View Full Version : The Red Sea (very long)

01-15-2005, 04:50 PM
Want to know why George Bush won? Set sail into the crimson heart of America

By David Von Drehle
Sunday, January 16, 2005; Page W12

Early in December, with a photographer and his assistant, I drove from Nebraska, near the geographical center of the United States, to the heart of Texas -- more than 700 miles, through empty spaces and sprawling cities and all or part of four states. We headed pretty much due south, no dodging or weaving. And never did we pass within 100 miles of a county that voted for Democrat John F. Kerry in the recent election.

We were voyaging on the Red Sea.

This Red Sea does not appear on any map but one. Or let's say, it appears most clearly on one particular map. This map is marked with the boundaries of the 3,141 counties or county equivalents in the 50 United States. Counties where Kerry won more votes than President Bush are colored blue. The rest, the counties carried by Bush, are red.


Blue islands and blue archipelagos, a blue isthmus here, a blue peninsula there, rise in a Red Sea that stretches from coast to coast. Rise quite literally, in many cases, because blue country is often marked by skyscrapers and high-rise condos and state capitol domes and university clock towers. Red country, as we shall see, is often quite flat.

In some parts of the country, red and blue are as closely intermingled as water and land in the Louisiana bayou.

Where we went, it was wide open sea.

We met dozens of people along the way. We asked them about themselves, about their communities, about their votes. Some were leery of us. Several asked politely: "What are you trying to accomplish?" Others were more blunt: "What's your angle?" Another version: "What are you hoping to find?"

We met Bruce Owen outside Abilene, Kan. He invited us into his home, introduced us to his wife, Donna -- and then seemed to wish he hadn't. He told us he rarely saw people like himself portrayed in "the media," except as objects of derision.

He had a point there.

All I could answer was that we were tired of hearing pundits tell us about "Red America" and wanted a firsthand look. For months, the passions had been running awfully high. A lot of Democrats seemed settled on the belief that Bush supporters were stupid and selfish and sanctimonious, when they weren't downright religious fanatics and bigots. Whereas the Republican op-ed types seemed to feel that every conservative voter west of the Mississippi was somehow endowed with an innate wisdom and bedrock virtue not seen since the last days of Socrates. When I first saw that county-by-county map, I felt drawn to go there, to hear for myself why George Bush was reelected. I did this knowing that Bush voters can be found anywhere. Why not just stay home and hunt for some here? I guess for the same reason a person might visit China and not just Chinatown.

Despite their misgivings, Owen and many others were generous with their time and open with their beliefs. Here, on the eve of the president's second inauguration, is an honest effort to set down what I saw, what I heard, what I thought and what I learned.

But who is doing this seeing and hearing and filtering?

For the purposes of this story, I'd say I'm a man who has lived among blues and lived among reds and never felt like a proper fit anywhere. My current home is one of the bluest places in America -- the District of Columbia, which voted 10 to 1 in favor of Kerry. I have friends and neighbors who were literally in tears the day after the election. Politics for many Washingtonians is more than just a civic duty or an every-few-years diversion. It is a passion and a livelihood. They find the Red Sea hostile, baffling and, frankly, menacing.

On the other hand, my roots are out there. I grew up at the western end of the nation's unbroken red high prairie. Aurora, Colo., has become a populous place, miles of suburb shading into more miles of exurb, but I remember it when tumbleweeds three feet high blew through our yard, and jackrabbits burrowed under the back fence, and asphalt gave way to dirt farm road a scant quarter-mile from our front door.

Twice a year, we piled into the family sedan and set off through Kansas to visit my grandparents in Oklahoma. Having been 8 years old in a car crossing the immense and vacant range between, say, Byers, Colo., and Hays, Kan., I feel well-braced for the experience of Eternity.

This trip to the vast flatness, the Big Empty, was like a homecoming.

In novelist Willa Cather's masterpiece of the prairie, My Antonia, the boy narrator captures the typical first reaction to Red Sea travel when he remarks: "The only thing very noticeable about Nebraska was that it was still, all day long, Nebraska."

We set off from Lincoln heading west along Interstate 80 through wintry fog that blurred the landscape and erased the highway before and after us. Within our gliding cocoon the land was nothing but tawny stubble and chocolate-colored mud. Now and then a few cows half-appeared like ghosts in the gloom, huffing steam as they grazed, and the irrigation sprinklers stood idle in the fallow fields, looking like skeletons of giant wiener dogs.

All but one of the 93 Nebraska counties went for Bush, some by ratios of more than 4 to 1. Thurston County, home to the Winnebago Indian reservation, was the exception: Kerry won a narrow victory there. Our first stop was Waco, Neb., approximately 140 miles from that little island of blue.

"You ask why I voted for Bush? I think he has the right idea about the EPA."

