On my tour of the US heartland, everyone is polite and generous. I have been offered, in no particular order, a speaking slot at a local Republican convention, an Oglala Sioux tribe quilt, cut-price hotel rooms, stock-car racing tickets, hard apple cider, naming rights to a Scotch Sazerac cocktail, first dibs on a Nebraskan heifer and an Iowan’s hand in marriage. But the taste of kindness sours whenever politics comes up.
“Excuse me sir, sorry to disturb you but are you a reporter?” asks a young volunteer at Greene County Republican party headquarters in Springfield, Missouri. “Yes,” I say.
“The president is a disgrace. He is a Muslim socialist that doesn’t deserve to be in office. So how long are you in the country for?”
The next day, at a Democratic party debate at the Diamond Bowl alley in Independence, Missouri, I sit with two middle-aged women teachers. We are making small talk about Braveheart. I start to explain the flick’s historical infelicities when Mitt Romney walks on stage. “Liar! Liar! Liar! You crush him, Obama!” they yell.
Emanuel Cleaver, a Democratic congressman, and Kevin Yoder, a skinny-dipping Republican congressman, have tried to bring collegiality to Washington. At a party in Kansas City, I ask Mr Cleaver how his efforts to promote bipartisanship are going. “Not bipartisanship; civility,” he clarifies. The US is more polarised than at any point since the civil war, he says. How many times have you changed a Republican’s mind, I ask. “Once in eight years.” The problem has an unlikely source – at least for a politician to say: the American people. “You know how Congress has a 14 per cent approval rating? Well, I give the people a three. They keep voting these guys in.”
In O’Neill, Nebraska, everyone gets along. It has seen an influx of Hispanics, which has created tension in some parts of the state. But here, farmer and labourer have joined forces against a common enemy: the Environmental Protection Agency.
The Washington-based regulatory body irks Dennis Baulmer, owner of 3,200 acres of cornfields and 30,000 pigs. He built a horse pen on his farm for his grandchildren. The EPA flew over the farm and fined him for farm construction outside of bounds.
“I have three Hispanics working for me, have been for 10 years”, he says. “Great people. One of them came up to me afterwards and said: ‘I know a guy who could shoot that plane down.’ It was a kind offer but I said, let’s not go that far.”
Somebody call 911
On the road, local papers are an invaluable insight into a town’s way of life. They may not carry “all the misfortunes and cataclysms in the universe over the last 24 hours”, as Marcel Proust hoped, but they give you a sense of the mood.
The Lyons Mirror-Sun, for example, carries the daily prices for corn and soyabeans – essential information for its Nebraska farming readership. The St Clair County Courier has four pages of “Church news” and a classified advert offering Missourians “PAYMENT PLANS FOR ANY GUN NEW OR USED”.
But to really understand a place, turn to the police notices. Typically, these are dispatches from the front lines of warring relationships: collateral damage reports from nights at the saloon. However, herein also lie the idiosyncrasies of a locality that can be revealed only by glimpses into the underworld.
Consider the October 9 edition of the Hot Springs Star, which is replete with telling aperçus about the South Dakotan town: “Sunday, Sept 30, 9.05pm – Female caller reporting that earlier in the month some [sic] had cut the hair off of two her horse’s [sic, presumably] tails.” Immediately you know that equine vandalism is important in the town but perhaps not important enough to warrant action before the end of the month.
“Tuesday, Oct 2, 8.15am – Male caller on Baltimore Ave. reported having no skunks in his traps, but requested ACO [animal control officer] come and look at something else he had.” The first clause implies a localised fear of odour, sufficient for skunk tally keeping. The second clause suggests entrapment of a different sort.
“Wednesday, Oct 3, 8.22am – Lynn’s Dakota mart reports finding a cockatiel in the store.” When viewed in light of Sunday and Tuesday activity, one may begin to conclude that animals are in charge of Hot Springs.
Certainly, something is awry, as this poignant notice from the small town suggests. “Wednesday, Oct 3, 5.29pm – 911 call from a female, stating that she is bored.”