From Leno's audience, monologues on war

Third in a series on public attitudes about war.

They migrate here with their cameras and cardigans, hoping to catch a glimpse of a Hollywood celebrity or at least, perhaps, Wink Martindale. What they get - for the moment, at least - is something else: hours of standing in line next to the same fashion-challenged middle-Americans (Boise to Bangor, Tallahassee to Tacoma) they came here to escape.

Trying very hard in their floral prints and dapper dungarees, this sidewalk lineup looks like an audition for "The Accidental Tourist." Instead, this gallery of largely Ward Cleaver WASPs is waiting for free tickets to America's "late-night leader," Jay Leno, at the corner of Alameda and Olive in "beautiful downtown Burbank."

In this pastiche of Iowans and Virginians, a pollster just might find a golden opportunity.

Or at least Mr. Leno might if he were doing one of his "Jaywalking" segments, those man-in-the-street interviews that show Americans in various states of bobble-headed bewilderment.

With the comedian nowhere in sight, we decided to do some jaywalking of our own, 30 feet from his office - and found little bewilderment when it comes to at least one issue, war with Iraq. Even unprompted, impending conflict with Baghdad is the top issue of the day. Maybe even second, third, and fourth. The topic tugs on people like gum on the bottom of their Birkenstocks, fresh from a walk down the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Respondents worry about potential casualties on both sides, increased terrorism here and abroad, and the political and economic uncertainties generated by a post-Hussein Iraq. But the issue also spills somehow into other family issues: Dad's job worries, Mom's vacation plans.

"I love Jay Leno ... watched him for years," says Roger Heavey, a retired professor from Topeka, Kan., repeating an oft-repeated sentiment. "Somehow with all this craziness on the world front, I just felt it was my time to get away from all of that and come here to 'fuhgeddaboudit.' "

If that same desire for temporary diversion unites this crowd, one major difference divides them. Although to a person each wants Saddam Hussein off the Middle East stage, the tension becomes palpable when individuals are asked exactly how and when - and who is to do it.

"I do think he is a very, very dangerous man who is a threat to peace in the world, both the Mideast and America," says Miriam Janis, a teacher from Arkansas. "But if we go in there without UN support or the sanction of a few more allies, we are definitely asking for it in the long run."

Others feel that way, too. Roger Brewster, a student from Tacoma, Wash., is wearing a T-shirt that says, "The beatings will continue until morale improves," which could have something to do with Hussein, but doesn't. Mr. Brewster doesn't think the inspectors will "ever find any weapons of mass destruction because Saddam has had 12 years to hide them." He doesn't think they will find anything, but adds, "I'm in favor of looking longer if it will appease world opinion and help convince others that we are not warmongers."

Because middle America is often more conservative than either coast, pro-Bush sentiment runs stronger in many places there, a fact reflected in this tourist crowd.

"I think Bush is doing a great job in a very tough situation," says Kerry Blake, a teacher from Western Michigan. Her face peers out from the center of an oversized cardigan like a daisy. "He's hanging tough despite organized peace rallies around the world."

The comments irritate some standers-by who are not from out of town, but rather reflect the more liberal leanings of Los Angeles. "I wish Bush would surprise everyone and call the whole thing off completely," says Ted Kohl, a psychotherapist from Long Beach. "This is an operation that is going to anger whole parts of the world against America for decades."

Once inside the NBC studios, Mr. Kohl and 300 queue-mates are greeted by a 50-foot high sound stage, enough lights to illumine a nighttime ground war, and the sanctioned lunacy they came for. It comes with ear-splitting, live music of the Tonight Show band, a warm-up host who tosses T-shirts and stuffed toys into the audience to raise the energy for Leno's entrance, and the zany comments of the guests, comedian Ellen DeGeneres and boxer George Foreman.

Instead of ignoring the biggest issue in the country, Leno starts and finishes his monologue with comedy and film bits about Hussein. "I think both our countries finally agree on one thing," he says. "Saddam says he would rather die than leave his country, and we're willing to kill him there, so that's coming together," he says.

Next: a fake interview between Hussein and Robert Blake, the Hollywood actor on trial for killing his wife.

"I got what I came for," whispers Teresa Bowdoin, a housewife from Virginia, during a commercial break as a saxophonist, trumpeter, and trombonist blast away.

"If someone could make Bush and Saddam laugh at themselves the way we laughed at them tonight," says Ms. Bowdoin, "I think we could really defuse a really bad war."

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