This was Allen Stuhr talking.

He sat that late morning with his hands curled around an empty coffee mug at a table in the back of Hunters Lounge & Keno, which is across the street from the grain elevator in Waco, population 270-ish. At various times during the 40 years that this tavern has belonged to the Sackschewsky family, it has included the Waco grocery store, barbershop, beauty parlor, cafe, gun shop, liquor store, Kawasaki dealership and reception hall.

Now it's just coffee in the morning, a drink at day's end and keno nightly.

A minute ago there were 12 regulars seated in the puddle of light beyond the pool table. Seven men clustered quietly together while five wives chatted amiably at the table beside them. Turns out a good way to get folks moving in Waco, Neb., is to introduce yourself as a reporter from Washington, D.C.

But Stuhr remained, along with his old friend Merv Ocken, a retired seed salesman.

"I'm the village water officer," Stuhr explained. "For more than 100 years, we've lived with arsenic in our water. It is a naturally occurring element. It isn't contamination -- it's natural."

During the Clinton administration, the Environmental Protection Agency lowered the amount of arsenic allowed in water, from 50 parts-per-billion to 10. "Now all over Nebraska, villages are having to build new water treatment plants to remove a naturally occurring element," Stuhr said, which costs "millions of dollars."

Does Washington pay? I asked.

"They'll loan us the money," Stuhr answered. "And whose money is it to begin with? And once we get the arsenic out, why, then we have a hazardous waste problem, because there is nowhere to dispose of it."

Bush would like to restore the previous standard. You might recall that many Democrats howled that Bush was willing to poison people, but in these parts, Bush's proposal was greeted as simple common sense.

Merv Ocken: "The problem comes in when you try to pass one law that will apply to everyone all across the country. In New York or Washington, certain laws might make sense. But you get out here, where there's sometimes just two people living in an entire section, and it's different."

A section is 640 acres, or one square mile.

Average population per square mile of Manhattan: 50,000.

Ever visited New York? I asked.

"I've been to the airport," Ocken said with a grin. He used to fly through JFK on his way to Europe on business.

"I was there in 1958," Stuhr countered. "I was on my way into the service, and I rode from the airport to the bus station. I found you could see the sky -- if you looked straight up."

One of the first things worth noting about the Red Sea is that people live there because they like it. (Several people proudly pointed out to me that there are no houses on the market in Waco.) This basic fact strikes wonder in some city dwellers, who live in cities because they love cities. They love the bustle, the myriad options, the surprises and the jolts and the competition. It can require a leap of imagination to perceive that there are people who seek precisely the opposite, and not just on weekends and vacations.

"I like driving where I am the only one on the road," said Paul Kern. We found him next door to the lounge, scraping the mud from his boots outside the Waco post office. He is a big man, a Lutheran minister, a native of Milwaukee.

"I like being able to shout and have nobody hear me. I like to be able to throw a snowball as far as I can and not hit anybody or anything. See, I was raised in a city with houses on each side of ours just five feet away, and an alley, and a -- aw, what's the word? A curb! The inner city. My father wouldn't let me have a dog because he said it would bother the neighbors. Out here I can have a dog and a cat. In fact, I have four cats."

He volunteered this as a way of explaining why he voted for George Bush.

ITt wasn't love. Not in Waco, anyway.

"The lesser of two evils," said Allen Stuhr of Bush.

"People thought he jumped too quick" into Iraq, added Merv Ocken. "And if he gets his way, he'll find another war to get into. But I think the public will hang back a little harder next time."

It wasn't strictly partisan, either.

"We've had good Democratic governors and good Republican governors," Ocken said. "I don't think it makes much difference whether you put an R there or a D there as long as they can get stuff done."

Nor was it religion -- though down the road we saw this change.

"I'm not sure people are any more religious or Christian around here than they are anywhere else," Ocken said.

The decision to vote for Bush instead seemed wrapped up in the age-old city vs. rural dichotomy, change vs. tradition, theory vs. horse sense, new vs. familiar.

Open-minded vs. closed-minded, offered Pam Sackschewsky from behind the bar at Hunters. She's a Kerry voter.

Terry Kloke, the Waco postmaster, is a Democrat, too. He said the election result was not complicated at all. "They don't like that same-sex marriage. That's what my rural-route carrier told me she decided on."

I couldn't help noticing that among the people Paul Kern won't likely hit with a far-flung snowball are black people, openly gay people and people born in foreign countries. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, York County, Neb., is 97 percent white and more than 98 percent U.S.-born. One of the area's distinctive entertainments is, Kern said, "watching a ballgame where all the kids on both teams are white, if you can believe that.

"Not that there's anything wrong with the other!" he hastened to add. "But just to show you how it is around here."

