A Letter to President Clinton

It doesn't take long for the road trip to fall into the pattern of acute peculiarity by which it's destined to be defined. There's little doubt that the journey is likely to prove far more interesting than we had suspected. In Colby, Colo., Bobby Crouse, Social Services Director and Chaplain at the Lantern Park Manor nursing home, pulls no punches about her view of where the country is going. She quietly assures us that the primary issue facing the nation today is nothing less than total global apocalypse. "The mark of the beast" as detailed in the Book of Revelations is the most damning piece of evidence to appear to date, she asserts. Even today, she notes, "Anything you buy has a mark on it." Crouse's bold statements belie her reserved manner -- she discusses the end of the world with all the stoicism of someone predicting a change in the weather. When the brimstone hits the fan, Crouse's plan is to simply "be ready to go," along with the "many people" within the community that share her vision. To where, however, she's not sure, or not telling. One would assume, however, that wherever the safety of absolute seclusion lies, you can get there from here on a single tank of gas. Colby is a religious community where Bill Clinton's commitment to the faith is seen to be as thin as his commitment to a middle-class tax cut four years ago. "Clinton is a fake," asserts Crouse matter-of-factly. "He claims to be religious, but he uses Christianity as a way to get to people." Crouse, however, is unlikely to see the Promised Land before Orita Weed, a 95-year-old resident of the home who marched for women's suffrage in 1918. Though Orita may be on in years, it's worth noting that she doesn't look a day over 93. Her mind, however, remains as sharp as a blade. "I marched in the first march in 1918 to get the right to vote and I voted in every election except two, when I was in the hospital," she says with a vehement wag of her finger. "Well, Clinton has had all of these bills out there for two or three years and he didn't sign them ... now all of a sudden, he's going to sign them? He's just doing this to get the vote. I used to be a Democrat, I wanted to vote for the underdog. They were supposed to help the poor, the underdogs." Despite these reservations, however, she doesn't count herself as a supporter of Dole, who, despite his relative youth, still strikes her as "too old." PRAIRIE DOG TOWNThe signs begin shortly after Colby, Kansas. "World's biggest prairie dog at Prairie Dog Town!" proclaims the first sign, a clumsy homemade billboard next to the highway. Another soon follows: "Live rattlesnakes at Prairie Dog Town!" Gradually, the signs' claims intensify, soon segueing to lurid descriptions of "the five-legged cow" posted in fading red letters. By the time the ersatz billboards have broached the subject of the six-legged steer, the sale is closed. Prairie Dog Town is obviously not your typical roadside attraction Ñ and it's clearly our duty as journalists to investigate its political implications for the country. Prairie Dog Town is not cheap. It costs five dollars a head for the right to proceed past the bin of lazily rattling rattlesnakes and open the heavy, unbalanced door that leads to the main event. Upon doing so, however, we immediately realize that something is terribly, terribly wrong. Stretching before us is not a "town," but a barren dirt that looks like a vision of Bobby Crouse's apocalypse: A dirt lot pockmarked with prairie dog burrows, supporting scattered, bent cages containing huddled, unmoving lumps of fur and feathers. Save for the dull, incessant hum of the nearby interstate, the lot seems eerily quiet. Upon a cautious, closer inspection those lumps prove to be animals. Of sorts. A bobcat sleeps, stirred only by incessant, violent somnambular seizures. A mangy raccoon paces the edge of his cage with psychotic furor. Half-feathered chickens lazily peck at each others' open wounds. Ducks wander despondently, staying suspiciously clear of a greasy, obsidian pond. Our laughter quickly subsides as the sheer, surreal horror of the reality of Prairie Dog Town's peculiar brand of "family entertainment" begins to sink in. We come upon the six-legged steer. Conceived as an embryo that failed to fully split into twins, it lumbers clumsily toward us, swinging two limp extra legs that stretch from its neck almost to the ground. It nuzzles clumsily against the sides of a rusted fence, seeking food or affection as we back away in horror, afraid that extra mutant legs might somehow be catching. Beyond, the five-legged cow complements the freak show with her own shocking, swinging appendage. At the end of this gauntlet of shock and horror lies