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The Red Sea

"They seem arrogant and above it all," Donna added.

"We aren't all hicks out here," Bruce continued. "I was national service manager for AT&T. For that matter: You try running a farm out here these days. One combine can cost as much as a house. My son runs a multimillion-dollar farm."


Pam Sackschewsky, left, Merv Ocken and Allen Stuhr in Waco, Neb. (Greg Miller)

It was plain he was struggling to decide how much to declare.

He settled on this: "I'm proud to say we're against the Lion's Den, and that we don't like that kind of pornography." He shouldn't have to wonder how to explain to his granddaughters what goes on next door.

As for his vote: "George Bush is straightforward. He's honest, and he's moral."

"A common, ordinary person," said Donna Owen. The sort of person the media likes to make fun of, just like them.

the more people we talked to, the more I realized that Bush was helped enormously in this part of the country by the fact that he ran virtually unopposed. Kerry spent nothing on advertising in the Red Sea states; the unions and other groups that supported him put little or no effort into spreading his message here. Many of those we encountered spoke of Kerry as they might speak of a distant relative they had never met but had merely heard mention of as children at a family gathering.

"I didn't know too much about Kerry," Elaine Bowers said.

"I couldn't get a real feeling he knew what he was going to do," said Bruce Owen.

We met Bruce Kunkel outside the lumberyard in Hillsboro, Kan., leaning against his Dodge Ram pickup and chatting with Matt Kukuk, who works at the yard. Kunkel is slim, with longish gray hair and the laid-back affability that seems to be the birthright of San Francisco Bay Area natives.

Kunkel said he moved from San Jose to Hillsboro so that his daughter could go to school in a small community. It's a nice little town, with Christmas wreaths on the light poles and deep, sittable porches. The sound of two boys shooting baskets in the driveway after school carries for blocks. Kunkel entered the election season convinced that the war in Iraq "was a mistake" and that Bush "was too quick to go."

Yet on Election Day he voted for him.

It was not an enthusiastic vote, Kunkel explained. "After I saw the debate, I found myself wondering how, out of all America, we came up with these two." But he had a little more sense of Bush than of Kerry.

"Kerry had 'a plan,'" he said, with a wry little laugh. "But he wouldn't tell us what it was. Talk about a log! He was just a totally unlikable guy.

"So I went with the status quo." He ventured that his neighbors made the same calculation. "People out here are pretty intelligent," Kunkel said. "The thing is, they don't like change.

"I think that's what happened."

We passed into Oklahoma, where all 77 counties went for Bush.

You notice that the earth is less gray and more russet, that the land has more wrinkles to it. You see fewer cows and more horses. You spy the occasional oil well in an unlikely spot -- on a farmhouse lawn, out behind a school -- with the pump pecking at its underground prize like a sci-fi early bird hunting for some gigantic worm. And the wind really does come sweeping down the plain, just like they sang on Broadway.

You notice that God is a very prominent citizen of Oklahoma. Conversations about religious faith proceed a bit awkwardly to the north, but the Oklahomans we met were as comfortable on the subject of religion as they were on the topic of the weather. Even on weekdays, church parking lots were full of cars. The Oklahoman, the state's largest newspaper, prints "Today's Prayer" on the front page. Two of the most prominent high-rises in Oklahoma City light their windows at night in the shape of a cross.

Some residents refer proudly to Oklahoma as "the buckle of the Bible Belt."

On a warm, blustery morning we headed south from Oklahoma City past ranch houses with American flags snapping and popping on front-yard poles. At a gas station in Asher, we spoke to Joyce Smith, an immaculate woman in a bright red suit with her hair neatly done under a scarf. She was driving her husband, James, from their home in Coalgate to the capital for some medical tests. She smiled when we asked about her vote.

"Well, you know, real Bible-believing Christians are in a minority in this country," she answered, "so I was a little concerned that Kerry could win. I am so thankful that he didn't. See, I believe if our president has good morals, our country will be blessed, and if he doesn't, we won't. That's what the Bible says, in the Old Testament."