Kern returned several times to his belief that cities have become dangerous, expensive, disorderly places, in contrast with the safe and dependable countryside. And he seemed convinced that there is some causal link between the unpleasantness of that other America -- the one beyond the Red Sea -- and the variety of people who live there. The idea of diversity appeared to be meshed in his mind with the specter of change, and change is clearly something he prefers to avoid. Monochrome Nebraska, as he put it, is "the last frontier. Where else do you have a place where you don't have to worry about crime, about juvenile delinquency, where you can leave your doors unlocked?"

The sameness of a place like Waco is not limited to race and ethnicity. Religious diversity consists largely in the difference between Wisconsin Synod Lutherans and Missouri Synod Lutherans. Most people you see appear to be of roughly the same economic class. Homes are all modestly scaled; on a random day near Christmas, of 62 houses for sale in the nearby city of York, only one cost more than $200,000. The stories Nebraskans hear of members of Congress struggling to live on $150,000 a year in Washington simply astound them. "I'd own this whole town with that kind of money!" Kern marveled. "I could live like a king."

I wondered if all this sameness created a pressure to conform to prevailing political views.

"Not at all," Democrat Terry Kloke answered. "I find people value your opinion here. I don't think they mind at all if you tell them what you think. The fact is, you see pretty much everybody every day, so there are not many secrets in a place like Waco. Everybody pretty much knows everything about everybody. Whether that's good or bad, I don't know."

Concordia, Kansas.

A town of low buildings and right angles.

Two young men loitering outside the convenience store. One of them, Jonathan Dolan, 19 -- the quiet, reflective one -- just got fired by the boss inside over some baroque scheduling dispute. Keeping him company was Neal Chaput, 21, detached, ironic, wearing a punk sweat shirt.

Shoulders hunched on account of the chill. Dragging cigarettes chain-style.

Chaput: "People tend to vote the way their parents voted." (In Kansas and Nebraska, voting Republican goes back more than a century.)

Dolan: "It's like religion. If you're raised a Catholic, you're probably going to be a Catholic."

Chaput [snorting]: "That's a good parallel, politics and religion."

The same pattern applies to the choice of a vocation.

Dolan: "Most of the people I know are doing the same things their fathers did because they don't think they can do any better."

Chaput: "Unless you have a background in agriculture or construction, you can't make more than eight bucks an hour around here . . . I have an associate's degree, and I'm a convenience store clerk . . . Me, I'm just saving up to get my ass to Seattle."

Dolan: "As a child you grow up thinking you can do anything. Then you get to about our age, you get settled, and you just stay."

They voted for John Kerry.

Chaput: "They were both lying bastards. I just figured anybody had to be better than Bush."

Dolan: "There weren't really many differences between them. They just made it sound like there were."

Across the street from the convenience store was the Concordia Auto Mart. Inside, tapping at a calculator, wearing a cheerful sweater, was Elaine Bowers, a Bush voter.

She met her husband, Charlie, at the local community college -- the same one that Neal Chaput attended a generation later. Within a moment of meeting Bowers, it was clear she was the upbeat antithesis of bitter and ironic Chaput, with his dreams of escape to Seattle.

"There's almost too much to do" in Concordia, Bowers announced -- and there will be even more come spring, when the new movie theater opens. "Four screens," she marveled, "that's pretty good!"

There is a truism in American politics that the presidential candidate who best reflects optimism generally wins.

Bowers, mother of four, said she voted for Bush based on "family. Morals. Responsibility." She paused between the words as she thought about each one. It wasn't a checklist; she wasn't pushing any particular agenda. For example, Bowers said she is a Catholic but does not attend church regularly. She's proud that her daughter, Haley, 13 -- "an extremely good shot" -- joined Charlie on a deer hunt this year, but she is even more pleased that Haley couldn't bring herself to squeeze the trigger. "I thought, 'Oh, good. She's still a girl.'" Instead, Bowers seemed to treat her voting categories more like labels on the mental boxes in which she stored certain impressions.

Under "family," she recalled a photograph taken at Washington National Cathedral days after 9/11. It showed President Bush shaking hands with his father, the former president. "One of the most touching pictures I've ever seen," Bowers said. Even more important, though, was her overwhelmingly favorable sense of first lady Laura Bush. She could not imagine Laura Bush snapping at a reporter, as John Kerry's wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, did, or seeming to denigrate cookie-baking, as Hillary Rodham Clinton once did. "I mean, I don't have time to bake cookies, either -- but I would never say that," Bowers confided.

Under "morals," she flashed back six years to the Clinton sex scandal, which was enough to make her a Bush voter when he ran against Al Gore in 2000. "It just embarrassed me, to have people talking about that all over the world," she explained. "I don't know much about politics and how it affects the economy and all that. For me, it just goes to integrity."

