GROSSE POINTE, MICH. — Bent over a newspaper at a local diner, Walt Mackey scans the headlines and grouses about the state of leadership in America. "There is no leadership," says the math professor. "What the country needs is a leader-philosopher ... someone who isn't involved in the nuts and bolts but rather articulates a vision."
Some 300 miles away, in Ashtabula, Ohio, Joyce Maydale cheers for the summer-league baseball team - and jeers at all the scandal-mongering going on in Washington. "What is the purpose of bringing up all this stuff like Whitewater?" she asks. "I don't care about the past. All of this makes it hard to know who to vote for now."
On this July 4 weekend in an election year, as Americans plant umbrella stems into beach sand and spark their gas grills, there is widespread unease about the tenor of public discourse and the effectiveness of government.
Americans seem to be pining for leadership - however that may be defined. They are weary of unsafe streets. They are concerned about job security. They are dismayed by what they see as mean-spirited rivalry between the two political parties.
Dozens of interviews in the rural farmlands and urban centers along the southern shore of Lake Erie indicate the depth of the frustration. Eighteen months ago, voters demanded change with a loud voice, tossing out 40 years of Democratic control in Congress and rebuking President Clinton's tax hikes and big-bureaucracy health-care reforms. They placed their hopes for smaller, more effective government on the Republicans.
Now, as many voters lament the reforms that haven't come to pass and yearn for potential leaders they cannot have - such as Gen. Colin Powell or former Housing Secretary Jack Kemp - a new season of partisan rancor blooms in Washington.
Roots of voter angst
The public, they note, is constantly polled to gauge the political impact of the latest scandal or rumor, and the shifts are duly noted in headlines and on talk shows. GOP nominee-to-be Bob Dole lashes out at media bias to protect his tobacco-industry supporters. And Congress wends its way toward adjournment having accomplished little of what many voters say they had hoped for.
If asked, many blame both political parties and the media for the lack of civility and effectiveness in government these days. "It is very difficult to be a leader now," Mr. Mackey, a professor at Henry Ford College in Dearborn, Mich., says. "Eisenhower and Kennedy would have been destroyed if they faced the kind of press scrutiny there is now."
But voters seem less interested in assigning blame than finding solutions to key problems, such as the deficit, welfare, education, and health care. Somewhere, many say, a healthy debate over the role of government has become a race to eliminate government altogether. "There are far too many levels of government," says Robin Artman, a Republican resident of Ashtabula County. "But states shouldn't be allowed to make all the reforms.... The federal government has a role of ensuring fairness."
Underlying the public's frustration is an urgent sense that some of the nation's challenges threaten voters' standards of living. For some, the deficit is a top concern. "Politics aside, the country is in horrendous fiscal shape," says Bruce Lardner, an elevator installer in Grosse Pointe, who seems as familiar with the mechanics of Washington as the machines he works on. "Twenty-five percent of the budget goes to interest on the national debt."
Others struggle over questions of patriotism. "I know we're a nation of immigrants, but I'd like to see everyone who is already here taken care of," says Ms. Artman. "We should stop taking in immigrants, redesign welfare, and make sure no one in America is denied health care."
Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio?
Still others worry that the political climate is keeping the best people from seeking high office. "We put people on a serving platter and dissect their lives," says a small-business owner in Ashtabula, who requested anonymity. "That's why we'll never see the best choices for the presidency. It's scary."
Most interviewed see presidential character as a top concern - one they define far differently than politicians do. While rivals in Washington joust over how the White House obtained FBI files, an issue Republicans are using to raise doubts about Mr. Clinton's ethics, voters express more interest in qualities of leadership such as vision, decisiveness, and strength. Few say they pay close attention to or care much about Whitewater or the FBI issue.
"A leader is someone willing to make a stand, and then stick by it," says Todd West, a farmer in Perry, Ohio. "I'm leaning toward Dole, but I must say the choice [for president] is a little disappointing. Dole, as far as usefulness, was best when he was in the Senate. Inexperience is hurting Clinton."
It is too early to tell how these complex feelings might influence voters in November. Some say they are so frustrated they may not vote at all. "If I don't feel I know enough about the candidates, I won't go to the polls," says Ms. Maydale, a Democrat. "And right now I don't know much about Dole."
But others say they are paying closer attention to issues and candidates. "If we throw up our hands, we'll end up with the same old people," says Mark Ritchie, an engineer from Pittsburgh. "I'll vote because I don't like to see my tax dollars wasted."