Middle America applauds Reno over Elian raid

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The Independent US

There may be outrage in Washington, threats of Congressional hearings and television talkshow jibes about police states that sanction the snatching of children at gunpoint. But in the country at large, the forcible transfer of Elian Gonzalez from his Miami relatives to his father has been widely applauded, and the Attorney General, Janet Reno, is being hailed as a hero.

Since the start of the working week, the Justice Department has been deluged with bouquets sent by admirers from all over the United States. The switchboard has fielded thousands of calls - running nine to one in Ms Reno's favour.

The scale of the approbation became apparent on Tuesday, when Ms Reno returned from a grilling by Senators on Capitol Hill to find that her office was awash in flowers. "Oh my God, I can't believe this," she said to her staff.

"God bless you," said one of the cards attached to flowers, "You did the right thing, both morally and psychologically for this child". "To thank you and congratulate you for your courage," said another.

Ms Reno had to acknowledge a standing ovation from the platform of a White House conference later that day after President Bill Clinton deviated from his speech to renew his endorsement of Saturday's pre-dawn operation. Both Ms Reno and Doris Meissner, the head of the Immigration and Naturalisation Service who helped plan the raid, encounter applause wherever they go - not from the political establishment, but from "regular folks".

The mismatch between the political establishment, where even some Democrats voiced misgivings about the use of heavily armed officers to grab the child from a private house, turns up in opinion polls time and again. Voter.com, a website founded by President Clinton's former adviser, Dick Morris, and frequented by the political cognoscenti, said that 59 per cent of the almost 200,000 people who had responded to its poll had expressed disapproval of the forcible seizure of Elian.

Polls taken by conventional methods show the figures reversed. Mr Morris explained the discrepancy by saying that the voters in his poll were "mainly from very politically active people," which only reinforced the point. Outside Washington, Elian's fate was seen throughout as a matter of parental rights and family values, while the political establishment tended to see it in terms of US-Cuba relations and the émigré Cuban vote.

There are reports - not denied - that the White House commissioned several polls in advance of Saturday's raid to monitor the state of public opinion. The strength of public approval, however, came as a surprise, particularly to Ms Reno. She had been vilified both by Miami Cubans for insisting that Elian belonged with his father and inside Washington for hesitating to act. Now, it is Elian's Miami relatives who find themselves vilified, Miami's Cuban émigrés who are isolated, and the political élite who seem out of step.

* Elian's former kindergarten teacher and a cousin aged 10 were due to arrive in Washington from Cuba yesterday to visit him. Four of his former classmates were also expected within days. The Cubans will stay in or near the house on the secure Wye River Plantation compound in Maryland to which the Gonzalez family were moved on Monday.