As for "responsibility," that box contained ideas related to the principle that individuals, not the government, are responsible for their futures and families. Elaine and Charlie Bowers got married in 1983, had the first of their kids soon afterward and started their pre-owned car business a few years after that. In 2001, they were honored as the Kansas independent auto dealer of the year.

"We both worked hard," Elaine said, smiling. "We didn't take any handouts. We warranty all our cars because it is the right thing to do, and because in a town this size, people won't buy from you again if you don't treat them right."

All these individual impressions came together somehow to form the decisive one: "I think he's a good man with a good heart," Elaine Bowers summed up in Bush's favor. "I'm sad for the war in Iraq. I'm sad we had to go . . . I'm just very comfortable with Bush being president."

After a day of bearing south we tacked eastward, for the sake of variety, and sailed Interstate 70 toward Abilene, Kan. Out of 105 counties in Kansas, only two went for Kerry, one in the suburbs of Kansas City, the other one home to the University of Kansas. Abilene marked our closest encounter with blue, as we passed within a mere 115 miles of Douglas County.

We skimmed along under a sky the color of worn denim, empty but for the stitching of a lonely jet contrail, and as we passed bare cottonwoods revealing their magpie nests, and black cattle with white faces in faint green pastures, I wondered if the difference between gloomy Neal Chaput and buoyant Elaine Bowers could be as simple as a ring and a family.

For all the bluster and hand-wringing over the exit polls and the so-called values voters, the real demographic story of the 2004 election, according to Democratic poll-taker Stan Greenberg, was the pronounced victory by Bush among married people, both men and women. The old "gender gap," in which men voted for Republicans while women favored Democrats, has turned into a "marriage gap." Before I started this trip, I did some fiddling on the Internet with census data and election returns, and I found some striking correlations. Consider:

There are 30 states -- including all the Red Sea states -- in which married couples form a majority of all households. Bush won 22 of the 30, by an average of 21 percentage points. The eight that went for Kerry were very narrow victories, an average of five points. Utah, with the highest percentage of married folks, gave Bush his largest ratio of victory: 71 to 26.

In nine states, there are equal numbers of households headed by married and unmarried people. Sure enough, Bush and Kerry split them evenly, four for Bush and five for Kerry -- and by middling margins, too: an average 16 points where Bush won, 11 points where Kerry won.

Of the 11 states, plus the District of Columbia, where married couples form a minority of all households, Kerry won seven, by a jaw-dropping average of 24 percentage points. Bush won five, by the relatively skimpy average margin of nine points. The District, with the lowest percentage of married folks, gave Kerry his biggest win: 90 to 9.

One could dream up all sorts of theories about this. Married people have, on average, a more stable financial situation. They have, on average, more avenues of support in times of trouble. You might say that marriage involves the surrender of certain personal liberties in favor of creating lasting institutions. You might say marriage favors stability over experimentation. All of these might point, on average, to a more conservative disposition.

All I know for sure are the numbers. Only voters can explain the whys and wherefores.

So we kept driving.

Abilene is the once-bustling head of the fabled Chisholm Trail, a town where 3 million head of cattle, bewildered by the long walk from Texas, arrived (along with Wild Bill Hickok) during the hectic years from 1867 to 1872. Home to Dwight Eisenhower, the farm-boy hero turned Republican president. Home, as a relentless march of billboards informed us, to:

The Greyhound Hall of Fame . . .

The Museum of Independent Telephony . . .

The Abilene Fashion Museum . . .

The American Indian Art Center . . .

The C.W. Parker Carousel . . .

On the outskirts of town, as we came up an almost imperceptible rise, two more billboards caught our gaze and inspired us to stop.

The first one said, in simple black and white:

"Jesus Heals and Restores. Pornography Destroys."

As Bruce Owen explained after we knocked on his door, that billboard went up in direct response to the second sign, which loomed over Owen's roofline. It said, in simple black and yellow: "ADULT Superstore."

"We thought it would be a nice community," said Donna Owen. "We never dreamed that's the sort of thing that would come into that empty building."

When blue Americans and red Americans talk about each other, a fundamental disagreement has to do with which side is trying to ruin the other side's life. At the risk of oversimplifying, many blue Americans believe that Bush voters are trying to shove conservative morals into liberal bedrooms, to mandate prayer before intercourse, for example, and replace Victoria's Secret with Gladys's Nightshirts.

Conversely, many red Americans believe that liberals seek the spread of promiscuity and license into every village and dell and that they won't be truly happy until vibrators are distributed in grade schools.

In the case of Bruce and Donna Owen, the porn came after them, not vice versa. After all, this conservative Christian married couple didn't move to Times Square or West Hollywood and then start protesting pornography. They retired to a little hilltop outside Abilene, overlooking the Russell Stover candy factory, about 1,400 miles from New York in one direction and from Los Angeles in the other. Ike's home town, for heaven's sake.

