SALT LAKE CITY – The American Legion opened its national convention in Salt Lake City this week with high hopes the gathering would help "unite America" behind the war in Iraq. Instead, the veterans have found themselves in a fight with the city's anti-war mayor.
Mayor Rocky Anderson, a Democrat in a city that is considered liberal by heavily Republican Utah's standards, has accused the Bush administration of lying about the rationale for war. He has called President Bush a "complete disaster."
And he organized a protest rally Wednesday a few blocks from the Salt Palace Convention Center, just hours before Bush's arrival here for an address to the American Legion.
The American Legion was so offended by Anderson that it refused to extend the customary invitation to the host city's mayor to deliver the welcoming address.
"Rocky ought to sit behind his desk and leave the rest of the world alone. I wouldn't dream of doing things like this," said Legionnaire Lynn Beckstead, 71, of West Valley City. "If you don't like Bush, fine, but respect the office. This is a very conservative state, sweet and friendly. That's not sweet."
Salt Lake County Mayor Peter Corroon, who is also a Democrat but has said little about the war, was mildly booed Tuesday when he gave the welcoming speech, apparently because some Legionnaires thought he was Anderson.
Anderson seems to savor the controversy, even inviting peace activist Cindy Sheehan to Salt Lake City for the protest. She dropped out, citing health reasons.
When some Legionnaires said convention attendance would drop because of the mayor, Anderson said it was "very strange" that free speech would discourage people.
At least 12,000 veterans are at the convention.
Inside the Salt Palace this week, the stage has been dominated by the Bush administration's most senior and powerful members. Speaking to a friendly audience, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice defended their war policies Tuesday, and the president will give a speech on Thursday.
Rumsfeld said the world faces "a new type of fascism" and likened critics of the Bush administration's war strategy to those who tried to appease the Nazis in the 1930s.
"Can we truly afford to believe that somehow, some way, vicious extremists can be appeased?" he asked.
The Legion went on record in 2005 as saying it "fully supports" Bush in the "global war on terrorism." The Veterans of Foreign Wars, which is meeting in Reno, Nev., this week, has a similar stance. Together they have 5 million members.
The Legion has no anti-war speakers at its convention and no nationally prominent Democrats. Rep. Lane Evans, an Illinois Democrat who voted against the war in 2002 but is known for his work on behalf of veterans, was supposed to appear Wednesday but canceled, citing health reasons.
"We're not going to invite Cindy Sheehan or Rocky Anderson to speak to our convention. We're trying to unite America," said Legion National Commander Thomas Bock, 59, of Aurora, Colo., who has a son in the Air Force. He said he has a "real problem" with people who claim to support the troops but oppose the war.
"What we don't want to do is open our stage for public debate," Bock said. "It's our convention. We have common beliefs. Our membership has voted unanimously to stand behind our troops."
Some Legionnaires said they would welcome other voices.
"You'd be an idiot to just listen to one side," said Luis Diaz, 54, a Navy veteran from San Leandro, Calif. He said it is a "misuse of U.S. troops" to be in Iraq after learning there were no weapons of mass destruction.
Others said the convention should not be turned into a stage for diverse political voices.
"We get the other side in the daily press," said Bernard Olson, 72, a Legionnaire from Northfield, Wis.