You learn very quickly when you are out knocking on doors that there is no such thing as a typical voter. But there are some very eloquent voters, and the encounters with them more than make up for the many meetings with people who are cynical, uninterested or tongue-tied when it comes to politics.
It was on a street in this blue-collar Detroit suburb a couple of weeks ago that I met Henry Rigney, a bearded, 32-year-old steelworker with two years of college, who has been out of work since last November. He is one man, who claims to speak for no one but himself. But what he said struck me as a message that the presidential candidates -- and many others -- might want to hear.
Rigney voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976. "When he took his inauguration, he walked down Pennsylvania Avenue, and I really believed we were in for better times and we could hold our head up proudly as a country," Rigney said. b
"But two years later, he went to Camp David and he said he'd been born again and had seen the light; he said he learned from the mistakes he made as president. But his mistakes hurt 221 million people, and he just stands up there and smiles about it.
We have struggled, and are still struggling, and I don't see any end to it.
My best friend and his wife, a little over a year ago, put $26,000 into a house near here. Then she lost her job at Ford and he lost his job at the steel company. They couldn't keep up their payments, and they couldn't sell the house, so they lost everything. They're living at the Salvation Army."
When I asked Rigney about Ronald Reagan, he said, "I guess I'd have to vote for Reagan, but if he keeps going the way he's been going, I'm afrad Jimmy Carter will get my vote. Reagan is backslipping. He had this election won, until he started talking. What he said about Taiwan and the Ku Klux Klan was ridiculous.
"You know," Rigney went on, "he's not going to have the respect of any foreign governments. To them, he's just an actor. Sometimes, I think myself the president is nothing but a figure-head, but in Reagan's case, it would have to be that way. When I look at him, I can't help but see Death Valley Days and the Twenty Mule Team on television. I honestly don't see why he's running for president."
As for John B. Anderson, Rigney said, "I don't know how he can jump from Republican to independent, where he's running against everyone, and hope to accomplish anything. He's doing what George Wallace did. He can't hope to win. All he can do is mess it up."
Congress stands no higher in Rigney's estimation. "They hold these Senate hearings on Billy Carter and on Abscam," he remarked with some bitterness. "Why don't they hold hearings on how many people can't find a job and how many people are starving in America?
"This is a country where there's supposed to be a job for everyone -- and look," he said, sweeping his hand around a neighborhood where almost every other family has experienced unemployment in the past year. "When they can change all this, then we'll have something to be proud of again."
And then Rigney mentioned something else. "I was a POW in Vietnam," he said. "One year, one month and 17 days. When we let that hostage thing in Iran go more than one week, I felt the whole country was being stepped on and abused. Those people should not have been held in Iran one day.
"This country is based on freedom," Rigney said, "and what has happened in Iran hurt me so deeply, there's no words that can express that feeling.
"I can do without a job, but those people are living without their freedom -- almost as long as I was a prisoner in Vietnam. And those politicians say they don't want to talk about it; it shouldn't be an issue.
"Well," said Henry Rigney, "it's an issue with me, and I can't forget it."