How many Americas are there, really?

GOP lays claim to 'mainstream America' - but there are two sides to every stream, no?

Do you belong to mainstream America? Do you know any Americans who say they don't?

So what do you think it means when candidates John Kerry and John Edwards are described as "more distanced from the values and priorities of mainstream America than any ticket in the history of the Democratic Party"?

That's how Bush campaign spokesperson Nicolle Devenish was quoted. Had she never heard of George McGovern and - quick, now! - R. Sargent Shriver in 1972? Or were they more mainstream than Senators Kerry and Edwards and still won only 17 electoral votes? And what about Republican Alf Landon who got even fewer - eight - in the greatest Democratic landslide in history? Would today's oil-rich White House regard this homespun wealthy oilman as not mainstream even though he lost to sophisticated New Dealer FDR? Are Kerry and Edwards really less mainstream Democrats than Adlai Stevenson, who actually made puns ("He who slings mud generally loses ground") while losing to Dwight Eisenhower?

Ms. Devenish made me think of that definition of an editor as someone who knows what he wants but doesn't know what it is. She seems to mean that it's bad not to be mainstream, but does anybody know for sure what mainstream is? As in mainstream science, economics, religion, or entertainment. Are websites now mainstream? What about those that use gibberish to evade spam filters and fill one's e-mail with offers of bodily enhancement, cheapo drugs, sweepstakes chances, or cut-price software?

If one site says the Democratic duo is out of the mainstream, another says that "out of the mainstream are Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, and the many extremists running America right now."

"Mainstream" doesn't occur in the founding documents of a country determined to find its way against the tide of might makes right. What is America's "prevailing current of thought, influence, or activity"? (A dictionary definition of mainstream.)

Recent reports say hip-hop and body piercing are gaining acceptance in the mainstream. You might think such a mainstream would have room even for a trial lawyer and a Vietnam vet when they have such secure non-same-sex marriages. Maybe it's the same mainstream meant by an environmentalist's recent words: "Awareness and concern for the environment have at last become major influences in mainstream America."

But is it the same mainstream espoused by a White House that sets itself apart from the world's Kyoto environmental treaty?

You could choose your own list of what defines mainstream America. Is it preemptive war or peace marches? "The Passion of the Christ" or "Fahrenheit 9/11" - or maybe the original sci-fi novel, "Fahrenheit 451," against book burning?

Is the mainstream Rush Limbaugh or Charlie Rose? "American Idol" or "Masterpiece Theater"? Tony Bennett or James Brown? Janet Jackson or Renée Fleming? (If we don't know one of these names, can it - or we - possibly be in the mainstream?) Wrestling or golf? Real estate or mutual funds? Hamburgers or quiche? Tax breaks or panhandling? Sarcasm or humor? Conformity or diversity?

Perhaps the only way to see the mainstream is by standing on the bank. On the other hand, as the pundit said, the reverse also is true.

It might be fun to talk with Devenish about how she and her boss define mainstream. Was former Bush opponent/ current supporter John McCain in the mainstream all the time?

Roderick Nordell is a former editor at the Monitor.

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