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The Red Sea

Then, as we rounded a curve in the propitiously named Reagan, Okla., we caught sight, through a picture window, of a tattered flag covering Mark Pack's living room wall. That flag, glowing in the darkness, made quite a picture. While it was being taken, Mark Pack stood in his front yard, talking in a voice not much above a whisper.

The flag, he said, once flew over the U.S. Federal Building in Lawton. When it was so frayed it was going to be destroyed, a friend thought to rescue it for Pack's sons, who are 3 years old, 2 years old and 5 weeks old.

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

The wall, he said, is in a house that he and his wife are renting, even though he can't find work nearby and his wife's job is 70 miles away. "We decided to stay rural" for their boys rather than move to "an urban environment where kids wear pants you and I could fit into, and the dumber you sound the better," Pack said. "Even the Disney Channel has 12- and 13-year-old girls doing the booty shake," he added. "I don't want my boys to grow up thinking that's what girls are for."

The leg, his left one, is missing. He lifted his pants leg to reveal a prosthesis. Pack lost his leg in a motorcycle accident back in Michigan, during the years when he was fresh from the Army and raising hell. During the long months he spent in the hospital, Pack met the woman he married. They moved to Oklahoma together so that he could go to college and learn to be a gunsmith, wrongly believing that would lead to a job.

Unemployed, burdened by student-loan debt, raising young kids -- and voting for Bush because of "his morals and his ethics." Mark Pack seemed like a perfect person to ask about Thomas Frank's theory of deranged hicks who cannot make mental connections about their own best interests.

"Mao said basically the same thing when he talked about religion being the opiate of the masses," Pack answered. "And wasn't it Lincoln who said you can't fool all of the people all of the time? Bush got 54 million votes, and I don't think they were all from blatant idiots. I think we get really carried away by generalizations in this country.

"It's a shame moral values are not taken seriously in the blue states," Pack said, in a generalization of his own. "You know, the Romans taught us: Divide and conquer. That's our biggest problem in this country, the divisions."

He also said: "Don't get me wrong. I don't think George Bush is the greatest guy in the world. Both of them scared the hell out of me. But at least Bush tells you what he thinks."

The Dallas Metroplex gives the lie to the notion that big cities necessarily vote for Democrats. Like all of Texas north of Austin -- hundreds of thousands of square miles, populated by millions of people -- Dallas and Fort Worth went for Bush. And, believe me, those are big cities. It felt like we hit the Dallas sprawl just past the Oklahoma border and were driving in it for most of an hour just to reach downtown.

I wanted to meet a member of that class of people so dear to George W. Bush that he has extolled them in nearly every campaign speech he has ever given: an entrepreneur. In Bush's America, such figures are the engines not only of economic growth but of creativity, opportunity and civic improvement.

A short search led me to a Starbucks off Mockingbird Lane, near the house where Bush lived when he co-owned the Texas Rangers baseball club. There, I talked with Rick Jackson, a young man, a millionaire, the father of three children and a founder of three companies.

Jackson was grooved to be a Bush voter no matter what happened. His family knows the Bush family from way back in Connecticut and Houston. He and Marvin Bush, the president's brother, have both worked with a Texas adoption agency on whose board Jackson now serves.

But another connection -- somehow less personal and yet more intense -- underscored the confidence Jackson had in Bush. They share, along with millions of others, the experience of a mid-life spiritual renewal, of finding oneself revealed in weakness and of trying to rebuild a life through faith in a larger power.

As Bush tells his life story, this happened after he got drunk on his 40th birthday.

For Jackson, the experience is "still fairly new."

"See, I was involved for 10 years with starting technology businesses, traveling the world, and much less involved with my family than I should have been. We built up a company called Broadcast.com and sold it to Yahoo -- and then it was 2001, and the market was going down." As he watched his Yahoo stock fall, along with his fortune, "I was just obsessed," Jackson said.

"And as I was going out on a trip, I told my wife that she had to keep the leaves out of the pool skimmer because if she didn't the pump would burn out. Well, I came home at 2:30 a.m. I had been gone for weeks. Really, I had been an absent father for years. Everyone was asleep. And I saw leaves in the skimmer. At the top of my lungs, I remember screaming at my wife about leaves in the pool skimmer.

"You ever have one of those moments when you see yourself as you really are?" he asked. "I had become heartless. I had lost my compassion."

Many Democrats don't believe Republican businessmen have any compassion to lose, I noted. Not surprisingly, Jackson rejected the charge. He said he has compassion for the soldiers dying in Iraq and for the Iraqis whose country is in turmoil. The war, he said, "is heart-wrenching . . . But I still believe in democracy, and I believe in the freedom of the individual, and I believe over time that freedom will triumph."