Prairie Dog Town's terrible god, a 17-foot high cement deity covered with faded brown-and-white paint, it's "mouth" frozen in a perpetual buck-toothed gape. Prairie Dog God sees all, knows all. Prairie Dog God has presided over horrors we can only imagine. Next to it stands what is, ostensibly, the world's second-largest prairie dog, a five-foot high prototype that, like its father, sports the endearing artistic touch of steel bolts for eyes. Both have been walled off from the neighboring interstate to protect unwitting passers by from being drawn into multi-car pileups by the icons' terrible grandeur. Prairie Dog God stands sentinel over this living example of capitalism gone horribly awry, this damning evidence of lengths to which some communities will go to for revenue in an area of the country where militias are the only growth industry. And here, like God bringing Noah the rain, Prairie Dog God brings us Doug Barker and the aptly named Mrs. Doug Barker. The two clean, brightly-attired tourists from Eatonton, Ga., wander lazily around the exhibits, unaware that they are about to lend Prairie Dog Town political context. Mrs. Barker insists that we talk not to her, but to her husband, because "he's the political one, not me." So does Doug think the president is doing a good job? "I dunno."So what does Doug think about politics and the state of the nation? "I dunno."Would Doug count himself a Democrat or a Republican? "I go both ways I guess."What would Doug say to Mr. Clinton if given the chance? "I dunno. You kind of caught me in a blank mood. I can't rightly think of nothin'." If you've ever wondered why the Founding Fathers booted direct democracy (government by the people) in favor of the representative model (government by the people ... yeah, right) think of Doug as "Exhibit A." It's clearly time to flee. There's only one way out of Prairie Dog Town, and that's through the "Enterance" (sic) to the gift shop, packed full with stunning kitsch straight from the crafts class of the local sanitarium. If Doug stands as testament to the darker side of voting, Prairie Dog Town's gift shop "prairie pies," (cow manure patties tastefully repackaged in cake boxes Ñ sure to earn a place on the mantle of any boss or in-law) stands as testament to capitalism's darker, even surreal side. We bypass the neighboring, (and suspiciously cheap) hamburger shop, hit the open highway and dash for the reassuring sanity of Russell, Kansas. DOLESVILLEIt would be difficult to find a better antidote to Prairie Dog Town than Russell, Kansas. Hometown of Bob Dole, Russell is, by order of the Republican National Committee, postcard-perfect, with clean streets, rustic houses and a population dominated by hearty, healthy midwestern stock. Our first task upon blowing into town is obvious: Find us some Doles. Which is why Anita Driscol is likely regretting that she hasn't changed her telephone listing since her husband -- Dole's brother -- died of emphysema three years ago. As one of two Doles in the phone book, is she related to the Big Guy himself and would she like to send a message to President Bill? "Not really," is her answer to both of those questions. Then, she reconsiders: "Bob Dole knows what to do. He's been in Washington for so long that he knows all the ins and outs. Clinton -- we don't even want to talk about him. For one thing, he didn't serve our country. Mr. Clinton is what you would call a draft dodger, and if you can't fight for your country you sure shouldn't be president." Resentment over Bill Clinton's draft-dodging debacle has long since faded from the Washington's list of hot topics, but it still runs deep in midland America. Issues of character, strangely enough, really do matter to people like Anita. And people like Jeff Smith. As Smith screeches up to a Russell Amoco, the attendant confirms, "now there's a man you need to talk to." As if on cue, Smith leaps out of a white Chevrolet and yells, "All politicians are idiots! Bill Clinton is a liar! If Bob Dole isn't president, we won't have a country in four years -- and I think that bastard smoked pot!" Smith dashes to a quick errand at the Amoco, then leaps in his car and roars away. We wonder whether the Republicans National Committee hired him specifically to provide Russell "local color" for story-hungry reporters. Most residents of Russell are similarly tickled by media attention. At Meridy's Steak House, after a disarming laugh and coy "interview little ol' me?" most locals are happy to share their political views. Meridy's is billed as "Dole's favorite restaurant," though one suspects he's spotted there infrequently these days. Washington, after all, is a long way from Russell, Kansas. Which is exactly the problem according