Jimmy Carter was a long way from Liberal today, 100 miles and a light year or so away in Independence, and the whole thing kind of bothered Maye Bell.

Bell is 71, which is about average in Liberal where the old are getting on and the young are getting out. And she wasn't trying to be harsh toward the president, who has enough problems already, when she made the point that he wouldn't learn much in Independence. She surely wasn't being smart-alecky by saying he only went there because of Harry Truman, anyway.

It's just that, while she knows Independence has a better ring to it than Liberal in the hard summer of 1980, she wishes some politician would get out in the small towns and see how things really are. Independence, after all, has become no more than a suburb of Kansas City.

Bell figures that television fella, David Brinkley, had it about right when he said that the politicians have lost touch with the people -- that "they all live out there together in somethin'-or-other Heights in Washington, D.C., and have forgotten how the rest of us live."

If Jimmy Carter had come to Liberal, she says, he would have seen how people are living on $175 a month. And he might have gained a new perspective on the drought -- beyond those dollar-sign losses with so many zeroes on the end that they all lose meaning.

The sun pinched back the beans in Bell's garden and her tomatoes wouldn't set when the temperature stayed over 100 for 30 straight days this summer. That's tough when it takes away about $20 or $25 of food and you're on a pension check, which she figures two-thirds of the people in Liberal are.

But, as Bell knows, no presidential campaign is coming to Liberal to find out why the young people are leaving, why the paint is peeling off the 30-cent-wash sign at the Coin-o-Matic on Main Street, or why Bob Suschnick felt compelled to close down the fountain counter at Jones Drug Store, which was the last place in Liberal where people had a chance to just stop and talk.

Maybe those aren't election issues, as important as they seem in Liberal and a thousand other little towns lost in the void between the freeways that hold Americans together these days.

Power follows the freeways, the way it once followed the railroads that helped get Liberal started a century ago way out in the nowhere of southwestern Missouri. Presidential campaigns follow the freeways too -- even if that means the candidates, the media and the powerful sometimes get a strange view of the country.

Presidential campaigns follow an interstate skeleton, an 170 shinbone connecting to an 135 thighbone, no flesh in between.

Vision rarely ranges beyond eight marrow-grey lanes. Variety along the campaign trail is a grits option off a clover left to a Ramada Inn in Savannah, hash browns being the eggs' garnish off the octopus right to a Holiday Inn in Santa Cruz. The art plastique is the same at all stops; the Magic Fingers, too.

A cloverleaf leads to Independence, but there isn't a concrete shamrock within 50 miles of Liberal.

Getting to Liberal would require the Secret Service to hang left down Rte. 43, stopping at the flashing red light at the railroad tracks even though the train isn't coming.

It would take the press buses past signs that said Joe Rose for Sheriff, instead of Jimmy Carter for President, and hold them up behind hay trucks that are taking one and a half of the two lanes passing through Moundville, population 149.

Then it would require the candidates' limo to make an artful right at a county road marked only "K," skirt past the sewage lagoon and keep a careful eye out for the unmarked left to Main Street.

Before getting to city center, the group would pass a nice Americana row of white clapboard houses with porch swings that still get used every evening. Then it would pass the Golden Homes of Liberal, a handful of subsidized fourplexes which, except for the post office with its "Here Come the Marines" sign, represent the only federal presence in town.

Maye Bell doesn't expect to see the candidates. With a waning population of 644, Liberal probably couldn't even muster the electrical power for Brinkley's TV cables, much as Bell would like to see him.

So Bell figures Liberal has too many strikes against it to arrive as an election dateline -- the isolation, although she's not really sure who is isolated from whom; the name, which isn't selling well this year; and then there's the history of Liberal.

The town was started by a group of Freethinkers who wanted a place without churches or saloons, a place where the mind could roam unmuddied by either rum or religion. Bell understands that might not sit well with three born-again presidential candidates.

But like most of the dreams that started little towns throughout the Midwest, the Freethinkers Eden faded fast. The saloons came in four years, the churches in seven. For what it's worth to the far-off candidates, the churches now outnumber the Liberal Lounge 4 to 1.

Ray Smith was born here 90 years ago, about the time the churches and saloons came in, and he figures it's been downhill ever since the dream faded in Liberal.

If the candidates ever came to town and asked Smith how the country was doing, he'd reply that it was not doing well, that in fact the country was burned brown right outside Liberal. But he'd bend their ears about a few other things, too.

He'd ask them how come there's so much welfare floating around when people like Willis Strong are working seven days a week to make a living putting out the town's four-page weekly.

Strong, who had ink up to his elbows on Labor Day as if to prove Smith's point, would nod at that one.

But beyond that, Ray Smith would raise the question of how come the drug store fountain counter had to close.

"It's the worst thing that's happened to Liberal since the churches and saloons came in," says Smith, who may be 90 but looks and acts about Bell's age. "Worse than when the coal ran out at the shovel mine, worse than when the brick factory closed down."

Maye Bell agreed that it was serious, that neither the old folks nor the kids had anyplace to go now. But she defended Bob Suschnick's decision.

"He wasn't making any money," Bell said. And she could understand that, with her beans burned back to the ground and trying to stretch a pension check.

Smith was a long way from the hum of the freeways, a long way from the madding crowds of a presidential visit to Independence. But he looked right through Maye Bell on that one, just as he would have looked right through Jimmy Carter, reckoning that the reasons ran deeper than that.