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Post Magazine: The Red Sea

Post Magazine Cover Story

David Von Drehle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 18, 2005; 1:00 PM

Want to know why George Bush won the November election? Reporter David Von Drehle did. So, he set sail into the crimson heart of America -- traveling by car from Waco, Neb., to Waco, Tex.

Von Drehle, whose article about the people he met and places he saw in Red America appeared in Sunday's Washington Post Magazine, was online Tuesday, Jan. 18, at 1 p.m. ET to field questions and comments.

Von Drehle is a Magazine staff writer.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


David Von Drehle: Hi, and welcome to the chat. Let's go straight to one line in the story that irritated several people enough that they have written to me about it.


Vienna, Va.: Mr. Von Drehle,

It appears you were just as guilty of the derision toward red-state Bush supporters that you attributed to other big-city reporters. You quoted Joyce Smith, "When Kerry said he was for abortion and one-sex marriages, I just couldn't see our country being led by someone like that." Then you snidely wrote: "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."

Kerry said he'd have a litmus test to prevent anti-abortion judges from making it to the Supreme Court. He also voted against the Defense of Marriage Act.

Given Kerry's record, Ms. Smith's assertions make perfect sense, and you had no reason to slam her, other than elitist arrogance.

David Von Drehle:
I really enjoyed talking to Mrs. Smith--it was her wonderful portrait that appeared on the cover of the magazine. I wasn't trying to "slam" her at all. She said Kerry had spoken "in favor" of two hot-button issues, gay marriage and abortion. That was a factual assertion and it wasn't quite right. The people who have written to me to say that Kerry was MORE supportive of gay and abortion rights than Bush are absolutely correct. But he never said he "favored" either one.

As I wrote in the next line of the story, Mrs. Smith -- like all voters--is entitled to hear things just the way she hears them, and to decide as she sees fit. There was nothing irrational about her choice. Given her views, it made sense to me.


Cortez, Colo.: I live in a red county but my votes are all over the place. I am curious if you asked the people you interviewed how much they read newspapers, books like Frank's, etc. Politics have become difficult to discuss but I was never able to get any Bush voter to read even one of John Kerry's speeches yet they had the same feeling about him you describe.

David Von Drehle: I asked that of some people and not of others. Unless it comes up naturally in a conversation, quizzing people on what they read seems like putting them on the spot. I didn't want to do that.

In any event, I don't think voters should be required to read the speeches of candidates. I'm PAID to do it and it's painful even for me.


Manassas, Va.: You tried, I'll give you that, but you just couldn't pull it off.

The tip off was your reaction to the lady who thought Kerry had "bad morals." Your comment was that Kerry never said what whe believed he did. I know its hard for media types but you just have to give people a little more credit for having some brains. Kerry's statements about abortion and same-sex marriage are classic examples of trying to have it both ways. The position that abortion is a "private" matter is how Democrats try not to piss off religious voters. Just substitute any other issue (gun control, perscription drugs, murder) and you'll see how stupid the statement is. People see this. People are not stupid.

David Von Drehle: Yes, and I see this, so maybe I'M not stupid.


Jackson, Miss.: Do you think that if there were greater philosophical diversity at The Washington Post that you might have been able to get the answers to your questions without having to travel to the Midwest?

David Von Drehle: I like diversity wherever I go.

But the fact that The Washignton Post will spend thousands of dolalrs to let voters express themselves is, in my mind, a GOOD thing, not a bad one. I hope we don't stop doing it no matter who comes to work here.


St. Louis, Mo.: Did the people you meet support Bush because of his persona or his substantive positions on issues? Did people seem informed on issues such as the state of the Iraqi War and the specifics of the Social Security trust fund? I would guess the former on the first question and no on the second.

David Von Drehle: Like most things, it varies from person to person. I found a wide variety of views--very nuanced views--on Iraq. As for the Social Security Trust Fund, judging from the op-ed pages, the people with Nobel Prizes can't agree on the facts about that. A person should not have to be an expert on macroeconomics to cast a vote.