to Meridy's patrons Norm Nuss, 52, Nancy Popp, 61, and Bob Popp, 62. Regardless of the party affiliation, they see national politicians as people who have far more in common with the values of Washington than the values of Russell. They view Clinton especially as a man who has no concept of their moral and economic reality. Bob, Nancy and Norm can't help but be flabbergasted at some of the policy non sequiturs that trickle down from Washington -- illogical blusterings that, had they not the force of law, would get laughed right out of this common-sense town. "I had a student with two kids once who chose to get off welfare," says Nancy. "When she got a job, she was making only half as much and eventually had to go back on welfare. Now what kind of incentive is that?" Foreign policy has them frustrated as well. Nancy views Bosnia not as a humanitarian mission, but as a poorly-defined excuse to put America soldiers into a situation analogous to "standing in a field during pheasant hunting time. I don't know why we're in Bosnia." And no one in Washington, it would seem, bothered to tell her. They all agree that the federal government is completely blind to one of the biggest, and most under-reported, issues facing middle America: the continuing farm crisis. "The farm economy is in dire straits," warns Bob Popp. Adds Norm, "These people just don't understand -- the average income in this county is $17,000 a year." The core of the problem, according to Nancy, is that Washington culture is simply disconnected from the real world of real Americans with real jobs. As an example, she cites not a politician, but a recent Russell visit from an NBC reporter whose vacuous inquiries failed to do little more than phrase the Washington party line in the form of a question. The irony of the fourth estate having changed in status from "us" to "them" leads to a new question: Whom do you distrust more? Politicians or the media? The trio's answer is unhesitating, simultaneous and unanimous: "The media." Dinner arrives, and the talk is over. Russell is the kind of town where the steaks are so big they flop over the sides of the plate, a fact that spurs Bernie Erbert, a weathered Meridy's regular at a nearby table, to extend some Russell hospitality. "If you like steak, you should come through here on your way back," he says. "We've got the best steaks you ever had -- unless you're a vegetarian." We weren't vegetarians yesterday, one of our crew informs him. But today, that may have changed -- our route to Russell took us through a place up the way named... Prairie Dog Town. "Oh," he says, eyes downcast like a relative revisiting a terrible family secret. "Oh that." THE RIGHT OF CENTERThe first thing we notice upon our arrival at the exact geographic center of the United States is that politics has managed to do to the country what the awesome power of plate tectonics couldn't: move it a considerable ways to the right. If ever there were an a accurate portrait of America in the '90s, this obscure monument to the math skills of the U.S. geological survey is it. Located within a stone's throw of Lebanon, Kansas, the center provides a metaphor for many of the subjects that cry out for discussion in Chicago; the gap between the rich and poor, the place of religion in politics and the failed economy of the heartland. The feds have a thousand different ways to interpret economic statistics in their eternal effort to figure out who's doing good and who isn't. Not surprisingly, in election years, incumbents claim that everyone's doing better than they were four years ago, relegating the challenger to the "whole place has gone to hell" position. The truth is, they're both right: Of late, rich folks are always doing better and poor folks are always doing worse. If you golf, you're on the "things are getting better" side of abyss. Derrol Hubbard (who qualifies his first name as "spelled like it sounds: D-E-R-R-O-L") golfs. He continues to golf, unfazed, even as we yank the valiant Tercel off the highway and across the fairway of the Middle of Nowhere Country Club to seek his political views. Noticing our Colorado plates, he breaks the silence. "You're from Colorado? Don't tell me you're lost." Lost? We're at the center of the USA. We've never been more sure of our location. Hubbard discusses politics as he whacked white ball after white ball into the sunset. "I'm a Republican and I'll vote that way again. I kind of like the way things are going but I'm not real pleased with the way things have been. Hillary was going to do health care and he (Bill) was going to balance the budget, but they haven't done any of it. I'd just like him to balance the budget. Everyone that works has to balance their books. I farm