War and Jesus 

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. Tossing back beers at a hotel bar in Bloomington, Minnesota, on the eve of the Republican National Convention, his eyes gleam with dangerous intentions. 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 fellow who jokes with his customers like the sad comics working out their 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, has just returned from a relaxing cruise to Barcelona and Gibraltar, where his kids enjoyed having their pictures taken with 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. 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 into a familiar smirk as he launches into a 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 says.

Since leaving Denver last Friday, nearly every conversation I've encountered has been about either the war in Iraq or religion, calling to mind Ronald Reagan's 1985 quote to People magazine, when he said the generation that came of age during his administration might be the one to witness Armageddon.

On the plane from Denver to Salt Lake City, I sat by Rocky Twyman, a 59-year-old African American in a blue dashiki who, unsolicited, professed his love for Barbra 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 to 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 nearby mountains, the Jesus talk got even more serious. I overheard a young photographer talking to a pinch-faced woman. He was 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 asked her traveling companion what he knew about the religious affiliation of John McCain's surprise veep pick, Alaska governor Sarah Palin.

Meanwhile, on a variety of TV screens scattered about the waiting area, news stations were broadcasting swirling satellite images of Hurricane Gustav. The conversations and the imagery eerily called to mind recent behavior by Stuart Shepard, who now leads James Dobson's Focus on the Family, a conservative organization known for finding family-friendly justifications for the worst of the administration'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. A storm gathered all right, just not where Shepard wanted it.

On that night, in his address to the crowd gathered at the stadium, former vice president and failed Democratic nominee Al Gore spoke about how effectively the Republicans were able to spread the false meme that he and Bush held nearly identical policy positions in 2000. History, it would seem, doesn't wait long between reruns.

"There's really no differences in the policies of Barack Obama and John McCain," said a spiky-haired twentysomething in a black Lakers T-shirt.

"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 Ramada Mall of America is a mess of disconcerting contradictions. The newly renovated hotel has been given an authentic vintage makeover. 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 is assured.

Ritter wasn't just holding down a barstool when his cover was blown (not that he 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. Once his attention was turned to the mistakes made by the Bush administration, Ritter's an unstoppable force. The hulking ex-marine lambasts George Bush and Dick 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, contemptuously describing Clinton's secretary of state as a useless fund-raiser who was rewarded for her loyalty 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 answers, both eyebrows raised. Ritter just chuckles and steers the conversation back toward the 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 says.

"Jesus," says one of the bar patrons, as the irony sinks in.

Jesus indeed.

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