And a smut shop popped up in their back yard.

Something was vaguely familiar about the Lion's Den Adult Superstore.

"An old Stuckey's," Bruce said.

Ah, yes.

On those endless drives across the Big Empty, my sisters and I would count the miles from one Stuckey's to the next, badgering our father to pull off the interstate so that we could stretch our legs while squandering our allowances on pecan divinity, squeeze purses and little rocks of fool's gold.

Apparently, the operation went through some tough times in the years since. Dozens of the teal-roofed oases were shuttered along highways across the Midwest. Turns out a fair number of them have been converted to sell sex toys, lingerie and hard-core videos. The Lion's Den, a chain of more than two dozen, has targeted rural America on account of the cheap leases, lax ordinances and under-titillated population.

When workmen appeared at the site a little over a year ago, Bruce Owen was told that the new store would be selling cowboy boots. Then, one Sunday morning in fall 2003, the Owens awakened to see the word ADULT hovering, floodlit, outside their back window.

A retired military man in Abilene, Philip Cosby, organized a protest. For 100 days, around the clock, through frozen winds and slushy storms, Bruce, Donna and some of their neighbors waved signs outside the Lion's Den. They copied identification numbers from the trucks that pulled in and telephoned complaints to the freight companies. They were pleased when a man from Wal-Mart arrived, bearing a promise that any driver caught stopping would never haul freight for the company again.

Cosby said the community raised $5,000 in one day to put up the anti-porn billboard. Leaders of this fight felt they had a friend in Bush, whose first-term attorney general, John Ashcroft, made an early priority of enforcing anti-obscenity laws.

The Owens disclosed this story cautiously, because they had no confidence that we would report it honestly. "We watch the news," Bruce said. "It seems like they think they know everything. They look down on us."

"They seem arrogant and above it all," Donna added.

"We aren't all hicks out here," Bruce continued. "I was national service manager for AT&T. For that matter: You try running a farm out here these days. One combine can cost as much as a house. My son runs a multimillion-dollar farm."

It was plain he was struggling to decide how much to declare.

He settled on this: "I'm proud to say we're against the Lion's Den, and that we don't like that kind of pornography." He shouldn't have to wonder how to explain to his granddaughters what goes on next door.

As for his vote: "George Bush is straightforward. He's honest, and he's moral."

"A common, ordinary person," said Donna Owen. The sort of person the media likes to make fun of, just like them.

the more people we talked to, the more I realized that Bush was helped enormously in this part of the country by the fact that he ran virtually unopposed. Kerry spent nothing on advertising in the Red Sea states; the unions and other groups that supported him put little or no effort into spreading his message here. Many of those we encountered spoke of Kerry as they might speak of a distant relative they had never met but had merely heard mention of as children at a family gathering.

"I didn't know too much about Kerry," Elaine Bowers said.

"I couldn't get a real feeling he knew what he was going to do," said Bruce Owen.

We met Bruce Kunkel outside the lumberyard in Hillsboro, Kan., leaning against his Dodge Ram pickup and chatting with Matt Kukuk, who works at the yard. Kunkel is slim, with longish gray hair and the laid-back affability that seems to be the birthright of San Francisco Bay Area natives.

Kunkel said he moved from San Jose to Hillsboro so that his daughter could go to school in a small community. It's a nice little town, with Christmas wreaths on the light poles and deep, sittable porches. The sound of two boys shooting baskets in the driveway after school carries for blocks. Kunkel entered the election season convinced that the war in Iraq "was a mistake" and that Bush "was too quick to go."

Yet on Election Day he voted for him.

It was not an enthusiastic vote, Kunkel explained. "After I saw the debate, I found myself wondering how, out of all America, we came up with these two." But he had a little more sense of Bush than of Kerry.

"Kerry had 'a plan,'" he said, with a wry little laugh. "But he wouldn't tell us what it was. Talk about a log! He was just a totally unlikable guy.

"So I went with the status quo." He ventured that his neighbors made the same calculation. "People out here are pretty intelligent," Kunkel said. "The thing is, they don't like change.

"I think that's what happened."

WE PASSED INTO OKLAHOMA, where all 77 counties went for Bush.

You notice that the earth is less gray and more russet, that the land has more wrinkles to it. You see fewer cows and more horses. You spy the occasional oil well in an unlikely spot -- on a farmhouse lawn, out behind a school -- with the pump pecking at its underground prize like a sci-fi early bird hunting for some gigantic worm. And the wind really does come sweeping down the plain, just like they sang on Broadway.

