It's 5 a.m. on a pitch-dark stretch of rolling Texas highway. But Doris Haddock is already walking at a brisk pace on Interstate 20, as if she had gotten off to a late start.
For six months and some 1,700 miles Mrs. Haddock - better known as "Granny D" - has walked across the Southwest in her determination to root out what she sees as the corrupting effect of "big money" in America's election campaigns. At her ankles is a mutt with a Benji face who started following her 40 miles back. In her hand is a bright yellow flag emblazoned with her nickname. And in her conversation, one can feel a palpable, all-consuming, passionate love of American democracy.
"Why am I doing this? Because our democracy is in peril, and the corporations have taken over the government," says the Dublin, N.H., grandmother, interrupted at times by the roar of a truck.
Whether any reform ever comes of Granny D's trek, she nonetheless joins an American tradition of social reformers, folk heroes, and troublemakers of all political stripes who took on the causes of their day. Like Rosa Parks, who sat on the "wrong" end of the bus, and Howard Jarvis, who took on state property taxes in California, Granny D is hardly a member of the political establishment. As an individual, her only power comes from her ability to persuade as many Americans as she can that the system has to change.
At issue is a system critics say has corrupted representative government. Current law allows politicians to accept only amounts of $1,000 or less from individuals, but lawmakers can use loopholes, such as political-action committees and other "soft money" accounts to fund their campaigns.
Granny D says for several years she had been toying with the idea of traveling the country to promote her favorite cause: campaign-finance reform. When she talked with her hometown friends in the senior ladies ballet class, they agreed that she, indeed, had to hit the road. After nine months of rigorous training, Granny D was born.
Of course, Granny D is no stranger to the world of protest. In the 1930s, she performed in feminist plays. In the '60s, she traveled to Alaska to protest a plan to create a new harbor using nuclear devices. (The plan eventually was shelved.)
On the current road, there have been a few bumps. Granny D faced dehydration in the Mojave Desert, leaned into the Arizona desert winds, and scaled El Capitan, a mountain pass in New Mexico. But she's rarely walked alone. Volunteers have crawled out of the woodwork, donating housing and food.
Surprisingly enough, some of Granny D's strongest supporters are in Congress itself - including Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona and Russell Feingold (D) of Wisconsin, and Reps. Christopher Shays (R) of Conn. and Marty Meehan (D) of Massachusetts, all of whom have sponsored campaign-finance reform bills.
"I'm proud of her," says Senator McCain. "It tells me that I have to do a better job of making connections to Americans, the way Granny D does."
Representative Shays says he plans to join Granny D on the road sometime this year. "If people in the House and Senate think they can kill campaign finance [reform] because Americans are not paying attention, then they will," he says.
But for Granny D, her most important support comes from people she meets along the road. Truckers on the highway, communicating by CB radio, keep track of Granny D's whereabouts, honking as they pass. Others drive by, put on the brakes, and voice their support. "Is she really walking across America? I can barely make it to Eastland," jokes Joyce Vickers, a native of Ranger, driving up in her tattered Pontiac Bonneville. "I don't know much about campaign finance, but I know we need a bunch of prayer."
Some pundits argue that any grass-roots movement has built-in disadvantages taking on the established political order.
"While the story of a lady traveling across the country on foot is touching, I don't see how that will have much of an effect," says Thomas Mann, a political historian at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "In the past, it's usually been a scandal that increases the public interest and forces politicians to make changes to law."
Even the 1996 allegations of illegal Chinese contributions to the Democratic Party could not push through campaign-finance bills in Congress, he adds. Granny D admits there are times she feels as if she is "on a fool's errand."
"I know darn well that it won't happen with this walk," she says, swallowing hard with emotion. Regaining her composure, she continues. "But I just feel that the walk will perhaps point up to the Senate that maybe the man on the street does care, and he's really worried and it's not just a game. They think we don't know what's going on?"
By 9:40 a.m., Granny D has finished her daily 10-mile constitutional, and walks into a Dairy Queen. There, she starts working the crowd, handing out cards to a kaffeeklatch of older farmers.
At first, some of the men are dubious that this grandmother can take the corruption out of Washington, but soon all of them express their admiration for her tenacity.
"We need more people like you," says one older gentleman in a Caterpillar cap. "Here she is, 80 years old...." Granny D cuts him off. "I am not 80. I'm 89, and I'll be 90 by the time I get to Washington."
If truth be told, Granny D wishes there was less attention to herself and her age. She sees something larger at work.
"I feel as if I was being driven, having to do it," she says. "And every time something comes up that seems insoluble, an angel appears. I've gotten to the stage where I don't really worry if I don't have a place to stay that night. Something shows up." She smiles. "It's uncanny."