Friday, October 22, 2004


“The problem is,” said the man pumping Exxon regular into his muddy Ford 150 at a fuel stop not far from Waterproof, hard by the Mississippi River, “we don’t have a steadying hand in America anymore.

“When you don’t have a steadying hand, nobody pays any attention to anyone else and everything goes kaflooey.”

Everything is not kaflooey in the alabaster cities of patriot dream and across the fruited plain undimmed by human tears, not yet, but after a 1,300-mile drive toward the heartland, through a half-dozen states, across the lower edge of the Midwest and into the Deep South, I discovered the native philosopher and his diagnosis of what’s ailing in the body politic, along with 18 gallons of refined Saudi crude at a pump in the middle of the night:

The absence of the steadying hand.

Gerald Ford, the former president and a loyal Republican, identified the symptom in a slightly different way in an interview with the Denver Post: “The bitterness that exists between Democrats and Republicans, I think, has degenerated into … a stalemate. … It does turn off voters, and it results in a lack of the action that has to be done for the country’s good.”

Well, it’s not at all clear that the nastiness, the distortions and the exaggerations have turned off voters. The polls and other learned surveys suggest that the voters are angry and frustrated, at the candidates and at each other, and that a record number of them will turn out a week from Tuesday to express anger, if not necessarily wisdom. It’s a conceit of our age that everything that happens is for the first time, but none of this is necessarily new.

It’s not nice to think so, but a lot of people, maybe most of us, secretly vote “against” rather than “for.” I’ve never enjoyed voting quite as much as when, as a first-time voter using a paper ballot, I got to make my mark through the names of all the candidates I didn’t like, leaving the name of my preferred candidate alone in pristine isolation. An Eberhard Faber No. 2 pencil became a scimitar in my hand, and one by one the villains were struck from the ballot with ferociously applied dark black lines.

What’s clear about this election is that a lot of voters wouldn’t be satisfied to strike down either George W. Bush or John F. Kerry with an Eberhard Faber No. 2. Many of them would use the scimitar if only they could. Anger and even hate, stirred with abandon, is fueling the campaign as surely as the taxpayer millions. We may know late on the night of November 2 whether we’ll have four more years of George W. or the second round of Jimmy Carter we escaped two decades ago, but the anger, the bitterness and the divisiveness have only just begun.

The anger and derision are often petty but more heartfelt for it. “I can’t even think about what four years of Kerry would be like,” an Alabama man, looking up from the front page of the Birmingham News, says bitterly. “He looks like the man who sold me my mama’s coffin, and he sounds just about as sincere when he tries to make me think he feels my pain.” Says a woman in a small town in southern Illinois, taking her children’s clothes from the dryer at a roadside laundromat: “I’ve had two Kerry yard signs taken down and torn up, but I know who did it. They think they got by with it, but they haven’t. I’m bidin’ my time.”

In dozens of conversations, the impression comes across loud, clear and persistent that no one is happy now nor likely to be later. Neither the Bush partisans nor the Kerry fans imagine that their man is FDR, whose fireside chats reassured Americans who really did have something to fear, or Dwight Eisenhower, whose avuncular steadiness soothed terrors as he resolved a protracted Asian war, or Ronald Reagan, whose sunny optimism inspired even John Kerry (unless he was blowing smoke at us in the three debates) as he wrote finis to four decades of Cold War.

What they furnished was the steadying hand. We were a different country then, eager for the balm of a steadying hand, when we were all in the debt of fear, sacrifice was the common currency and the men and women of the greatest generation understood that a measure of selflessness was expected of everyone.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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