Richmond, Va.: I find your article very scary. Did any of the people you interviewed express thoughtful reasons for how they voted that related to "issues" such as: the deficit, trade, immigration, health care, world opinion, foreign affairs, the war in Iraq, etc.?

Obviously, I wouldn't agree with them but it would be comforting to know their vote was based on something other than nebulous preceptions; he's a good guy, gutsy, honest, moral, and snowballs.

David Von Drehle: I found people to be very thoughtful. What you have put your finger on, I think, is a difference of opinion as to what they should be thinking ABOUT. A wily old politician once told me that 90 percent of winning is in defining which issues will matter in an election. Certainly the Republicans have done a better job of that out on the Red Sea.


Columbia, Md.: Thanks for a fascinating article. One added thrill for my 85-year-old Dad was seeing the section on Concordia, Kan., where his parents grew up and met and where he used to visit his grandparents as a boy. He's curious as to how you picked Concordia and the other towns that you visited on your route. Thanks.

David Von Drehle: Thanks for reading

The idea of the piece really started when I looked at the map of county-by-county returns and realized that it would be possible to drive for days without coming within 100 miles of a Kerry County. I wanted to do a straight shot so that it wouldn't look like we were dodging or weaving to avoid Kerry counties. So I latched onto the North-South artery I-35, which I knew would take us close to Crawford, Texas--a good place to wind up. I extended the line up US 81 into Nebraska. And thus: Concordia!


Greenbelt, Md.: In all seriousness, after 20 years of hearing red staters bash the "East Coast Establishment" and the "Cultural Elite," I don't see why it's up to the educated and successful folks on the coasts to play nice with flyover country.

We in the blue states are the economic, educational, and, yes, cultural elite. We are the destinations people around the world flock to. I will not apologize to ignorant hillbillies for being successful, and I will absolutely not water down my values for fear of them being upset.

This fetishization of the ignorant has to stop. They may hold the government right now, but they still rely on us to bail out their failures.

David Von Drehle:
Who you calling an ignorant hillbilly?!


Manassas, Va.: "David Von Drehle: Yes, and I see this, so maybe I'M not stupid."

I don't think you're stupid. I think you implied that a woman was stupid for thinking the way she did, even though a deeper look at the issue shows she was right.

I think you went on your trip in search of the exotic red-state voter and found what you were looking for.

David Von Drehle: It's a free country. I think you are misreading the piece, but you're not alone in thinking that.


Richmond, Va.: As a liberal Christian in red-state America, I read your article with some interest. I wanted to see if you noticed something I've seen. I'm not sure if you did, since you touched on it but did not discuss it at length.

Religion is a huge factor in red-state America. Many blue-staters think that red-staters are knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing slack-jawed yokels who always vote against their own interests. This assumes that red-state interests are the same as blue-state interests.

For Christians, doing God's work is paramount. Doing God's work and benefitting from it is nice, but even if a Christian suffers for doing God's work, that's OK, because we'll be rewarded later.

Since many Christians think that gay marriage and abortion are an affront to God, they vote for candidates that oppose those things, even though in so doing they are also voting for outsourcing, tax cuts for the rich, war, destruction of the environment, etc. They know this, but again, they have different interests.

Once you understand someone's motivation, everything they do makes sense.

David Von Drehle: This is extremely well-said.

Now, not everyone who loves God--not even all the baptized and faithful Christians--chooses to emphasize the same Bible passages as they live out their faith. But absolutely there are a lot of religious people who see things just the way you have so eloquently outlined. Politicians who fail to meet these voters on their own ground cannot be surprised when they lose.


Washington, D.C.: While visiting Texas during Thanksgiving, I had the opportunity to investigate how these "locals" viewed the race between Bush and Kerry. To a person, the people I spoke with indicated that they believed Bush was an honest person, and that they preferred an honest person with questionable competence to a person who they did not believe was as honest (flip flopper, shader of truths, etc.). Regardless of the accuracy of their views, this was by a longshot the reason Bush won among this district. How does this square with your findings? Thanks.

David Von Drehle: Heard this same thing a lot. Many people used some version of this formulation: That Bush means what he says. He may not always say it eloquently. He may make mistakes. But when he tells you he is going to do something, he tries to do it.