You notice that God is a very prominent citizen of Oklahoma. Conversations about religious faith proceed a bit awkwardly to the north, but the Oklahomans we met were as comfortable on the subject of religion as they were on the topic of the weather. Even on weekdays, church parking lots were full of cars. The Oklahoman, the state's largest newspaper, prints "Today's Prayer" on the front page. Two of the most prominent high-rises in Oklahoma City light their windows at night in the shape of a cross.

Some residents refer proudly to Oklahoma as "the buckle of the Bible Belt."

On a warm, blustery morning we headed south from Oklahoma City past ranch houses with American flags snapping and popping on front-yard poles. At a gas station in Asher, we spoke to Joyce Smith, an immaculate woman in a bright red suit with her hair neatly done under a scarf. She was driving her husband, James, from their home in Coalgate to the capital for some medical tests. She smiled when we asked about her vote.

"Well, you know, real Bible-believing Christians are in a minority in this country," she answered, "so I was a little concerned that Kerry could win. I am so thankful that he didn't. See, I believe if our president has good morals, our country will be blessed, and if he doesn't, we won't. That's what the Bible says, in the Old Testament."

Smith has led "quite a life," as she put it -- abandoned by one husband in the Texas Panhandle town of Amarillo; widowed by husband No. 2 with retirement approaching and no nest egg. Through it all, she kept the faith she first professed when she was 12 years old, having been coaxed to baptism by her sixth-grade teacher.

"I've been blessed," Smith said, gesturing toward James, her third husband, a retired rural mail carrier with a good pension and benefits.

She was too polite to say, in so many words, that she felt John Kerry was a man of bad morals. Instead, she put it this way: "When Kerry said he was for abortion and one-sex marriages, I just couldn't see our country being led by someone like that."

Later, I double-checked what Kerry had said on those subjects. During his campaign, he opposed same-sex marriage and said that abortion was a private matter. But Joyce Smith heard it the way she heard it, and voted the way she voted.

Lunchtime on the campus of East Central University, a state school in Ada, Okla., where Michael Jennings, a junior, stopped outside the bookstore.

"I viewed Bush as more of a Christian man than Kerry," he said, much as he believes that "the Republicans are always going to be a little bit more moral party. I think it's sad that we have a view that Democrats are more sinners than Republicans, but I guess we do."

Jennings has an easygoing way of making such assertions. "Just my Oklahoma opinion," he demurred repeatedly. Some of his best friends are liberals; in fact, his fiancee voted for Kerry, because she believed Bush was a threat to a woman's right to choose an abortion. Jennings liked the fact that she wouldn't back down from the disagreement.

Truth be told, if the election had happened a few years earlier, he might have supported Kerry himself. Jennings cast his first vote as a registered Democrat, in an effort to legalize the sale of liquor-by-the-drink in the conservative town where he was living.

"Before I was engaged, when we'd go out to the bar, if we could load up a bunch of girls and take 'em home, that was all right," he confessed. "Bush," Jennings summed up, "has more of a stand where you make a difference, and you can better yourself." And that fits well with this young man's philosophy of life, which holds that "you make your own bed. If you want to go to school, you can, unless you're disabled or something. If everyone went to school and tried to better themselves, eventually welfare would take care of itself."

An East Central University Sophomore walked up, Janessa Long. "I didn't feel Kerry had firm moral values," she said. "He didn't stand on principle. With Bush, even if you didn't agree with him, he wouldn't back away."

With her was sophomore K.J. Cassidy, sandy-haired and ropy like a wrestler: "Bush wanted to maintain the sanctity of marriage, and Kerry was kinda wishy-washy on that. Bush is closer to the small-town values."

"I liked Bush from the first time I heard him talking about the war," said Janessa Long. "I really liked how he said we needed to pray. I'm a Christian, and I admired how he stood up for that."

Before the trip, I heard a lot about a book that claimed to explain how people like Joyce Smith and Bruce Owen and Paul Kern and those ECU students have been tricked by the moneyed class into voting against their own best interests. I found a copy of What's the Matter With Kansas? at a bookstore in Ada and began reading it as we resumed our southward journey.

The author, Thomas Frank, grew up in a wealthy suburb of Kansas City and received a PhD in cultural criticism from the University of Chicago. His book is a lament for the lost prairie Populism of years gone by -- not the Ku Klux Klan aspect, which he never mentions, but the capitalist-scourging aspect of William Jennings Bryan and the Farmer's Alliance.

In Frank's view, if Red Sea residents knew what was good for them, they would vote for capitalist-scourging Populists today. But they don't know what's good for them, Frank explains, because of "a species of derangement." The deranged people of the Midwest are no longer able to make "certain mental connections about the world," because those once-"reliable leftists" have been deluded into caring about moral issues.

