HESSTON, KAN., AND PORTSMOUTH, N.H. — In this small Kansas town, where paved road turns to dirt and open acres at the end of Main Street, the tumult of Washington, D.C., is remote indeed.
So Thursday morning, as Condoleezza Rice testified before the 9/11 commission, the talk in this farming town an hour north of Wichita was as likely to revolve around grain prices as around Dr. Rice.
At Woody'z Daylight Doughnuts, catty-corned from the silos, owner Blake Schmucker flicked on a TV and adjusted the antenna so the morning crowd could watch the fuzzy screen. As the regulars munch doughnuts and sip coffee in their own mugs, Richard Holmes speaks up: He doesn't buy Rice's argument that "chatter" gathered by US intelligence was too vague to act on. "Some of the things I would not have ignored," he says.
Gene Weaver, a retired farmer, breaks in with a wisecrack. "There's a lot of chatter in here, too, and no one pays attention to it!" But "if Bush would have gone into Afghanistan before 9/11, would people have supported it?"
Rice, meanwhile, wins mixed reactions here. Bush critics are "trying to trap her," says Republican Irv Reimer after watching the first question and answer.
But Mr. Holmes sees Rice's demeanor more cynically. "She's a good politician. She can stand up and talk about this showing no emotions."
Given Rice's earlier media appearances, says Lois Brubacher, a middle school media specialist, the whole thing is anticlimactic. "We're not going to have this moment of truth because she's under oath - Oath schmoath!" she says.
What the regulars agree on is that the commission won't produce what they most want: the truth. "I honestly don't care to listen because it irritates me and makes me more cynical," says Margaret Wiebe as she heads for the door. The testimony isn't over, but the TV at Woody'z is already turned off.
While the coffee and doughnuts in Kansas slowly disappeared, Rice's face flickered on TVs across New Hampshire's only seaport. Down at the Daniel Street Tavern - a dim hang-out for dock workers, carpenters and fishermen - a half dozen hunched compadres watched the proceedings on six TV screens scattered through the bar.
While the administration has pockets of support throughout the country, Portsmouth, on the whole, isn't one of them. This was once a military town, and the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard still hums across the Piscataqua River. But today it's mostly civilian planes that fly into what was once Pease Air Force Base, and wealthier, more liberal people have changed much of the old street life and banished the once-famed biker bars.
Mr. Fredericks, for one, is old Portsmouth. He leans conservative, but has serious doubts the post-9/11 strategy. "We just need to bring those boys home, and that's one thing she's not going to talk about," he says.
Indeed, some here say the post-9/11 unity has all but vanished. "Everyone loves a war," says George Coulston, a burly carpenter on his way to Richmond, Va., "until you have to face the moral issues, which is what this testimony is all about."
To those here, Rice's testimony seems rehearsed. "You have to wonder: Are they saying things to stay in office or are they saying things to protect Americans? She might be telling the truth, but I'm not sure people are perceiving that she's telling the truth. And that's a bad state of affairs."