The tide is turning for the president -- or at least that's what the news commentators have been saying ever since Hurricane Katrina washed a million and a half people out of their homes and onto the front pages. Moreover, polls show that the president's approval ratings are down nationally. But here in Baton Rouge, where the rubber, as it were, meets the road, the president still seems to enjoy an almost indestructible popularity. Given that Baton Rouge has now swollen to twice its pre-storm size, traffic is a nightmare, schools are on double shifts, helicopters swarm in the skies and the shelters continue to house thousands, the undimmed support for the president is downright astonishing.
But it's a tale of two cities: In the shelters and in north Baton Rouge, where row upon row of dilapidated shotgun shacks have long been home to the city's black community, mention of the president inspires little more than quiet disgust. Few bothered to watch his New Orleans speech; fewer still believe that any real help will ever be forthcoming. But on the other side of town, in the prosperous white neighborhoods where solid brick houses sit well back on lush lawns, the president's reputation remains largely intact, so much so that if the Bush-Kerry election of last November were replayed here tomorrow, Bush would probably win again, though perhaps with a smaller margin.
The question is: Why now? Why, after five years of extraordinary ineptitude, culminating in the shameful spectacle of Americans dying from lack of emergency resources, does Bush continue to inspire any loyalty at all, let alone the loyalty of what strikes me as a large swath of the population of the city that, more than any other place, has absorbed Katrina's secondary shock waves? And the answer isn't that the folks in Baton Rouge are a bunch of racist ignoramuses. Rather, it lies in cultural and social identification, overlaid with a patina of Christianity and fueled by raw, largely social, fear. In short, even before the hurricane rendered hundreds of thousands homeless, the feeling in white, middle-class Baton Rouge was already one of displacement.
An example is my neighbor Becky, or, as we on the block call her, "Saint Becky." So kind is Becky that, some years ago, she stopped on her way home from doing errands to help a homeless mother and her two daughters who were walking and appeared to be lost. Becky ended up taking them in for a full month. But Becky also has eyes, and what she sees when she takes her kids to school or to the dentist is a whole neighborhood, just a few blocks from our own, where every third household exists on welfare, parents routinely abuse their kids, young men deal drugs, prostitutes ply their trade and rap music extolling the joys of gang rape and murder blasts out of every other car.
I suspect that when Becky, who isn't exactly rolling in dough herself, looks at the sorry spectacle of America's intransigent underclass, she simply wonders what happened to good-old-American, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps ingenuity. What Becky sees when she sees George Bush is a man who may not be a genius but who at least talks the talk, drawing a clear line between right and wrong. She looks at his face and sees her own staring back.
My neighbor Lee (who, incidentally, under Bush, lost health insurance for his children) is also a Bush supporter. Lee looks at our sleazy, sex-driven popular culture, as well as the explosion of poverty-related societal ills, and links them as one big piece of rot. Of course, he could just pull the plug on the television, but that's not good enough, because the real problem, I suspect, is that Lee doesn't know where he belongs anymore, which tribe he might claim membership in. The pace of change, coupled with cultural permissiveness, sickens him. Who might help? A plain-spoken Texan, the kind of fellow who, if things had been a little different, might be in charge of buying burgers for the annual Family Day cookout at church.
It doesn't help any that the Democrats haven't been able to speak plainly in decades. Because if under George W. Bush the Republican Party has become heartless, the Democratic Party has become spineless. Republicans like my neighbors look at left-leaning candidates and see nothing but a blur. (I myself went hoarse last year during the presidential debates, screaming, "Stop hedging and say what you mean!" at the television set.) Or, as my friend Mark, a lifelong liberal, put it: "I'm so disgusted with the leadership from both parties that I'm going to become an anarchist."
Of course, not all the support for Bush in Baton Rouge comes from as benign a position as that of my neighbors -- we have plenty of plain old-fashioned greed here, as well as the usual assortment of racism, xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, homophobia and religious self-righteousness, which the Bush team has played so brilliantly. But even without right-wing zealots, it's as if a miasma has come upon us all; as if, while we fracture nationally into smaller and smaller sub-groups, we no longer want to know what, and who, we've become. We want to be better than we are, but we've settled for an image.
Jennifer Moses is a writer who grew up in McLean and has lived in Baton Rouge for 10 years.