NEW YORK -- Every single person I talk to is trying to figure out a way to get out of town when President Bush and the Republicans come here for their national convention beginning on Aug. 30. Part of it is the fear that there just might be some kind of terrorist plot afoot. Part of it is that everyone expects blocked streets and traffic will turn the pavement into a steamy summer hell. Part of it is that New York is the bluest of cities; most New Yorkers are Democrats, and some have never met a Republican. And part of it is: Look at what happened in Davenport!
Actually I haven't heard anybody but me talk about what happened in Davenport, Iowa, last Wednesday, when both Bush and his Democratic challenger, Sen. John Kerry, came to town at the same time. The reason they were there was that Iowa may not be a swinging state by New York standards, but it is a "swing state." The 2000 presidential election was settled there by only 4,000 votes. The Democrats won then, and Kerry wants to see that happen again. Bush, of course, does not.
But that was not the biggest story in town that day. While the two candidates were meeting the folks and the police were all protecting them, three banks were robbed in less than an hour. The bad guys figured, correctly, that all the cops would be busy elsewhere. The population of Davenport is less than 100,000. New York City has almost 80 times as many people, which could mean 240 or more crooks will be hitting our banks each day.
Why are our candidates doing this to us? What happened to the good old days, when nominees took vacations and the national campaigns began on Labor Day? My God, we're supposed to be at war, but the president and an important senator seem to be campaigning around the clock.
The reason, of course, is this "blue" and "red" state business, those being the colors used on television maps to present election results. Blue states, like New York and California, are likely to go for Kerry. Red states, meaning most of the middle of the country, are expected to go to Bush. Iowa is one of the few gray areas, at least in this analysis, so the candidates are ready to go door-to-door. Supposedly, the country is equally and bitterly divided between Democrats and Republicans. Every vote counts, at least in Davenport.
"Evenly divided AND increasingly polarized," was the judgment rendered last year by the Pew Research Center for the Study of Politics and Press in a 152-page report on voter polls. The Pew "culture clash" theory, the idea that the nation is more divided than ever and becoming more so every day over a range of social issues that include abortion, gun control, feminism, gay marriage, and whether you go to church and which church. It's a free country, after all, and you can self-define your redness by going to see Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ" or your blueness by seeing Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11."
The seminal event of the culture clash, so far, came when the vice president, from two red states, Wyoming and Texas -- that would be Dick Cheney -- objected to something said by the senator from a blue state, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, by turning his back and saying, "Go f--- yourself." That was on the floor of the U.S. Senate, sometimes self-referenced as the world's greatest deliberative body.
So we are joined in purple mud-wrestling from Davenport to Manhattan. The campaign is too long, too expensive and too dirty, and the country too divided.
But I suspect we will survive. After all, it was worse when there were blue and gray states in bloody civil war in the 1860s. The 1960s were rough, too. And exactly 200 years ago, we had a vice president, Aaron Burr, who shot and killed the former secretary of the treasury, Alexander Hamilton. With luck, that won't happen again. One day this endless campaign will end -- and I'll bet they catch the bank robbers, too.
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