That seemed to carry a lot of weight with the folks we met, and many people saw this as a strong point of contrast with Kerry.


Alexandria, Va.: Good Afternoon,
I am perplexed by the oft-repeated praise of politicians that "they have strong views and act on them," yet there seems to be no evaluation as to whether or not those "stong views" have any basis in fact, morality and/or reality. George Wallace had "strong views" on keeping blacks segregated from whites, therefore, would he therefore have gotten the votes of these Red State inhabitants? This display of willful ignorance represents cowardice, not courage.

Thanks for an interesting article,
Perplexed in Alexandria

David Von Drehle: This fits well with the last question.

I know many people share this concern because I hear it often. This points to one of the major impressions I came away with: The Democrats really made no effort, no meaningful effort, to engage with the voters in the Red Sea states to try to persuade them that Bush is wrong. If democrats truly believe that, they should be willing to try to take their message nationwide.


Casper, Wyo.: WHy are "red-staters" all lumped together? Why go to some teeny berg like Pump Handle, Neb., to the town's only restaurant and expect that to be a relevant, representative opinion? Do people know that Bush and Kerry have similar eastern backgrounds, education, privileged upbringings? Bush may have the hat, but he's no cowboy, no rancher. Wyoming is a much more various state.

David Von Drehle: Anywhere you go, you meet the same small number of people. And they all represent exactly the number of people they represent. You can go to the busiest corner of the bigest city and stop one person -- it's still just one person.


Arlington, Va.: I read your article but it didn't seem to really tell us anything we didn't already know. Basically the election came down to urban vs rural. I also reject the red-blue dichotomy that has been thrust upon us. I like much better the map which shows counties not by just majority vote, but degree of majority. In that map the country looks decidedly purple. I'm glad you found some Kerry voters to talk to in your "red states" jaunt, but this red vs. blue thing really needs much closer scrutiny than you guys in the media give it.

David Von Drehle: Sorry you didn't learn anything.

As I said in the piece, there are definitely some age-old divisions in the electorate at work here.

It is said that there's nothing new under the sun; still, we journalists are paid to write stuff, so sometimes we have to touch on ground that has been touched before.


Washington, D.C.: In the article, you wrote that the Kerry campaign had virtually no presence in the areas through which you traveled, and so people seemed not to know much about him. However, did the Bush campaign really spend any effort on these non-battleground states, either? I'm just wondering how the people intereviewed perceive a Yale/Harvard-educated, elitist, son-of-a-president, rich-from-family money George W. as more of a "regular guy" than Kerry. Also, did voters talk about why "regular guy"-ness eclipses responsibility for the terrible bloodbath in Iraq?

David Von Drehle: Yes. The Republicans put much more effort into the Red states than the Democrats--and more effort even than the Democrats put into the Blue states.

I don't think many Red Sea voters fail to recognize that President Bush comes from a privileged background. But they weren't choosing from all the people in America. They were choosing between him and Kerry.


New York, N.Y.: I have to say that the one part of your article I thought most significant was your interview with Mark Pack, the unemployed amputee. You thought he might be a good person to ask about "Thomas Frank's theory of deranged hicks who cannot make mental connections about their own best interests."

He then provided a response that was thoughtful enough to prove Frank wrong, but also did him one better by pointing out the flaw, indeed the implicit insult, in Frank's generalizations.

David Von Drehle: I really, really enjoyed talking with Mark Pack. What a great young man. You know, that was a complete accident. It was after dark and we were, to tell you the truth, a leetle bit, uh, lost. We were driving down a winding rural road when suddenly the gifted photographer on this project, Greg Miller, hollered: "Did you see that flag in the window of that house?!"

So we turned around, stopped, and knocked on the door.

Greg works only with an 8-by-10 portrait camera -- you know, with the bellows and the tripod and the cloth he puts over his head. To get the picture--an amazing picture on page 17 of the magazine--he had to leave his shutter open for about 15 minutes. If a car came by, he had to shut it, then resume the exposure. 've seen a lot of photographers work, but never saw anything like that.

Anyway, all the while the greg was working, I was free to chat with Mark.