a lot of land around here and I have to make things add up." Whack ... ironically it hooked to the left. If you work in a convenience store, you're on the other side of the widening gap. Lebanon resident Pam Burt is finding the going tough. She has to drive 30 miles one way just to keep her minimum wage job as a trainee in a gas station. She wants Bill to get this message: "It's so hard to get by here. You have to drive real far to get any decent job. Working around here you just barely make it. Grand Island is the nearest jobs that pay and that would be another 60 miles. The economy here is going down bad these days and we could use some help. The big farmers are doing fine, but it's getting harder and harder for the smaller ones. If he (Bill) came here for a week and looked around, he'd do something."Maybe she's right, but presidents and candidates don't come to the middle of America to look around. They come to places like Lebanon or Russell to announce their running mates, look wholesome and garner the nostalgia vote. They believe the pollsters who tell them that the measly number of votes controlled by the big square states in the middle will mean little come November. But pollsters only know how to count -- they know nothing about the consequences of pushing people too far. The story of America's economically and politically disenfranchised doesn't show up in polls -- it shows up in the news. It takes the form of suicides, spousal and child abuse, farm foreclosures and substance addiction -- and that's when the anger's turned inward. When itÕs projected outward, it takes the form of pipe bombs and increased militia activity. If youÕre not sure which side of the gap youÕre on, congratulations -- youÕre rich. The poor are acutely, unfailingly aware of their slipping hold on the American dream. On the outskirts of town, we turn right and head for the city-block sized park which pays homage to the exact center of the U.S. The old road that leads to the sight is straight and lonely and gives you the feeling that its grass-infested asphalt is rarely disturbed by out-of-towners. The sun is just sinking below the horizon as we began to explore this place. A rock pyramid bearing the USGS seal with a tattered American flag flying overhead marks this literal and symbolic center of the United States. It's on this very spot map makers must place the pointed end of their compass in order to determine the physical makeup of our country. Perhaps too, a presidentÕs compass should get some bearing from this location in order to determine the lay of the land. At the back of the park is a boarded-up motel. It stands above the silent prairie like a memorial to the countless citizens whose American dreams have died amidst a changing economy, global agreements and a government hell-bent on subsidizing the rich. A few feet away from the rock pyramid is a tiny chapel perhaps eight by ten feet in size. Inside are four wooden seats and a small wooden podium. On the back wall hangs a red, white and blue plaque that merges a map of the U.S. and a cross into a single icon. It contains the words "Center of the United States Pray Chapel." Apparently the center of America is unfamiliar with the ACLU. We're pretty sure they like it that way. On the podium is a Bible. Its yellowed, worn pages are open to Psalm 106. Maybe the wind swirling through the open door made the selection of text or maybe an anonymous passerby -- either way the message is clear. Over and over again the psalmist describes how the nation of Israel forgot its past, the place it had come from and the trials it had been through. Each time it forgot, there was a resulting tragedy. We too have a responsibility to remember and understand the way of life that's made us who and what we are. To dismiss the center of the United States lightly in the name of progress or political convenience is an invitation to tragedy. ____________Photo captions in the order they should flow through the story. Read story to determine where they fall. Story is laid out in geographic progression. 