Mood in Mid-America
Around here, Ivan Parks and his wife are almost synonymous with summertime celebrations. Their Sno-Cones have been the salvation of overworked high-school football teams up in Nebraska and the guilty pleasure of fair-going teenagers in the tiny farm towns of western Kansas - who know the Parkses' electric-blue kiosk by sight.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet this Independence Day, along with the unfurled flags and thunderous fireworks, there comes a discordant note for the Parkses amid the brassy marching tunes. The gnarled brim of his green cap pulled low, Ivan worries about $60-a-barrel oil and the end of Social Security as he has known it for his whole life. Glenda wonders if the loss of life in Iraq is worth it.
Here in America's Heartland, the love of country is all but unquestioned, but concern over the nation's course spreads to every corner of the wide-open plains. Some of it is surprisingly candid - invectives against a president and his policies that would make a blue-stater blush. But more often, it is simply a fact to be accepted and overcome - like a poor harvest or a cold winter.
Indeed, on street corners from Rock Springs, Wyo., to Cambridge, Ohio, Middle America remains much as it ever was - straightforward, unfailingly polite, and above all resilient. It is in this resilience that these farmers and teachers and Sno-Cone salesmen put their hope. To them, America is its people and its laws, and these will endure policies, oil prices, and wars.
"That's the American dream," says Ivan. "Things get better."
For now, that remains just a hope for most Americans. Satisfaction with the direction of the country is dropping, according to Gallup polls, but at 42 percent it remains well above historic lows. Troubled but not panicked by the war in Iraq and a fitful economy, Americans have slipped into a lingering sense of unease.
American satisfaction levels are below average, "but it's not as catastrophic as we've seen at other times - like the early '90s and late '70s," says Frank Newport of Gallup.
It is an attitude that stretches to the Civic Center in Rock Springs, Wyo., where supervisor Laurie Barton watches children scurry past the front desk to the pool and basketball court. "I don't feel a lot of hope, but I also don't feel a lot of gloom and doom," she says. "We're at a stage where we have to be very careful."
Colleague Anne-Marie Orester is more blunt: "There are some bad things going on."
Squeezed between the barren crags of the Leucite Hills, Rock Springs is as close as this century comes to the Wild West of old. Beyond the Wal-Marts and McDonald's that crowd alongside Interstate 80 thrive modern-day prospectors and fortune-seekers, come to Rock Springs to ply the Jonah natural gas field north of town.
Ms. Orester eyes them with suspicion. A student and a lifelong resident, she says prostitution and violent crime are on the rise, and there aren't enough police to keep up. President Bush's overeagerness to throw open the door to energy exploration is part of the problem, she adds, and she doesn't stop there. Rattling off references to British MI-5 reports on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, she begins a diatribe against the Iraq war that would have Michael Moore giving her a Palme d'Or.
To be sure, this is the heart of Bush Country, but these states are not as monolithic as they would appear on an electoral map.
There is a deep concern about whether America is on the right path - and there is a diversity of opinions.
At the Stein House Cafe in Boonville, Mo., waiter Seth Bailey is holding forth. The subject is the war and the economy - the two subjects that Gallup pollster Mr. Newport says most influence public opinion - and the exchange is an echo of others from Rock Springs to Goodland.