Remembering Marjorie Williams: Thank you for your loving and informative essay on Marjorie Williams. I have been a fan for years and was saddened to learn of her passing. I didn't know her personally, but those who knew her must have felt very blessed, and in turn it's fortunate that she had you to write such a wonderful remembrance.

washingtonpost.com: Post Columnist Marjorie Williams Dies, (Post, Jan. 17)

David Von Drehle: Well, thank you for your kind words.

To write Marjorie's obituary I read hundreds of pages of her work. It was the most enriching and humbling work I have done ina long time. We have lost an enormous talent, and an extraordinary person.


Washington, D.C.: Comment to the earlier poster:

Being openly contemptuous of the people you seek to govern might not be the most effective electoral strategy. Red America is still America, like it or not.

Mr. Von Drehle: Thanks for a well-meaning article!;

David Von Drehle: Thanks for the thought. I'm going to post a few with little or no comment here ...


Washington, D.C.: The problem a lot of Democrats make is that they assume that they preach tolerance but only when it fits their needs. Case in point- the poster who made this statement in regards to red state voters: "This display of willful ignorance represents cowardice, not courage." The poster's tolerance does not extend to those who voted for Bush -- he/she says these voters are willfully ignorant cowards -- such name calling for someone who voted differently than he or she did. And for the record, I'm an independent voter who voted Gore 2000 and Bush 2004. I'm not a redneck hillbilly, nor am I a religious freak, nor am I uneducated. Take the time to get to know me and don't stereotype me, and when you do, you'll understand why I voted the way I did.

David Von Drehle:


Arlington, Va.: Greenbelt can't be serious can he?

No, it has to be a joke.

Doesn't it?

David Von Drehle:


Silver Spring, Md.: David, I agree with the earlier comment that your article was scary. But it is not unexpected. De Tocqueville long ago warned of the tyranny of the majority in the United States -- it seems to have finally come to pass.

David Von Drehle:


Los Angeles, Calif.: Though I live in a deep blue state, I fall into a "red" state voter. Traditional Roman Catholic, conservative fiscal opinions, a belief in the power of government to improve the lives of people, but not micro-manage society or business to the extent it currently does.

I voted for Bush for two reasons. First, in light of 9/11 and the war on terror he's stepped up to the plate admirably, in such a way I can't believe any Democrat would. So, his role in fighting the war on terror played an enormous influence on my voting decision. Second, I voted for Bush more in what the Democrats stand for rather than what Bush represents. Namely, the Democratic party represents a fanatical zeal in support of killing unborn children and destroying the family by way of a radical homosexual agenda. Of course I am public enemy number one for these and other beliefs, and the media, with it's filial ties to the Democratic party, makes no apologies in the level of scorn and hate spewed to voters such as me. However, I believe this is little to bear in light of the manifest issues facing this country, so, I'm one of those "red state" voters. One final thing, the media likes to paint red state voters as red-necks, rubes, Christian "fanatics", racists, and so on. I've travelled far and wide in this country, and have never met a person who would fall into those categories. We're just normal people the media never sees, and wishes didn't exist, who hold deep values and concern for this country, that's it. There's your story.

David Von Drehle:


Chevy Chase, Md.: Mr. Von Drehle,
As true blue-stater and liberal I read your article to try to gain some insight into why (oh why?) Red Staters love Bush so much. Unfortunately your article did nothing but confirm my view that Bush voters are stupid and sanctimonious. Almost all of the Bush voters you profiled gave reasons that, in my mind, are stupid for voting for him: "he's one of us" (Mr. Andover/Yale/Harvard rich boy is nothing like them!), "I didn't know much about Kerry" (do your homework!) "There are no differences between Bush and Kerry (again, do your homework!). The only person whose vote made any sense to me was the man who likes Bush's policies at the EPA. As reprehensible I find that view, at least he had a concrete reason for voting for Bush! I guess I just still don't get it.

