Attention, Wal-Mart Voters

Lost Jobs and Military Funerals Haunt Bush in the Heartland

 Rock River Valley, Illinois—Piety is easy to find on the highways of Red America. Stop at a cemetery and you may find that the marker towering over all the rest reads, "In Memory of the Unborn Children." Down at the lower frequencies, the ones occupied in more urbane locales by the edgy college stations and NPR affiliates, your radio lectures at you: The music you'll hear during your visit is safe for the whole family. . . . Family friendly 91.5, WCIC, celebrating 20 years of music and ministry. Neighborliness is unavoidable, a saving grace: Pull into a motel and the lady asks for your cell phone number because there was a rash of folks forgetting their cameras this summer and she wants to be able to call you if you leave something behind yourself.

But just like in a novel by Sinclair Lewis, if piety is easy to find, then so is hypocrisy. Enter the sultry stink of a dingy roadhouse not far from where Abraham Lincoln once debated Stephen Douglas, and a terse young man winding himself up with coffee for a hard-partying Saturday night volunteers his version of the scene: a couple of towns down, the best gentleman's club; the next town over (you won't see a sign), a gambling den. A couple of hours later, when you tell the woman behind the counter at the convenience store where you've been, you elicit a grimace: "Oh, did you see two girls getting it on?" (They do so nightly, apparently, around 11 o'clock, on the pool table, for tips.)

Illustration: David O'Keefe

Though even in this, Oglesby, Illinois's local den of iniquity, Republicans aren't hard to find, either. "I thought Bush would be a good man for the job at the time, and thought he'd be a good president," says the terse young man, whose nickname is Stony. "So I voted for him."

Stony is the kind of guy liberals love to worry about, the kind they fret they can't win over by next year's election. He works the midnight shift as a "picker" at a nearby grocery warehouse—the very job Tom Wolfe depicts as the soul of thankless blue-collar humiliation in his latest novel. Stony talks proudly about his union and, quietly, mentions his fears that his workplace "could have a shutdown any day. You never know."

Liberals: Worry less. Stony no longer supports George Bush: "Because of the war. Too many people dyin'." Neither does his drunken friend, who pipes up: "I hate him. Because there are kids getting killed every single day."

Worry less. But worry still. In the middle of November, I spent five days in four Illinois counties where Bush was successful in 2000 to see whether support for him was peeling off in areas especially hard hit by the jobless recovery. The answer offers some surprising political lessons.

A few moments' Web research is all it takes to learn that the next town I visit, Byron, "the gateway to the Rock River Valley," supports 13 churches for a population of 2,284 and is named for the Romantic poet; that George Bush beat Al Gore in this county by 23 points; and that its two "major industries" are Quality Metal and Bergstrom truck heaters. It takes considerably longer to learn that this is all a convenient fiction: Byron's actual major industry is a $3.7 billion nuclear plant that once earned the distinction of becoming the first in history to have its application for an operating license flatly rejected by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

No such reticence in the shadow of the cooling towers, where Byron Motosports Park, a 1.3-mile dirt track, proudly advertises an annual "Nuclear Mountain Bike Meltdown" on its website. The track is where you'll find, on a typical Sunday—race day—two semi drivers from Rockford named John and Scott. John is the talkative one. Scott is the one with the heavy goatee. Ask them about George Bush, and this is what you hear.

"Best president we ever had. Because he's the only one, one of the few, who's got the balls to do what needs to be done. . . . I'm so glad Gore didn't get elected, 'cause he's another Clinton. And Clinton should have done it when he was in office."

They blame 9-11 and the unending wars that have followed on the previous White House occupants.

John: "All this shit is Clinton's fault. . . . This'll probably be the first year ever that I vote a straight Republican ticket. 'Cause all them Democrats, bad-mouthin' Bush, sayin' he didn't have it planned out right, all that crap—they didn't even have a clue what was going on!"

John and Scott are dead wrong, of course: Clinton knew there was danger to Americans from a terrorist group called Al Qaeda and did do something about it, if perhaps not all the right things, whatever those might have been; Bush knew of the danger before the World Trade Center attacks and probably did less. Playing catch-up, he used the war on terror as pretext for an invasion of Iraq, and well-informed Democrats knew exactly what was going on: that unilateralism and lack of planning for a post-war settlement would lead us into disaster. But there's not much you can do about macho fantasies like Scott and John's; you can't force voters to critically read several newspapers a day. This is, simply, the reality that those who would wish to see George Bush defeated have to work with.

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