Sunday, February 23, 2003

Are we the new Peoria?

Have we become the new Peoria?

It's a perfectly nice town, the oldest one in Illinois, the place where vaudevillians used to try out new acts. The city's Web site says "if folks liked it here, there was a good chance that plenty of others would like it, too."

But during the darkest Nixon days "Will it play in Peoria?" was the cynical test for selling Vietnam and Watergate. If they could convince the rubes in Peoria, maybe the rest of America would buy it.

Did Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge just want to see how the Do-It-Yourself Security Plan would play in Cincinnati? We seem to be getting more than our share of major policy speeches.

Typically well-behaved

Ridge's boss came here Oct. 7.

"Saddam Hussein is a threat to peace and must disarm," President Bush told the extremely orderly crowd at Union Terminal. And the crowd outside, protesting the possibility of war, also was typically well-behaved.

We are very good props. Polite. Clean. And if you ask the Chamber of Commerce to organize the audience, it will be mostly Republican. President George W. Bush does his best public speaking when he is looking out at an approving audience instead at the red eye of a camera.

We're prettier than Indianapolis and closer to Washington than, say, Peoria, which bills itself as "the heart of the heartland." Our heart is only 45 minutes away by Air Force One, so the president (who famously likes to sleep in his own bed with his own pillow) won't be far from home.

If he does get stuck here, he can go to church with U.S. Rep. Rob Portman and his wife, Jane, who are not only loyal but fun. Bill DeWitt of Indian Hill co-chaired the Bush inaugural, and Deputy Chief of Staff Joseph Hagin is also from Cincinnati. So, we are a pleasant and uniquely familiar Midwestern backdrop for this administration.

Wednesday, Ridge said here that we should make an emergency kit with a supply of food and water, a flashlight and a battery-operated radio. "Oh, and yes. I have to say, stash away the duct tape," he added to polite laughter. We are to check the Web site - - or call an 800 number for tips.

Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken said, "If something tragic should ever happen to our community, our residents aren't going to call 1-800-BE-READY. They're going to call 911." The mayor wants money for firefighters, police and emergency workers. Fire Chief Robert Wright raised the same issue.

Firmly but politely.

Peoria is still Peoria. And we are still good, old Cincinnati. Gracious and friendly. A good place to come for this president and his people. Senior adviser Karen Hughes told a Cincinnati audience in January that the president is engaging and direct.

He is the least cynical president we've had in years. I can't imagine him asking if something will "play" in Cincinnati any more than I can imagine Richard Nixon leaping atop the rubble at Ground Zero. President Bush was roundly cheered as he told firefighters there, "I can hear you."

I hope the president is still listening.

E-mail lpulfer@enquirer or phone 768-8393.

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