when he speaks, it's with the measured precision of a career military man. He doesn't want anybody to be confused about anything he says. Except of course when he wants to confuse you.
"Who are you," asks the bartender, a boyish, good-natured fellow who jokes with his customers like the sad comics working out their laugh-less routines in the bar's adjoining comedy club. "I keep hearing people say you're somebody I should know."
"Hey, I'm just another beer drinker," Ritter says, emptying a Sam Adams and returning to his previous conversation.
"That's the former U.N. arms inspector in Iraq," interjects a scrawny, mustache-wearing salt-of-the-earth type at the end of the bar. "That's Scott Ritter."
Ritter, who is 47, but with enough baby fat in his cheeks to pass for a man 10 years younger, had just returned from a relaxing cruise to Barcelona and Gibraltar where his kids enjoyed having their pictures made with the monkeys. He wants to climb Everest next, but he's waiting for his 50th Birthday. He doesn't care that the notorious peak can kill the most experienced mountaineers, burying them under tons of snow and rocks. Neither is he concerned that at higher altitudes some people just drop dead when the blood vessels in their brains unexpectedly explode. Ritter's had staring contests with the likes of Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush. He's not afraid of any mountain.
The bartender's jaw goes slack and he continues his genial interruption. "Was it really necessary for us to go into Iraq?" he stammers warily, delivering another round of drinks to the big man and his attendants. Ritter's lips twist themselves up into a familiar smirk as he launches into a blood-and-guts lecture about the absolute need to engage militarily with our enemies coupled with a thoughtful and thorough deconstruction of everything that went wrong in Iraq.
"It wasn't worth a single drop of American blood," Ritter said. "And how many of our troops have been killed now?"
Since leaving Denver on Friday nearly every conversation I've encountered has been about either the war in Iraq or religion, calling to mind Reagan's 1985 quote to People Magazine where the old wager of secret and illegal wars,(perhaps already in the horrible early grips of Alzheimer's disease) said the generation that came of age during his administration might very be the one to witnesses Armageddon.
On the plane from Denver to Salt Lake City I sat by Rocky Twyman, a 59-year-old African American gentleman in a blue dashiki who, unsolicited, professed his terrifying love for Barbara Streisand. He said he was an organizer of the Pray at the Pump movement, and that he has been traveling around the country to worship near service stations, and ask the good Lord to bring down the price of fossil fuels.
"Wherever we've gone the price has come down," he said. "Even Jay Leno's made jokes about us."
In Salt Lake City's immaculate airport, while waiting for a connecting flight in the awe-inspiring shadow of the mountains the Jesus talk got even more serious. I overhear a young photographer talking to a pinch-faced woman, He's frantically apologizing and justifying his decision to support Barrack Obama for President with a detailed account of his personal "prayer life." Nearby a squat overweight woman asks her traveling companion what he knows about the religious affiliation of John McCain's surprise Veep pick, Gov. Sarah Palin. Meanwhile on a variety of TV screens scattered about the waiting area news stations are broadcasting swirling satellite images of Gustav, then a category 4 hurricane heading toward the Gulf Coast, threatening to recreate the horrors visited on New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina while a vacationing President Bush strummed a guitar and nibbled on Birthday cake with GOP Senator, John McCain.
The conversations and the imagery eerily call to mind recent behaviors by Stuart Shepard who now leads Dr. James Dobson's Focus on the Family, a conservative organization known for finding family-friendly justifications for the worst of George W. Bush's policies. Shepard called on the Christian soldiers affiliated with his organization to pray for storms to gather over Denver on the night Obama was scheduled to accept the Democratic nomination at Invesco Stadium. And storms gathered all right, just not where Shepard wanted them.
"There's really no differences in the policies of Barack Obama and John McCain," says a spiky-haired 20-something in a black LA Lakers T-shirt, whose non-discussion of the issues was rare in the airport only because it has nothing to do with war, heaven, or the end of time.
Only two days earlier, in his address to the crowd gathered at Invesco Stadium, Al Gore spoke about how effectively the Republicans were able to spread the fallacious meme that he and Bush held nearly identical policy positions in 2000. History it would seem, can't wait too terribly long between reruns
"I don't think there's anything wrong with Barack Obama, but his association with a radical like Jeremiah Wright worries me," said one middle-aged white man in a cowboy hat to another middle aged white man in a cowboy hat. "And I just don't see him as a commander in chief. I don't see him planning a war."
War, Jesus, Jesus, war. It's enough to make any sentient being long for the salad days when the Republicans only cared about small government and tax breaks for the rich.
The Mall of America Ramada Inn is a mess of disconcerting contradictions. The newly renovated hotel has been given an authentic vintage makeover and although everything is fresh and sparkling the Charles Eames-inspired décor blends with Native American motifs to cast a Johnson-era spell. The Tennessee and Alaska delegations are staying here as are various anti-war groups including Veterans for Peace. Some eventual uneasiness assured.
Ritter wasn't just holding down a barstool when his cover was blown (not that he ever minds having his cover blown). He was brainstorming with his business associate Jeff Norman. The two were planning an ambitious project to assist Veterans returning home from Iraq, which neither man was currently at liberty to discuss on the record. Once his attention is turned to the horrible mistakes made by the Bush administration--an administration that attempted to destroy Ritter's credibility--he's an unstoppable force. The hulking ex-marine lambastes Bush and Cheney, and expresses serious doubts about McCain's surprise running mate. Condi Rice, he says, is both the worst National Security Director and the worst Secretary of State in History.
"Yes, she even makes Madeline Albright look good," Ritter says with a smirk, contemptuously describing Clinton's head of State as a useless fundraiser who was rewarded for her loyalty and hard work with a position she wasn't prepared to occupy.
"One more question," said the bartender. "Any tips on how to cope with all the obnoxious Republicans I'm going to be dealing with this week?"
"Scott is a Republican," Norman answered, both eyebrows raised. Ritter just chuckled, and steered the conversation back toward the awful and unnecessary war in Iraq: a war he did everything in his power to stave off. He shakes his head in dismay as he considers the saber rattling rhetoric his fellow Republicans have taken up in regard to Iran, and Russia.
"You know that when Russia went into Georgia President Bush said that in the 21st Century nations no longer invade other sovereign nations," Ritter said, his voice dripping with and contempt.
"Jesus," said one of the bar patrons as the irony sunk in.
-- Chris Davis