David Von Drehle:


Philadelphia, Pa.: Excellent article. I haven't read "What's the Matter with Kansas?", but it's hardly a sign of stupidity to be a buyer in a market -- nearly all of us are. In the case of our election, you found part of the country where the Democratic product wasn't even on the shelf. In all likelihood, this particular product (John Kerry) would have been rejected. But that's not a reflection of the seller of the product. Put a product like Evan Byah or even Dick Gephart on the shelf and you might find buyers. What the Karl Roves understand is how to apply sophisticated marketing sense to campaigning -- define your message, differentiate yourself, know your target customers and pitch yourself to them. The Democrats can do that exact same thing if they get their act together.

David Von Drehle:


Glenview, Ill.: "If everyone went to school and tried to better themselves, eventually welfare would take care of itself." Yikes. It almost makes you wish Mr. Jennings would be laid off with no prospects and a family to support, or develop serious health problems for which he has no insurance coverage, or put in 40 years at a factory only to see his pension and health care disapper when the company goes bankrupt. I hope he develops a more realistic, and more compassionate, view as he ages.

David Von Drehle:


Overland, Mo.: I don't think Red staters are stupid, but there is such such a huge chasm in how we view the world. I think the Bush legacy will be this miserable war, unconscionable budget deficits, and an uninhabitable planet. Obviously they disagree. Do you see any hope for actual communication between these competeing camps?

My husband and I are 72 and 74, with no children or grandchildren, but we fear for the younger generations. While we don't want bad things to happen, my husband did once muse that, if he happens to make it "upstairs," it would nice to have the option of coming back to say "I told you so" if our dire predictions pan out.

David Von Drehle: You sound like my mom!

I prefer to believe there is a chance for communication. People have to try, on both sides. The people who are losing the argument have to try a little harder. But this country has been through a lot worse stuff than this and somehow kept going.


Washington, D.C.: I agree with the liberal Christian from Richmond who seems able to respect both sides of the divide. May I just add that for many of us, the world is too complex and dangerous to make voting decisions on narrow religious grounds... decisions that may actually do immeasurable harm to millions of other people. Religious leaders of all faiths must do a better job in speaking to their followers. Religion can be used for good and for bad. Also, I agree that Democrats have not done a good job in reaching across all America and framing and explaining what they really stand for which is not abortion, gay marriage,etc. but tolerance and compassion which are virtues that we can surely all embrace.

Thank you for a very interesting and well written article.

David Von Drehle: Thanks for reading!


Estates of Riverdale Park, Md.: Ciao Dave,

Your interesting and informative article helped me understand why people from certain parts of the U.S. always vote GOP. Thanks!

But it didn't explain why voters in swing states chose Bush. If you wanted to discover why Bush won, why didn't you tour a swing state like Ohio?

David Von Drehle: I thought I would be the one journalist in America who DIDN'T go to Ohio.

Not that there's anything wrong with Ohio!


Podunk, Mo.: Why do you journalists insist on pusing this blue/red, left-right paradigm, when both sides are pretty much for the same things, except for a few minor issues?

The whole political scene seems to remind me of WWF wrestling somehow.

David Von Drehle: Because the statistics pretty clearly show a more ideologically divided electorate than we have seen in the past 100 years or so. Maybe we could link to a long piece I wrote in Spring of 2004 trying to explain what is real about the Red-Blue model, as distinct from the hype.


Columbia, Md.: I hope Greenbelt IS serious!

David Von Drehle:


Easton, Md.: I'm curious about all this "honesty" the folks in your story seem to think the president has exhibited in office. I voted for him the first time, but I've found him to be anything but honest. In fact, he's lied to us on numerous occasions. He was promised to bring honesty back to the White House and that's why I voted for him -- the first time. He's lied about not knowing bin Laden wanted to fly planes in the WTC and he's been lying ever since. Do these "red staters" you interviewed live in a vacuum? How has Bush managed to convince them of his "integrity"? He certainly lost my vote.

David Von Drehle:


Also Perplexed: With regard to Alexandria's perplexion and your answer, I believe you hit it just right. The Democrats (or whatever the out-of-power party happens to be) has to be so convinced that their view is correct that they are able to take non-believers (e.g., Red Staters) and convert them. That was exactly what was lacking in the last election. The view was so cloudy, so ill-defined, and so hard to articulate, that Democrats didn't know what they were voting for themselves, much less have convictions they could rely upon to change the mind of Republican voters. "We're against the other guy" may get you votes you already had, but will not sway middle of the roaders nor Republicans.

