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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 March 2006, 13:19 GMT 14:19 UK
Washington diary: Bring it on Mr Bush!
This week, Matt Frei - who is in Ohio following "Fat Man Walking" Steve Vaught - gives his take on the immigration debate gripping the US.

I woke up this morning in the excellent Colonel Taylor Bed and Breakfast in Cambridge, Ohio.

The bed in the Lilac Room on the second floor was elaborate and comfortable, complemented by the obligatory pot-pourri, fusty wallpaper and lacy curtains.

Anti-immigration billboard
Immigration: the battle over the US soul
It was fussy, cosy and reassuring. The radio alarm sprang to life at 0710 and the last embers of my last dream cycle were suddenly invaded by words like "dangerous liberals", "left-wing traitors", "overrun our country", "terrorist invasion".

I was in the clutches of talk radio. Immigration reform is the big issue in Washington and, in the heartland, right-wing radio stations are talking up a storm of fear and loathing about an alien invasion.

I have no idea who today's rasping bigot is, why the previous occupant of the Lilac Room would want to be woken up by such a rant or who else is listening.

But immigration reform is America's new front line in the battle over its soul.

Not only has it divided the Republican Party and the administration, it is also morphing into a heated debate about what kind of country the US wants to be: mean or generous, closed or open, engaged or disengaged from the rest of the world.

The Dubai Ports saga was the hors d'ouvres. Immigration reform is the entree.

Leading role

The president attended a naturalisation ceremony in Washington on Monday and reminded the audience that the US was founded by immigrants, for immigrants. About time too!

President Bush at a naturalisation ceremony
President Bush needs to lead from the front on this issue

His defence of a guest-worker programme is logical and economically sound.

But, because it is a necessary fudge, which does not address the ultimate prize of citizenship, it lacks the passion of his arguments about the spread of liberty.

It fails to engage the imagination of the American people and thus it is in danger of being hijacked by the fear mongers who want to erect a Berlin Wall in the desert between Arizona and Mexico. This is a mistake.

President Bush needs to lead from the front on this issue. Who cares if this means losing a few Republican seats in the mid-term elections?

This is currently your best stab at building a legacy, Mr Bush. Bring it on!

No-one is arguing with the country's right to police its borders, but 12 million or so undocumented immigrants come here not because they want to loiter in the murky shadow of Lady Liberty but because there are jobs waiting for them.

Some want to work, make money and leave. Others want to work and stay for ever.

The country is big enough to accommodate both. Despite the trauma of 9/11, the self laceration of Iraq and the shame of Abu Ghraib, the US can still be stirred by the creed of its founding fathers.

I rest my case, switch off the radio and roll over.

'Un-scheduled'

The real reason we were in Ohio was to catch up with the "Fat Man Walking".

Steve Vaught maps out the milestones of his life by the amount he weighed at the time. "I was 195 pounds (14 stone; 88kg) when I left school and 235 when I left the Marines", he told me over iced tea and artificial sweetener in a Bob Evans diner where the Interstate 70 tangles with the Interstate 40.

Steve Vaught by roadside (picture: S Vaught)
Every 400 miles, Steve buys a new pair of shoes
"I was 360 pounds when I accidentally killed an elderly couple in my car and I hit 420 when I decided to walk from coast to coast."

Steve has been walking since last April, he has lost 100 pounds and he hopes to reach New York in five weeks from now.

But he is not sure. He may have Oprah, the network morning shows, his publishers and several documentary crews breathing down his neck but Steve refuses to be "scheduled".

Sometimes he walks 10 miles (16km) a day, sometimes five and sometimes none at all.

"In Amarillo I stayed in my motel room for seven days, I was so depressed," he says.

Unwarranted attention

Most of the time, 40-year-old Steve and his 40-pound backpack - equipped with one extra set of clothing, a basic tent, a sleeping bag, a lap top, an iPod, a mobile phone and water - amble along the interstate.

[Steve] has already spawned a rash of copy cats: Fat Man Cycling. Fat Girl Walking... and a genuine fake, also calling himself Fat Man Walking, unmasked because he wasn't fat enough
This in itself is remarkable because most of America never walks anywhere, especially between towns.

His solitary trek leads past the unavoidable temples of doom that still tempt him: the KFCs, the MacDonald's, Wendy's, Cracker Barrels and Eat All You Can Asian Buffets blink at him with their enormous billboards, towering over the interstate next to super-sized crosses.

He is still a loyal customer but he eats far less than he used to.

"When you travel cross country, where else can you get food? Fast food outlets and churches... that's America for you, coast to coast!", he quips tucking into steak and eggs for breakfast.

Since no-one else ever walks near the interstate, Steve has attracted the unwarranted attention of state troopers from California to Ohio.

As we strolled along Highway 22 East at a suspiciously unhurried pace we were passed five times by the same police car.

Plagiarism strategies

Steve is accosted by the strangest mixture of people.

In New Mexico, a 400-pound Navaho Indian poured her heart out to him and he got a call from the marketing strategy department of a diet pill company.

In Oklahoma, he was followed by a thin woman who thinks he is a spiritual guru. Someone else urged him to try liposuction if he did not lose more weight, more quickly.

In the middle of the Arizona desert he was pounced on by a man who wanted him to advertise glycol-nutrients.

Every 400 miles he buys a new pair of shoes.

Of course Steve's journey is no longer just about weight loss. It is an epic of self discovery, spiritual self indulgence and acute observation, that has already spawned a rash of copy cats: Fat Man Cycling. Fat Girl Walking... and a genuine fake, also calling himself Fat Man Walking, unmasked because he wasn't fat enough.

Steve is relaxed as well as savvy. In the Forum Steak, Pizza and Spaghetti House we were joined by his lawyer to discuss plagiarism strategies.

.



MATT FREI'S WASHINGTON DIARY

Matt Frei Troubled times
Rollercoaster ride as America wakes up to economic crisis

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