1) Richard Anderson is a truck driver from Daytona Beech, Flor. We caught up with him in Limon, Colo. where he gave us this message for the president. "I've got nothing to say to Bill Clinton except goodbye after the election. I make less now than I did ten years ago, all of us (truckers) do. I don't know how these youg guys can make it. They have to eat balony and live in their trucks. We got shafted."Deregulation has ruined everything. We have to break all the DOT's (Department of Transpartation) laws about how many hours we're suppose to drive and use false books for our weights, just to make enough to feed our kids. That's what causes all these accidents. The Companies are making more money than ever but they pay drivers less every year. I don't know how people are making it."2) Martin Bauman "puts glass in cars" in Flagler, Colo. He says, "there's a lot of wrong that I don't know if they can ever be fixed. Too much bickering is going on in the House and the Senate. I think they need to throw the republican and democrat deal out the door and work as human beings on the issues. I think the republicans have the right idea to turn things back to the states and get the federal government out of it." 3) 95- year -old Orita Weed lives in the Lantern Park Manor nursing home in Colby, Kan. She says she marched in the woman's sufferage movement in 1918 and has voted in every election since except for the two when she was in the hospital. When asked who she would be voting for this time around, Orita said, "that's my business."4) What prophetic political utterances did Doug Barker of Eatonton, Ga have to offer the president from the foot of the world's largest prairie dog? "I dunno," says Doug. And he reiterated it more than once. 5) Obviously the people in Bob Dole's home town of Russell, Kan. know something that we don't. Perhaps someday we'll figure out what sordid deed transpired at this Super 8, but for now, we only have a clue. 6)The geographic center of the United States stands as a perfect metaphor for the issues that need to be discussed in Chicago; the failed American dream, the struggle between church and state, and the ever widening economic gap. 7) Pam Burt, who lives in the geographic center of the US, has to drive 30 miles one way just to work as a minimum wage trainee in this convienience store. She says, "The economy here is going down bad these days. We could use some help. If he (President Clinton) came here for a week and looked around, he'd do something."8) After a few tense moments in Red Cloud, Nebraska's Palace lounge, Bob the bartender decided to let us live, only to take our chances with a giant horse a few miles down the road.9) "After the train went out and Walmart came in this whole town was boarded up," says Lori Johnson who, with her husband, owns this Cobbler shop in Fairbury, Neb. "But now things are really looking up." Lori says that a local banker is responsible for turning the tide. "He made loans to people for busineses that nobody else would make. He bought run down buildings and fixed them and rented them to people at real low prices. Now we have a lot of new businesses and things are getting better." Lori says that things are doing so well now that "Clinton should get people off welfare fast." She says the welfare reform bill is too easy for current welfare recipiants to get around. But be encouraged Bill, you'll still probobly get her vote. 10) Tyson Gibbons likes Bill Clinton a lot. He has a good reason. Tyson was hired by the city of Rock Port, Mo. as a result of the anti-crime bill. His job is community policing and he hopes Clinton gets another four years. 11) Montinez Williams, near left, says that "Clinton needs to do a better job on the environment." He's also concerned with the president's recent decision to sign the welfare reform bill. "People shouldn't get money unless they work. They shouldn't just rely on the tax man and the government for their money. But just cutting them off's a bad idea. Not everybody on welfare is skilled. They can't just go get a job. But they should be able to do something. He (Clinton) should just make people on welfare work doing stuff like cleaning up trash, and jobs that make things better. I mean they could at least volunteer time in a rec center." Michael Rose, on the near right, Thinks that drugs are still the country's most serious problem. He says that "sentences should be increased." It's not just drug sentences that he thinks are too lenient. "It's murderers too. You can go out and kill somebody and probobly get away with it. That's how it is in this world, you know what I mean? Both Williams and Rose, as well as the others in the truck, are students on football scholorships at Northwestern Missouri University.12) No, it wasn't a gathering of Earth First! members, or a breifing for Greenpeace tuna-boat terrorists -- but you would have been hard pressed to tell the difference. Chicago-based CounterMedia "raised awareness" of problems in America in a condemned warehouse in an abandonned industrial area. Though the gathering attracted over-the-hill members of the Yippie movement to speak as underground heros, the meeting was plagued by the types of minor disorganizational mishaps that always seem to doom the ultra-left to an eternal reputation as bumbling misfits despite the validity of their message.-

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