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Americans banging drum of confidence, slowly

January 17, 1997

CULPEPER, Va. (AP) _ The downtown hardware store briskly moves merchandise again. The drugstore with the old lunch counter jams people in for barbecue. Folks are coming off welfare in these Blue Ridge foothills.

Progress, by any measure.

It’s felt here in Culpeper, where Bill Clinton went to church during a bus trip to his first inauguration.

It’s felt widely, but fitfully, among the almost 150 people across America who were asked by Associated Press reporters to size up Clinton and the country at the midpoint of his presidential journey.

Where’s America going? Just possibly ahead, they say.

``There seems to be a hunger for something that really counts,″ offers the Rev. Ted Fuson, pastor at the Culpeper Baptist Church. ``That bodes well for America.″

In Oregon, Lake Oswego restaurateur Tom Hume pulls a wad of cash from his pocket and lets that speak for itself.

Others aren’t so sure. ``We’re drifting and this is dangerous for us and the world,″ says labor attorney Ransom Ellis Jr. in Springfield, Mo.

As Clinton’s second term gets set to begin Monday, expectations appear to be as modest as the ideas from his campaign _ keep working the budget into balance, cut some taxes, do something about health care, steady the course.

``To me, he’s just average,″ said William Theaman, 36, of Indianapolis. ``That’s what I like _ average.″

Credit for what’s right in people’s lives is offered grudgingly to a man re-elected with support from not quite half of those who bothered to vote.

And questions about Clinton’s conduct of his business and his personal life nag at many citizens otherwise drawn to him. It may not rain on his inaugural parade, but there’s a drip, drip, drip.

``All the scandals going on, he’s had too many,″ said Jennifer Bjorkland, 28, of Portland, Ore. ``They can’t all be fake or created by the Republican Party. I’ve kind of lost respect for him.″

Still, because of him, despite him, regardless of him, there is a recognition that conditions have improved.

There’s a sense the lights are on at the White House.

``I think he’s awake,″ said Laconia, N.H., landscaper Bill Herbert, 49, just back from ice sailing on Lake Winnipesaukee. ``I don’t think we’ve had a president for a long time who was awake.″

Hardly a ringing endorsement. But moods and circumstances are mixed.

One in five children lives perpetually in poverty. Parents and politicians decry the public schools and mean streets, and worries about moral and social decline run deep.

Yet the economic expansion, third longest in history, is almost six years old. No wars engage the country.

___

``I think this country is moving forward,″ says Fuson, new pastor at the church where Clinton worshiped in January 1993 on his way to Washington.

It’s possible, he says, that ``we may look back and say, that was a creative bunch of things done.″

The sermon Clinton heard that Sunday four years ago was about sticking to convictions. Some say Clinton just blows with the wind.

Fuson, a conservative, says he’s made some tough calls.

But in an office cluttered with tax forms and mementos of his Merchant Marine and Navy past, Culpeper accountant Ronald J. Warner, 70, talks about lost honor.

``These continual, non-ceasing scandals and improprieties,″ he says, ``they’re legion.″

``Let’s go on and do something about Social Security. Let us do something about Medicare. Let us go on. The country needs to be governed.″

Joblessness in Culpeper County has tumbled in two years almost to half the national rate. The cozy brick social services office so far has managed to find jobs for most of the welfare recipients now required to work.

But Evelyn Barbour commutes two hours to cook at a diner. Betty Carter works at the Thrift Shop, making deals on old cups and $2 toasters with elderly customers in ragged coats.

``Jesus said the poor you will always have with you,″ Fuson says. ``How are you going to deal with them?″

___

``I think things are getting better for us,″ said custodian Dudley House, 77, mopping up slush tracked into his St. Louis building.

``But I hope he doesn’t let them take the welfare away from people who really need it.″

``I’m on welfare and I can tell you it still needs to be cleaned up,″ asserted Joelene Jansen, 20, working in an Albuquerque, N.M., gas station store.

In Louisville, Ky., college student Tamela Gentry said Clinton’s ability to communicate helps the country.

``He speaks in a way I can understand as a young person, and my grandmother _ who was raised back in segregation _ can understand, and my mother and middle-age people can understand.″

Some write off the character of all politicians.

``The thing you have to ask yourself is: `Is this person doing anything useful?‴ offered Lucy Gardner Carson, 35, a Buffalo, N.Y., proofreader and a liberal. ``I don’t have to sit down and be his buddy.″

Others see no character problem at all.

``I see the emotion, the tears and I see the jubilation,″ said Diana Shelton, 50, an Atlanta Democrat. ``Somebody like that can’t be all that bad.″

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