David Von Drehle:


Arlington, Tex.: I found your article enlightening, informative and respectful of its subjects. I think some people are responding to what they expect you to have written, based on what they think they know about you and the Post, rather than what you actually wrote. Please keep the insightful pieces coming!

David Von Drehle: You made my day! Thanks.


Falls Church, Va.: Proportional representation in the electoral college, applicable currently in Maine and Nebraska, would force both major parties to compete on a national scale but not dilute the influence of the smaller states like a bicoastal-skewed poular vote would. I'm sure proportional representation would have increased President Bush's electoral vote margins somewhat in both 2000 and 2004, but that's not the point; giving voice to both red and blue voters in most states might even improve voter turnout. Your thoughts?

David Von Drehle: I am trying to figure out what I think about this. It is intriguing. Anything that would push the parties to run broad national campaigns, rather than narrow, "swing state" campaigns, sounds good to me.

What I find really interesting is the new talk about reforming the Congressional districting process along the lines of the Iowa model.

(Alert: Political insider talk!!!)


Big Blue State, U.S.: Would you agree that the young people from Red States who are dying in Iraq are from the political/economic fringes of their hometowns? This is the only way I can understand Red State support for Bush in the last election.

David Von Drehle: I don't have the data to answer this one way or the other. But one important point that I touched on in my piece might speak to your question: The gap between rich and poor is a lot less visible and less pronounced in rural and small-town America. It costs less to live and there are fewer of the super-rich. The houses are all about the same size. So when you talk about the "fringes" of those places, it is less clear what the "fringe" might be. I think many of those towns see their young servicemen and women as absolutely mainstream.


Austin, Tex.: I also think the religion question is a big one. But here's what bothers me about some (not all) of the people you interviewed. I am not religious, but freely admit that many religious people are moral, decent folks. Many of the people I most admire (both in public life and personally) are deeply religious. I am happy to vote for a religious person who shares my views on the issues.

I just wish more of the religiously-oriented voters would show us heathens the same respect. Many of them don't.

One question: how do you see this red/blue division playing out? Will economics come back to the forefront and realign things? I'm concerned. Not that there's going to be civil war in 5 years. But what are things going to look like a generation from now?

David Von Drehle:


Fairfax, Va.: Great story and the correlation between marriage states and voting. My question: Did you also analyze the correlation between having children and voting, and is it the same as being married or different? i.e. some marriages are childless.

David Von Drehle: Harder to collect these numbers -- if you are an ignorant hillbilly like me, anwyay. I expect the correlation would hold up or maybe even intensify.


San Jose, Calif.: I grew up in Silicon Valley, but most of my family is from the Midwest. At first I thought that this column was humor or a parody, but I was wrong.

The hubris, ignorance, and condescending tone of this article is shocking. I can not believe this was actually printed in The Washington Post. This is really a prime example of why people are flocking in droves from the mainstream media.

Oh, and before you dismiss me as a right-wing nutjob, which is the usual response to anyone with a different view from the mainstream media, I am a California Democrat who voted for Clinton twice. I also have spent almost 10 years working with youth athletics and teaching technology, and also donate time and money to environmental columns.

This piece of "journalism" was an embarassment to your paper.

David Von Drehle: Thanks for writing. Now maybe you should read the piece.


Anonymous: What seemed obvious to me, and one thing that I suspected all along, is that the election could have been very, very different had the Democrats made the effort to campaign to the WHOLE country, and not just the "swing states" -- I think it was a SERIOUS mistake.

Other than that, I'm also perplexed by the assertion by so many that Bush is "honest" -- he may be plain-spoken, he may be firm (some may say stubborn) in his decisions, but, after the WMD debacle, among other things, where's the evidence that he's honest?

David Von Drehle: With regret, I am going to have to make this the last word. Thank you, as always, for your time -- as readers and chatters. We're grateful for your attention, and I take your feedback seriously even when I may sound like I am rushing past it.

All the best,

David Von Drehle


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