I marveled at Frank's discovery of a strong leftist tradition in Kansas, a state that has voted for the Republicans in 30 of the 36 presidential elections since 1860, including twice against Franklin D. Roosevelt. And I thought maybe Bryan, a fundamentalist Christian who denounced Darwin's theories of evolution at the famous Scopes trial, might have a lot in common with some of the so-called values voters of 2004. But Frank kept me reading until it was too dark to read anymore.

Then, as we rounded a curve in the propitiously named Reagan, Okla., we caught sight, through a picture window, of a tattered flag covering Mark Pack's living room wall. That flag, glowing in the darkness, made quite a picture. While it was being taken, Mark Pack stood in his front yard, talking in a voice not much above a whisper.

The flag, he said, once flew over the U.S. Federal Building in Lawton. When it was so frayed it was going to be destroyed, a friend thought to rescue it for Pack's sons, who are 3 years old, 2 years old and 5 weeks old.

The wall, he said, is in a house that he and his wife are renting, even though he can't find work nearby and his wife's job is 70 miles away. "We decided to stay rural" for their boys rather than move to "an urban environment where kids wear pants you and I could fit into, and the dumber you sound the better," Pack said. "Even the Disney Channel has 12- and 13-year-old girls doing the booty shake," he added. "I don't want my boys to grow up thinking that's what girls are for."

The leg, his left one, is missing. He lifted his pants leg to reveal a prosthesis. Pack lost his leg in a motorcycle accident back in Michigan, during the years when he was fresh from the Army and raising hell. During the long months he spent in the hospital, Pack met the woman he married. They moved to Oklahoma together so that he could go to college and learn to be a gunsmith, wrongly believing that would lead to a job.

Unemployed, burdened by student-loan debt, raising young kids -- and voting for Bush because of "his morals and his ethics." Mark Pack seemed like a perfect person to ask about Thomas Frank's theory of deranged hicks who cannot make mental connections about their own best interests.

"Mao said basically the same thing when he talked about religion being the opiate of the masses," Pack answered. "And wasn't it Lincoln who said you can't fool all of the people all of the time? Bush got 54 million votes, and I don't think they were all from blatant idiots. I think we get really carried away by generalizations in this country.

"It's a shame moral values are not taken seriously in the blue states," Pack said, in a generalization of his own. "You know, the Romans taught us: Divide and conquer. That's our biggest problem in this country, the divisions."

He also said: "Don't get me wrong. I don't think George Bush is the greatest guy in the world. Both of them scared the hell out of me. But at least Bush tells you what he thinks."

THE DALLAS METROPLEX gives the lie to the notion that big cities necessarily vote for Democrats. Like all of Texas north of Austin -- hundreds of thousands of square miles, populated by millions of people -- Dallas and Fort Worth went for Bush. And, believe me, those are big cities. It felt like we hit the Dallas sprawl just past the Oklahoma border and were driving in it for most of an hour just to reach downtown.

I wanted to meet a member of that class of people so dear to George W. Bush that he has extolled them in nearly every campaign speech he has ever given: an entrepreneur. In Bush's America, such figures are the engines not only of economic growth but of creativity, opportunity and civic improvement.

A short search led me to a Starbucks off Mockingbird Lane, near the house where Bush lived when he co-owned the Texas Rangers baseball club. There, I talked with Rick Jackson, a young man, a millionaire, the father of three children and a founder of three companies.

Jackson was grooved to be a Bush voter no matter what happened. His family knows the Bush family from way back in Connecticut and Houston. He and Marvin Bush, the president's brother, have both worked with a Texas adoption agency on whose board Jackson now serves.

But another connection -- somehow less personal and yet more intense -- underscored the confidence Jackson had in Bush. They share, along with millions of others, the experience of a mid-life spiritual renewal, of finding oneself revealed in weakness and of trying to rebuild a life through faith in a larger power.

As Bush tells his life story, this happened after he got drunk on his 40th birthday.

For Jackson, the experience is "still fairly new."

"See, I was involved for 10 years with starting technology businesses, traveling the world, and much less involved with my family than I should have been. We built up a company called Broadcast.com and sold it to Yahoo -- and then it was 2001, and the market was going down." As he watched his Yahoo stock fall, along with his fortune, "I was just obsessed," Jackson said.

"And as I was going out on a trip, I told my wife that she had to keep the leaves out of the pool skimmer because if she didn't the pump would burn out. Well, I came home at 2:30 a.m. I had been gone for weeks. Really, I had been an absent father for years. Everyone was asleep. And I saw leaves in the skimmer. At the top of my lungs, I remember screaming at my wife about leaves in the pool skimmer.

"You ever have one of those moments when you see yourself as you really are?" he asked. "I had become heartless. I had lost my compassion."

Many Democrats don't believe Republican businessmen have any compassion to lose, I noted. Not surprisingly, Jackson rejected the charge. He said he has compassion for the soldiers dying in Iraq and for the Iraqis whose country is in turmoil. The war, he said, "is heart-wrenching . . . But I still believe in democracy, and I believe in the freedom of the individual, and I believe over time that freedom will triumph."