Smith has led "quite a life," as she put it -- abandoned by one husband in the Texas Panhandle town of Amarillo; widowed by husband No. 2 with retirement approaching and no nest egg. Through it all, she kept the faith she first professed when she was 12 years old, having been coaxed to baptism by her sixth-grade teacher.

"I've been blessed," Smith said, gesturing toward James, her third husband, a retired rural mail carrier with a good pension and benefits.

She was too polite to say, in so many words, that she felt John Kerry was a man of bad morals. Instead, she put it this way: "When Kerry said he was for abortion and one-sex marriages, I just couldn't see our country being led by someone like that."

Later, I double-checked what Kerry had said on those subjects. During his campaign, he opposed same-sex marriage and said that abortion was a private matter. But Joyce Smith heard it the way she heard it, and voted the way she voted.

Lunchtime on the campus of East Central University, a state school in Ada, Okla., where Michael Jennings, a junior, stopped outside the bookstore.

"I viewed Bush as more of a Christian man than Kerry," he said, much as he believes that "the Republicans are always going to be a little bit more moral party. I think it's sad that we have a view that Democrats are more sinners than Republicans, but I guess we do."

Jennings has an easygoing way of making such assertions. "Just my Oklahoma opinion," he demurred repeatedly. Some of his best friends are liberals; in fact, his fiancee voted for Kerry, because she believed Bush was a threat to a woman's right to choose an abortion. Jennings liked the fact that she wouldn't back down from the disagreement.

Truth be told, if the election had happened a few years earlier, he might have supported Kerry himself. Jennings cast his first vote as a registered Democrat, in an effort to legalize the sale of liquor-by-the-drink in the conservative town where he was living.

"Before I was engaged, when we'd go out to the bar, if we could load up a bunch of girls and take 'em home, that was all right," he confessed. "Bush," Jennings summed up, "has more of a stand where you make a difference, and you can better yourself." And that fits well with this young man's philosophy of life, which holds that "you make your own bed. If you want to go to school, you can, unless you're disabled or something. If everyone went to school and tried to better themselves, eventually welfare would take care of itself."

An East Central University Sophomore walked up, Janessa Long. "I didn't feel Kerry had firm moral values," she said. "He didn't stand on principle. With Bush, even if you didn't agree with him, he wouldn't back away."

With her was sophomore K.J. Cassidy, sandy-haired and ropy like a wrestler: "Bush wanted to maintain the sanctity of marriage, and Kerry was kinda wishy-washy on that. Bush is closer to the small-town values."

"I liked Bush from the first time I heard him talking about the war," said Janessa Long. "I really liked how he said we needed to pray. I'm a Christian, and I admired how he stood up for that."

Before the trip, I heard a lot about a book that claimed to explain how people like Joyce Smith and Bruce Owen and Paul Kern and those ECU students have been tricked by the moneyed class into voting against their own best interests. I found a copy of What's the Matter With Kansas? at a bookstore in Ada and began reading it as we resumed our southward journey.

The author, Thomas Frank, grew up in a wealthy suburb of Kansas City and received a PhD in cultural criticism from the University of Chicago. His book is a lament for the lost prairie Populism of years gone by -- not the Ku Klux Klan aspect, which he never mentions, but the capitalist-scourging aspect of William Jennings Bryan and the Farmer's Alliance.

In Frank's view, if Red Sea residents knew what was good for them, they would vote for capitalist-scourging Populists today. But they don't know what's good for them, Frank explains, because of "a species of derangement." The deranged people of the Midwest are no longer able to make "certain mental connections about the world," because those once-"reliable leftists" have been deluded into caring about moral issues.

I marveled at Frank's discovery of a strong leftist tradition in Kansas, a state that has voted for the Republicans in 30 of the 36 presidential elections since 1860, including twice against Franklin D. Roosevelt. And I thought maybe Bryan, a fundamentalist Christian who denounced Darwin's theories of evolution at the famous Scopes trial, might have a lot in common with some of the so-called values voters of 2004. But Frank kept me reading until it was too dark to read anymore.


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