The businessman in seat 9D on a Boston-to-Chicago flight is not a happy traveler. Explaining to his seatmate in 9E that he recently took a new job in suburban Chicago after a lifetime on the East Coast, he says glumly, "I don't think I'm cut out for the Midwest."
And why not? asks 9E, a Midwesterner by birth. Well, he replies, the landscape is so flat. And the people are so polite - sometimes too polite, y'know? He says he misses the "edge" that Easterners often project.
Polite was undoubtedly what President Clinton's national security advisers were expecting when they scheduled a town hall meeting on Iraq in Columbus, Ohio, last week. As Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told the audience, "We are very pleased to be here in America's heartland."
Yet polite is hardly the word that describes the jeers of student protesters attending the event. With their chants and heckles, they served as a vocal, visible reminder that the so-called heartland is anything but monolithic or predictable in its attitudes. Stereotype us, the dissenters seemed to say, at your peril.
Heartland has become an overworked word, rarely used by Midwesterners but beloved by visiting reporters and politicians. They like the way its warm and fuzzy sound masks what they really mean: hinterland. It is a euphemism favored by those who see the nation's midsection as a bucolic American Siberia - a nice place to pass through on the way to either coast, but not a place you'd really want to live.
The Midwest is the nation's Nostalgia Belt. As developers bulldoze more and more farmland into strip malls and subdivisions, and as the sprawling region increasingly comes to resemble the rest of the country in its diversity and sophistication, promoters and detractors alike assiduously cultivate a hayseed image of cornfields and cows, barns and bib overalls.
Part of the nostalgia is perpetuated by Midwesterners themselves. An advertisement for Red Gold canned tomatoes touts them as "Grown in the Midwest," adding in a clever, aw-shucks tone, "Heck, you might even know the farmers."
Then there are the Machine Shed restaurants scattered through Corn Belt states. With windmills and green John Deere tractors outside and feed bags hanging from barn beams inside, they are designed to resemble a farmer's implement shed. They are also "dedicated to the American farmer." As owner Michael Whalen has explained, "It's a New Yorker's vision of an Iowa restaurant."
Such visions are further perpetuated by presidential candidates, who every four years tromp through the late-winter mud on Iowa farms, wooing the "real folks" who supposedly represent real American values. When it comes to photo ops, candidates reason, you can't do much better than hogs, silos, and church suppers.
Is it only a matter of time until a Disney-like entrepreneur capitalizes on all this rural sentimentality by building a heartland theme park?
Those of us who grew up in the Midwest and now live elsewhere observe these images and stereotypes with a mixture of amusement and annoyance. We also offer politicians and marketers a few modest suggestions:
Change the patronizing old question, "Will it play in Peoria?" to a more general, and accurate, "Will it play beyond the Beltway?"
Recognize that the Midwest is as richly complex and varied as any other part of the country. So are the people who live there. Every state has its fair share of rubes and sophisticates.
Finally, declare a moratorium on the word heartland. It could be the first step in convincing people like the homesick businessman in seat 9D that there really is life and intelligence west of the Hudson and east of the Golden Gate Bridge.