He went on. "Both parties have their $20 donors, and both parties have their CEOs. I know the values I was raised with: to look out for someone less fortunate, to reach out to others. This is not exclusive to the Democratic Party," Jackson said. "It's just part of their marketing and packaging."

Nearing the end of our voyage.

We started near Waco, Neb., and traveled to a place near Waco, Tex. -- Crawford, to be exact, home of George W. Bush.

You can't underestimate that fact, a fact we were reminded of in conversation after conversation. Bush is from Texas. And a Texan who seeks the votes of Middle Americans has a lot of symbolic ground already plowed for him, plowed by the likes of Sam Houston and John Wayne, Davy Crockett and Gary Cooper. As we crossed through the Red River Valley, over the Trinity River and the Brazos, I swear the landscape literally looked bigger somehow.

It was near dusk when we got to town, orange in the west and pale purple in the east and deep blue in the dome of the sky. Crawford was bustling. The moms were busy festooning the shops and fences with signs urging their sons, the Crawford High School Pirates, on to victory in the state football playoffs.

Jackie Hejl did not have much time to spare, but she paused a moment to say that she is mighty proud of her neighbor, proud to have voted for him, proud of his leadership.

"He has enough gumption," she said, "to try to go and help the people of Iraq and not try to hide from those who hate us."

I felt I had to ask how she would feel if her son the ballplayer was called to the war.

"That comes up a lot," she said.

She pressed some more tape to the fence.

"If President Bush says it's needed, then okay. I've got relatives who have fought in every war since 1812, and the hard fact is that sometimes you have to do what you don't necessarily want to do to secure freedom. We might not have had to fight World War II if someone had stood up to Hitler."

That's what I found:

After a campaign in which the Democrat made very little effort to seek their votes, the Red Sea folks decided to cast their ballots in large numbers for George W. Bush. Something he said or did struck a chord with some note of their own political music. Maybe it was the feeling that bureaucrats just don't get it. Or the idea that elitists hold the heartland in contempt. Maybe it was the worry that traditions are under attack. Maybe it was the view that coastal culture is an enemy, not a friend, in the effort to raise children. For some, it was the feeling of authenticity and apparent horse sense. The attitude toward land and resources that comes from living amid an abundance of both. The significance of personal faith.

In short, I found ordinary people with various motivations, sundry stories, personal beliefs, custom-made decisions.

I suppose there are no great surprises there -- these views represent many of the strands that have been collected over the past generation into the political camp we call "conservative." But the focus on this common label may obscure the individual nature of these voting decisions. I met regular churchgoers and people who attend church seldom if ever. I met young libertarians and elderly prims. I met a wealthy man and a man unemployed and deeply in debt. I met people who admire Bush and people who have little regard for him.

I imagine this might disappoint those people who seek a large and unified explanation of something as important as a presidential election. How much more satisfying it is -- especially for those who make a living from explaining elections in catchy sound bites -- to conjure up overarching themes, towering trends, looming like alps over an election. Nothing sells like a big trend story, whether the trend is "right-wing backlash" or "values revival."

One afternoon, about 3 o'clock, we turned off Kansas highway 15, down a mud track in an expanse of nowhere. We stopped and got out of the car. The sun was low in the south; its rays arrived languidly and aslant through the gray, tufted stubble of a cornfield. When the engine stopped ticking, a lark began to sing nearby, and as my ears grew attuned to the silence I noticed steers bawling in the middle distance and a human voice, audible but indistinct, riding the wind toward us from a long way off. A pair of pheasants sauntered past without looking our way.

At the edge of a lion-tan pasture stood an old gate topped with a weathered W. But I guess we weren't in the mood for heavy-handed symbolism. Sometimes a W is just a W. Instead, I studied a small circle of grass covered with the feathers of a hawk-killed bird, and listened to the pianissimo hum of truck tires over a highway a mile distant.

Turning slowly where I stood, I took in the whole 360-degree horizon, which bisected the curve of sky like the base of a snow globe. And for a moment it felt like we were in a world apart, so distinct and separate did this lonely sheet of earth appear. But I knew that if we set off and kept going, we'd meet up eventually with Blue America. In a tangible sense, even after this bitter election, something connected this land to that one, something more durable than fear and loathing, though it was beyond my view. An industry has been set up to convince us otherwise, but I'm here to tell you that a person can get from there to here, and here to there. Maybe next time, the Democrats might give it a try.

In that light, I looked again, and the world seemed to float off in every direction toward new beginnings and fresh possibilities.

David Von Drehle is a staff writer for the Magazine. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Tuesday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.

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