He went on. "Both parties have their $20 donors, and both parties have their CEOs. I know the values I was raised with: to look out for someone less fortunate, to reach out to others. This is not exclusive to the Democratic Party," Jackson said. "It's just part of their marketing and packaging."

Nearing the end of our voyage.

We started near Waco, Neb., and traveled to a place near Waco, Tex. -- Crawford, to be exact, home of George W. Bush.

You can't underestimate that fact, a fact we were reminded of in conversation after conversation. Bush is from Texas. And a Texan who seeks the votes of Middle Americans has a lot of symbolic ground already plowed for him, plowed by the likes of Sam Houston and John Wayne, Davy Crockett and Gary Cooper. As we crossed through the Red River Valley, over the Trinity River and the Brazos, I swear the landscape literally looked bigger somehow.

It was near dusk when we got to town, orange in the west and pale purple in the east and deep blue in the dome of the sky. Crawford was bustling. The moms were busy festooning the shops and fences with signs urging their sons, the Crawford High School Pirates, on to victory in the state football playoffs.

Jackie Hejl did not have much time to spare, but she paused a moment to say that she is mighty proud of her neighbor, proud to have voted for him, proud of his leadership.

"He has enough gumption," she said, "to try to go and help the people of Iraq and not try to hide from those who hate us."

I felt I had to ask how she would feel if her son the ballplayer was called to the war.

"That comes up a lot," she said.

She pressed some more tape to the fence.

"If President Bush says it's needed, then okay. I've got relatives who have fought in every war since 1812, and the hard fact is that sometimes you have to do what you don't necessarily want to do to secure freedom. We might not have had to fight World War II if someone had stood up to Hitler."

That's what I found:

After a campaign in which the Democrat made very little effort to seek their votes, the Red Sea folks decided to cast their ballots in large numbers for George W. Bush. Something he said or did struck a chord with some note of their own political music. Maybe it was the feeling that bureaucrats just don't get it. Or the idea that elitists hold the heartland in contempt. Maybe it was the worry that traditions are under attack. Maybe it was the view that coastal culture is an enemy, not a friend, in the effort to raise children. For some, it was the feeling of authenticity and apparent horse sense. The attitude toward land and resources that comes from living amid an abundance of both. The significance of personal faith.

In short, I found ordinary people with various motivations, sundry stories, personal beliefs, custom-made decisions.

I suppose there are no great surprises there -- these views represent many of the strands that have been collected over the past generation into the political camp we call "conservative." But the focus on this common label may obscure the individual nature of these voting decisions. I met regular churchgoers and people who attend church seldom if ever. I met young libertarians and elderly prims. I met a wealthy man and a man unemployed and deeply in debt. I met people who admire Bush and people who have little regard for him.

I imagine this might disappoint those people who seek a large and unified explanation of something as important as a presidential election. How much more satisfying it is -- especially for those who make a living from explaining elections in catchy sound bites -- to conjure up overarching themes, towering trends, looming like alps over an election. Nothing sells like a big trend story, whether the trend is "right-wing backlash" or "values revival."

One afternoon, about 3 o'clock, we turned off Kansas highway 15, down a mud track in an expanse of nowhere. We stopped and got out of the car. The sun was low in the south; its rays arrived languidly and aslant through the gray, tufted stubble of a cornfield. When the engine stopped ticking, a lark began to sing nearby, and as my ears grew attuned to the silence I noticed steers bawling in the middle distance and a human voice, audible but indistinct, riding the wind toward us from a long way off. A pair of pheasants sauntered past without looking our way.

At the edge of a lion-tan pasture stood an old gate topped with a weathered W. But I guess we weren't in the mood for heavy-handed symbolism. Sometimes a W is just a W. Instead, I studied a small circle of grass covered with the feathers of a hawk-killed bird, and listened to the pianissimo hum of truck tires over a highway a mile distant.

Turning slowly where I stood, I took in the whole 360-degree horizon, which bisected the curve of sky like the base of a snow globe. And for a moment it felt like we were in a world apart, so distinct and separate did this lonely sheet of earth appear. But I knew that if we set off and kept going, we'd meet up eventually with Blue America. In a tangible sense, even after this bitter election, something connected this land to that one, something more durable than fear and loathing, though it was beyond my view. An industry has been set up to convince us otherwise, but I'm here to tell you that a person can get from there to here, and here to there. Maybe next time, the Democrats might give it a try.

In that light, I looked again, and the world seemed to float off in every direction toward new beginnings and fresh possibilities.

David Von Drehle is a staff writer for the Magazine. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Tuesday at 1 p.m.

Link (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A1881-2005Jan11.html)